THE idea of America and its traditions and historical realities has undergone radical changes over the past 25 years. Social history and the story of minorities' battle to be included in American culture has made deep and important scholarly inroads - influencing the way educated Americans think about US triumphs and tragedies. Nor has pressure on campus to teach more about the pluralistic nature of America abated. Heated debates in recent years at schools like Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley have caused further change. Latino, African-American, Asian, and other ethnic studies, long available in the curriculum, are now required there.
There is, however, hardly an academic consensus on how and to what degree to emphasize race, class, and gender. Faculty votes on ethnicity debates have been close. Should American ethnicity be taught as the history of oppression? Or should it focus on the ideal of pluralism? Passions run high on campus. Ideologies run deep. The debate is a kind of cultural and educational warfare over the origins of America - particularly how biased, or ``Eurocentric,'' the dominant white culture is and has been.
Predictably, that battle is extending to public schools. The newest example is in New York state, where Thomas Sobol, the state education chief, is revising the New York history and social studies school curriculum to emphasize nonwhite cultures.
Such an effort may be to the good. But there are pitfalls and racial politics to avoid that the initial New York task force was unable to: namely - taking on the very bias that a new curriculum seeks to overcome. The initial Sobol report found that New York curriculum reflects ``hidden assumptions of `white supremacy and white nationalism,''' and argued for radical reversal of ``Eurocentrism.'' Leading educator Bill Honig of California found the report itself ``racist.''
The New York debate highlights two needs: First, educators seeking to affirm the diversity of America must avoid causing minority students to see the US in primarily hostile terms. Students already lack an understanding of the basic democratic principles that have allowed civil rights to flourish. Democracy is a value students need to learn before moving to advanced concepts.
Second, US institutions (the Bill of Rights, for example) do have European roots - the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Honesty about that fact is needed - while also dealing with bias.
While not shirking from faults, young students ought to be given a chance to learn the promise of democracy. Today it's a song being played around the world.