Call for a Multicultural Curriculum Stirs Up Controversy in New York

HISTORY may change in as little as a year or two for public-school students in the state of New York. A panel of educators recently recommended a blueprint for revising the state's curriculum to embrace "multicultural education," an inclusive approach that emphasizes the historical roles of nonwhite cultures.If the panel's ideas are adopted, students would be taught that Christopher Columbus didn't discover America; he sailed to an already inhabited land. Thanksgiving, they would learn, isn't simply a traditional national holiday of gratitude and celebration; some cultural groups - such as native Americans - believe it should be a day of mourning. Classes would discuss the matter. Some of the changes would involve tinkering with language. Slaves would be referred to as "enslaved persons to "call forth the essential humanity of those enslaved" and avoid the impression that slavery was a chosen role such as "gardener, cook, or carpenter." The term "Far East" would be replaced by "East Asia" and "the Middle East" would become "Southwest Asia and North Africa." The 24-member panel's report, "One Nation, Many Peoples: A Declaration of Cultural Interdependence," was released late last month. Thomas Sobol, who convened the panel of scholars and teachers, praised the report as "thoughtful, scholarly, constructive." But he has not outlined what aspects of the report might or might not be used in a revised curriculum for kindergarten through grade 12. An earlier report, "Curriculum of Inclusion," which was released in July 1989, used inflammatory language to make similar recommendations. It charged that the present curriculum was filled with "hidden assumptions of white supremacy" and that minorities had "been the victims of an intellectual and educational oppression." In the ensuing controversy, Commissioner Sobol appointed another, broader-based panel to provide a second opinion on the issue. "This is a better report," says Nathan Glazer, professor of sociology at Harvard University and one of the panelists. "It does not take as extreme or critical a view of 'Eurocentric' education or as extreme a position in advocating 'Afrocentric' or group-oriented education." But the new report is also stirring up controversy. Gov. Mario Cuomo has warned that the panel's recommendations have the potential for racial divisiveness. "You'll start dividing people; you'll start developing antagonisms if you're not careful," he said. Three professors who served on the panel included dissenting opinions with the report. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a Pulitzer Prize winner and a humanities professor at the City University of New York, wrote: "It is surely not the office of the public school to promote ethnic separatism and heighten ethnic tensions. The bonds of national cohesion in the republic are sufficiently fragmented already. Public education should aim to strengthen, not weaken, them." The New York report states: "Two centuries after this country's founders issued a Declaration of Independence ... the time has come to recognize cultural interdependence." But Kenneth T. Jackson, professor of history and social sciences at Columbia University, responded with a dissenting opinion: "I cannot endorse a 'Declaration of Interdependence. Within any single country one culture must be accepted as the standard. Unfortunately, our document has very little to say about the things which hold us together... . The emphasis is too much on the pluribus and not enough on the unum." Professor Glazer, who did not write a dissenting opinion but appended a cautionary comment to the report, says he agrees that too much emphasis has been placed on ethnicity. But the pressures to respond to increasing diversity ... made a more inclusive curriculum "almost inevitable," he said in a telephone interview. "This is not a brand-new enterprise," Glazer points out. In ethnically diverse urban schools all over the United States, teachers already emphasize contributions of nonwhite cultures. IN cities with large black populations, such as Atlanta, Baltimore, and Milwaukee, some schools are incorporating an "Afrocentric" curriculum into their program. Many are trying the approach in an effort to raise flagging academic performance among black students. Stressing the historical contributions and culture of African-Americans builds self-esteem and makes the study more relevant, supporters say. "These students need to know that they have ancestors that were kings and queens, that they come from strong backgrounds and even though they find themselves in devastating situations now, the odds are not against them," says Josephine Mosley, principal of Victor Berger Elementary School in Milwaukee. Next fall Ms. Mosley's school will adopt an "Afrocentric curriculum." The preamble of the New York report rejects "previous ideals of assimilation to an Anglo-American model." Many Americans are beginning to throw out the image of the United States as a "melting pot." Glazer, co-author of "Beyond the Melting Pot," argues that the ideal of this nation as a "melting pot" is a myth. But in his cautionary comments appended to the report, Glazer warns that representing ethnic groups as uniform may also be mythical. Sobol argues that a middle ground must be found between a curriculum that focuses on common American culture and one that emphasizes the nation's diversity. "I do not believe those two purposes are incompatible," he says.

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