`Multiculturalism' Versus the US Ideal

A DEBATE has been raging in American education over ideas and curriculums known under the rubric of "multiculturalism." For all the heat that's been generated, the crux of the argument still seems poorly understood. Martin Luther King Jr., whose contributions we're now celebrating, said much that bears on this debate.

The claim of multiculturalism isn't simply that the many ethnic and other cultural backgrounds of the United States public should be recognized, and that schools should encourage respect for all of them. From day one, Americans committed to a pluralistic society have had to struggle against intolerance. We still do. But the goal of broad recognition and respect isn't in dispute in the argument between "multiculturalists" and their critics.

Neither is anyone now claiming that Americans should forget their ethnic roots. Families have celebrated their national backgrounds, taught children about them, sought to maintain elements of their ethnic identities, and the like, from the earliest years of the country's settlement.

The US is a country of exceptional ethnic heterogeneity. Both multiculturalists and their critics recognize this. Both understand that the diversity has been the source of persistent conflict, but see it nonetheless as, overall, a source of strength.

What, then, is at issue? The argument revolves around the character of American nationalism, its role in the country's past, and its potential for the future. As many observers have long recognized, this nationalism is of a very special sort and makes highly unusual demands.

Most nations today are held together by shared ethnic identity. The US, in contrast, has never been ethnically based. Instead, its national identity is derived ideologically. In G. K. Chesterton's famous formulation, "America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed."

This creed, or public philosophy, has received many statements, but none clearer or more elegant than that in the Declaration of Independence. Abraham Lincoln often called attention to the Declaration's pivotal place as the foundation of American national identity. It was in 1776, he said at Gettysburg, that the founders "brought forth upon this continent a new nation" with an explicitly political as opposed to ethnic identity: "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are creat ed equal."

I might, under some circumstances, become a citizen of Germany, Japan, or the United Kingdom; I cannot, though, become German, Japanese, or English. But given the ideological character of American nationalism, millions of people from diverse ethnic origins have become fully, not just legally, American.

But for all its inclusiveness, America's creedal nationalism is at the same time restrictive and demanding. It does require the workings of a "melting pot." People must give up something in the act of becoming American and then submit to something in practicing their citizenship. It involves giving primacy to a political identity based on the ideals of America's founding and a supra-ethnic sense of citizenship. Whatever my ethnic roots and culture, my political culture must be American.

Many who profess sympathy for the aims of multiculturalism mean nothing more than that they want full respect for all the ethnic groups in the American family. But the multiculturalist movement itself goes beyond these widely shared goals; it sees the ascendant American political culture as itself the problem - predisposed to racism at home and imperialism abroad.

Martin Luther King Jr. disagreed. Like Lincoln, he saw American nationalism as a resource, not an infirmity. Insufficiently realized, the ideals on which the nation was established are still the only proper foundation for a just polity. In his most famous speech, Dr. King put it this way: "I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed...."

That - the further progress of a singular, demanding idea, not political multiculturalism - should remain the nation's goal.

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