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In Defense of Multiculturalism

Regarding the opinion-page article ``The Politics of Force-Fed Multiculturalism,'' April 22: Dinesh D'Souza's view of multicultural education might have been reasonable 40 years ago. But that someone living in the last decade of the 20th century could hold such opinions is frightening. My major criticism is D'Souza's underlying premise: Traditional Western civilization courses are nonpolitical, while multicultural or non-Western civilization courses are selectively polemical. D'Souza denounces the politics of force-fed multiculturalism without addressing - or even acknowledging - the politics of force-fed monoculturalism. Literary and historical canons are inherently political. They reflect the ideological prejudices of those who create them.

The traditional Western civilization course of American universities reflects a Whiggish, narrow interpretation of the progress of European culture as defined by well-educated white men in positions of cultural power. Indeed, the definition and boundaries of ``Western civilization'' itself are constructions. D'Souza is reluctant to acknowledge these facts, while he is quick to label those who do acknowledge them as a ``triangular alliance'' of radicals still living in the 1960s. The truth is that those leading the campaign for multiculturalism are not looking to the past, but to the future - to the coming decades in which our world will be even more of a global village and tolerance, respect for all peoples, and cultural humility will be even more necessary.

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Amy B. Ebeling Madison, Wis.

Dinesh D'Souza offers a particularly scathing attack on the use at Stanford of the book ``I, Rigoberta Menchu'.'' As someone who has used the book in several political science classes, I found his discussion distorted. By quoting several passages out of context, D'Souza wants to create the impression that the book is an anti-Western diatribe placed in the mouth of someone presented as a ``consummate victim.'' It is in fact the story of refusing to be a victim of very real racism and repression. Given the attention that I and other teachers pay to world leaders, it is important to provide some understanding of the political life of ``ordinary people.'' If students are to have any understanding of the practical impact of ``development'' policies on the poor, where political movements come from, or the reasons ethnic identity remains such a powerful factor in world politics, an account like that provided by Menchu', whatever one thinks of her own political choices, is relevant.

D'Souza's article illustrates how attacks on ``multiculturalism'' pursue the goal they claim to be attacking: the silencing of different political perspectives. And by citing passages out of context and in distorted fashion, he provides a very poor role model for the sort of intellectual rigor he claims to defend.

Marc Belanger Greenfield, Mass.

Assessing the book ``I, Rigoberta Menchu','' the author claims that the heroine ``doesn't represent the Mayan villagers of Latin America'' because of her political activism. Not so. Rigoberta's politicization grew out of the oppression her community faced. Originally, her family and neighbors were unexposed to and naive about the workings of Guatemalan society. The first half of the book is dedicated to her explanation of a Mayan community's traditions.

Then she describes how her village was violently robbed of their land and possessions by profit-hungry ``landlords.'' Their attempts to legally regain their homeland were spoiled by the Guatemalan government. The villagers suffered torturings and extrajudicial executions. Both Rigoberta's parents and her younger brother were killed this way. The community turned to unions, priests, socialist organizations, and other threatened Indian communities for protection and support.

Rigoberta was raised knowing it was her duty to God and her community to have children. Her decision to renounce motherhood came only after years of internal debate. She could not bear to see her children die as friends and relatives had.

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Elisabeth Burgos-Debray did not modify Rigoberta's story, as the article's author implies. An ethnographer by profession, she taped the narration, transcribed it, and organized it into chapters while keeping it as true to Rigoberta's words as possible. It hard to understand why this eye-opening book is a threat to education.

Education should be balanced - teaching both the canons of Western and non-Western societies, as well as the materials they previously ignored.

Blithe C. Holcomb Brookline, Mass.

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