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Seeing the Other Side

When students use multiculturalism to fence off sections of academic turf as exclusively their own, learning and inquiry are blocked

THE war of words on multicultural education concerns me as a historian and a teacher. The divisive "isms" are the problem: tribalism versus Anglo-Saxonism. Conformism versus elitism. Particularism versus multiculturalism.These words are not teaching tools. They encourage a territoriality, a commodification of curricular content that inhibits the process of education. Ironically, the current belief that "My history is most important" seems the appropriate finale to the "me decade." It threatens the dynamic interaction between questions and answers that gives life to education. This year I taught two courses to high school seniors, one on race issues and the other on gender. My experience illustrates some of the classroom complexity that gets lost in the debate about what information the kids in the classroom need to know. One course, The Black Experience in White America, was nearly "PC-perfect." I, (white female historian) co-taught it with a colleague (black male teacher of religion and English). The class consisted of black nationalists who identified with the plight of the urban poor; other blacks who identified with the successful struggle of the black middle class; another African-born black whose experience was distinct from either American-born black nationalists or black individualists. In addition, around the sa me seminar table sat a Hindu, a Muslim, a southern white student, three white sons of New Hampshire, and a blossoming female feminist. Diversity writ large. What happened? Not much education. But much frustration. The course was hampered partly by an absence of inquiry. Students came with firm ideas about black/white issues and refused to read texts openly. One segment of students announced the first week of class that Martin Luther King Jr. was an Uncle Tom and that Malcolm X was the real hero for blacks. Some American blacks did not want to study the slave community and the cultural resistance to slavery as this resistance was not what they would have advocated - armed rebellion. The African-born black cried as he read the account of the kidnapping and enslaving of an African child in the 16th century because the events took place near where he grew up. Most of the class thought the autobiography we read of a black civil rights worker was boring. The heroine was "messed up" and thus suspect. One black nationalist was irritated that the Hindu and Muslim students of color "claimed" the black experience of oppression, since it was not theirs. The black individualists were irritated we spent so much time on oppression and did not focus on black achievements. The struggling feminist tried unsuccessfully to point out the sexism in the texts - but no one made room for her comments. Events were further restricted by the absence of trust among peers. Some of the students did not want to talk about issues in the black community in front of those they considered the source of those problems. Divisions between professional blacks and working class blacks were raised but the full discussion of those divisions did not take place in our class; it took place later in a racial awareness support group. Some white students felt uncomfortable criticizing any aspect of the black experience for f ear of appearing to be racist. Others bent over backward to admit guilt and subsequent enlightenment ("some of my best friends are ). In the end, the silences overtook the discussion. We lost the course. THE next term I taught a class on the history of sex equality. I met the class the first day, fearful I would not be able to shape the material and the discussions coherently. I looked around the table. The class consisted of six very different white females, four very different Asian males, and one black male. It seemed the divisions were going to overwhelm us. Instead, the course was a joy to teach. From the beginning, we tackled the material with a common purpose. We wanted to understand the evolution of the idea of equality in the West. How was it debated? When, by whom? Who used it? Who abused it? When we turned our focus to equality outside the Western world, we found ourselves discussing the same basic issues we had discussed in courses on the West. At one telling moment in the course, a student made a presentation on the issue of equality in another culture. We all listened. After we discussed the material for a few minutes, a large male from Singapore leaned across the table to the female presenter, about half his size and completely different from him politically, and asked if the only solution to inequality between men and women, was for men to become midgets. The question was real; the moment was powerful. These students argued well; they used material well. They learned. What was the difference? I don't think it was the absence of white males, as the students did not come to the course believing white males were the problem. I don't think these students knew each other and so trusted each other. It wasn't the content. The issues were as painful and rewarding as those in the black experience. So what was it? I think the difference was that the students came to learn - to alleviate ignorance, not to affirm what they thought they already knew. It wasn't property they wanted - a curricular land that belonged to them. They wanted to understand, that their lives might be enriched. They came with an attitude of inquiry basic to education. This attitude, this concern with questions, opens the door to the lifetime of learning required to truly understand the past and the present. This attitude seems forgotten in the multi-cultural turf wars.