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Rethinking Multicultural Education

By Wayne Au

Rethinking Multicultural Education: Teaching for Racial and Cultural Justice has been a long time coming. Over the last twenty-plus years of its existence, Rethinking Schools has published nearly 200 articles that dealt with issues of race and culture. Even though Rethinking Schools has always kept racial and cultural justice amongst our main focal points, we have never published a book that specifically addressed race and culture in education in their own right. This book is an attempt to do just that: provide a Rethinking Schools vision of anti-racist, social justice education that is both practical for teachers and sharp in analysis.

It is my hope that the selections included in Rethinking Multicultural Education: Teaching for Racial and Cultural Justice offer a more robust and powerful definition of multicultural education than we see so often used. For instance, some educators and teacher educators say they teach multicultural education, but do it under the guise of "global education." This form of multiculturalism feels safer to some because it uses the veneer international cultures to avoid more serious and painful realities of issues like racism. Similarly, "diversity education" and "cultural pluralism" get used with the singular intent of promoting heroes and holidays and "celebrating" individual differences, again circumventing issues of power and privilege.

The terms "diverse students" and "urban students," two more stand-ins for "multicultural" students, have devolved into meaning "poor, African American and Latino students" or "students who aren't white." This is particularly ironic in some school districts in the United States, where schools that are 98 percent Latino, as they are, for instance, in Santa Ana, California, are regularly referred to as "diverse" by professors, teachers, and politicians alike. While certainly urban, Santa Ana schools are not diverse.

The right wing has also developed its own, sometimes-contradictory definitions of multicultural education. While some conservatives have vehemently attacked multicultural education as representative of the downfall of Western Civilization, others such as E.D. Hirsch (founder of the Core Knowledge curriculum) have developed a different definition of multicultural education. As Kristen Buras, professor of education at Emory University, talks about in her book Rightist Multiculturalism, Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum has recently taken up the banner of multicultural education by defining the United States as a multicultural nation of diverse immigrants?while simultaneously covering up systematic oppression based on class, race, and nation status.

Multicultural education is also being narrowly defined as a path students can take to "higher" status literature. Teachers use Tupac's lyrics to move students to Shakespeare; students can unpack hip hop lyrics as a way to learn literary language like stanza and rhyme, but they need to study Frost and Yeats to be considered well-read. Students in regular classes can read "thug" literature, but AP classes need to read the classics. (Does anyone read Morrison as a precursor to Chaucer? She's harder than The Canterbury Tales). This version of multicultural education focuses on access to the canon of high-status knowledge. In doing so, such a definition not only keeps the Eurocentric canon of knowledge at the heart of "real" education, it also communicates to students the idea that the diversity of their identities, lives, and communities does not really matter when it comes to learning.

Rethinking Multicultural Education is an attempt to reclaim multicultural education as part of a larger, more serious struggle for social justice, a struggle that recognizes the need to fight against systematic racism, colonization, and cultural oppression that takes place through our schools. In the chapters included here, multicultural education:

The chapters included in the section entitled "Anti-Racist Orientations" examine the importance of recognizing the role of race and culture in education in our schools today. Here, chapters focus on general anti-racist orientations that are important for teachers to carry into the classroom, on dispositions that take justice seriously and examine privileges as they exist in practice. This exploration includes understanding the relationships between teaching, culture, and privilege, as well as recognizing the more historical and institutional inequalities that we see today.

Language is central to culture, and how we understand and treat language in our classrooms speaks to issues of power both inside and outside of education. The chapters in the section entitled "Language, Culture, and Power" look at the relationship between language and culture, finding connections between the cultural politics of Black English, bilingual education, and the cultural norms for communication, as well as address the ways in which we deal with culture and language in the classroom speak specifically to student identities.

"Transnational Identities, Multicultural Classrooms," includes chapters that look at what it means to be an anti-racist, social justice educator within the context of immigration, globalization, and colonization?where our students' identities are transnational, both rooted in the United States and not rooted in the United States. This section attempts to stretch our normal categories for students, many of whom are immigrants, and many of whom, while not immigrants themselves, hail from immigrant communities. The transnational, even globalized, identities of our students sometimes make issues of cultural identity relative to the U.S. and "home" countries mixed up and even contradictory, forcing educators to recognize the dynamic nature of cultures and communities.

The final section, "Confronting Race in the Classroom," provides concrete examples of anti-racist teaching at the elementary and secondary levels, in multiple grades and across multiple subject areas. Even though other chapters in other sections are clearly grounded in classroom practice, here the focus is on how elementary and secondary teachers have critically considered issues of race and culture into their curriculum?often times experiencing both success and difficulty in raising such important and complex issues. In these times of high-stakes testing, the standards movement, shrinking budgets, and increased workloads, teachers are continuously being pushed to leave justice and equality behind. Instead they find themselves having to focus on test scores, pacing guides, and scripted instruction. But, as W.E.B. DuBois once said, "Education must keep broad ideals before it, and never forget that it is dealing with Souls and not with Dollars." Teaching for racial and cultural justice is one of those "broad ideals" that we can't lose sight of if we are to live up to our commitments to teach all children. Rethinking Multicultural Education is a tool for educators to address these ideals in their classrooms, to take a stand against the dollar-ization of education and for the souls of our students, communities, and world.

February, 2009 • Paperback • 392 pages • ISBN: ISBN 978-0-942961-42-3

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