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How Multicultural a Teacher Are You Prepared to Be?

Changes in immigration law, enacted during the Kennedy years, are drastically
altering classroom realities across America. The immigrant children flooding into
our schools are no longer principally of European stock. Instead they herald from
every corner of the world. And both their cultural beliefs and practices offer
bewildering and conflicting variety.

As prime socializers of the young, teachers are particularly challenged by this
extraordinary growth in the nation's diversity. They wonder how they should deal
with the fact that the very first world society is struggling to be born in their

The problems posed by his unprecedented event are very real. Often, however, all
these blooded frontline warriors are offered in the way of help is warm, fuzzy
humbug from pedagogical staff officers safe in the rear.

Those in the trenches agonize over new and challenging realities. What should they
do when Cambodian-American and Vietnamese-American children refuse to sit
together, much less work together? How should they react when kids come to school
with parentally shaved heads, the results of attempts to shame the child into
submission? How should they react when a student tells them she is going to run
away, rather than marry the middle aged man her parents picked for her? Meanwhile
rear echelon school commandos crank out propaganda about the school district being
a rainbow where "you can be you and I can be me." Would that it were that easy.

Why can't our public schools be one big happy family where everyone just gets
along? Because the various cultural values and behaviors brought into the
schoolhouse are often at odds with one another. And because some of these values
and behaviors are incompatible with basic American values, including the very
tolerance that makes multiculturalism possible in the first place.

Advocates of multicultural education argue that the United States should no longer
be a melting pot, but a salad bowl. The salad bowl simile has much to commend it.
But it is important to remember that one doesn't make a palatable salad by just
throwing whatever is at hand into the bowl willy-nilly. Some flavors and textures
go well together; others do not. Remember too that the American "salad" is already
well along, so we should ask if what is added complements the pre- existing

Some advocates of "multicultural education" do not seem to deeply consider what
immigrants might bring with them from their native land. That's why they are so
enthusiastic about the possibilities of easy tolerance. Consider, for example,
that some cultures define themselves in terms of their animosity for other
cultures. What happens when these antagonistic cultures collide in the classroom?

A teacher just told me of a class where children from two antagonistic cultures
refused to sit together, much less work together. In fact, when she turned her
back to write on the board they began hissing one another. Clearly even the most
ardent multiculturalist doesn't want the teacher to respond to such behavior by
saying something like, "See how these kids hate one another? They are expressing
their respective cultures. Isn't that great!" At this point of mutual antagonism
respect for these cultures has to give way to a non-negotiable demand for
tolerance. Otherwise, multicultural education will die by its own hand. But how
many advocates of multicultural education have even thought about this sort of

Similarly, many cultures tolerate, even endorse, boys treating girls as inferior
beings -- representatives of a subordinate sex. This is part of a broader cultural
pattern of regarding women as inferior members of the human race. Should the hard-
won rights of U.S. females give way to a desire to accommodate cultural

This is not an argument for Pat Buchanan-style jingoism. Certainly a child's
native language and culture can be a wonderful resource for them as individuals --
particularly if they aren't female, homosexual, or handicapped. And selected
aspects of foreign cultures can be of great value for America as a nation. (We
hardly have a corner on wisdom.) Nevertheless, many imported cultural beliefs and
practices must be discouraged if, for example, we value free and unfettered
expression, think that women's rights should equal those of men, or hold that
homosexuals should at least be left alone.

And who says that cultural background is the sine qua non for classifying kids to
begin with? Every one of us has many different characteristics, only some of which
are linked to our culture(s) of origin. Consider a child with the following


Studies hard


Loves to play the violin

Writes well

Hates algebra

Speaks limited Spanish

Has one parent from Mexico

Why should this young lady's one-sided affiliation with Mexican culture be the
characteristic educators zero in on? Is that more worthy of consideration or
accommodation than her love for the violin or her talent for writing?

Besides, not all students want to be defined by their parents' cultural practices
and affiliations. Some kids long to escape into mainstream America. In support of
multiculturalism, should educators join forces with their parents to keep them in
the Old World fold? Suppose, for instance, a young lady confides to her teacher
that she is going to run away with the American boyfriend she loves, rather than
marry the mid- dle-aged man her parents picked for her, as is their culture's
custom. Should the teacher tell the parents? More generally, if old ways start to
die in a new land, is it the job of educators to try to keep them alive?

The hard core in all this is that multicultural education has limits. And that's
the point of the table that follows. To help you explore where you would place
those limits. Here is how it works. Rate each of the listed cultural beliefs or
practices in terms of how you think educators should deal with them. Use the
listed choices. If, for example, members of child's native culture eat dogs and
cats for food, decide if educators should:

celebrate it -- have assemblies praising, provide ceremonial expression for,
favorably publicize?
support it -- serve in the cafeteria, point out advantages of?

permit it -- not interfere with practice of? take no position?

discourage it -- try to persuade others to abandon practice, advise against?

undermine it -- provide disincentives for, support activities incompatible with?

prohibit it -- bar the practice of, impose sanctions on?

OK, how about exploring your limits by filling out the survey below ? (These are
actual cultural practices, not fictions.)

This brief questionnaire illustrates a very basic reality: "multicultural
education" is more problematic than it first appears. With any in- depth
consideration of how different various cultures really are, easy uninformed
tolerance inevitably turns into worried reflection. How, then, shall we deal with
these youngsters who are entering our classrooms from all over the world? Respect
their worth as individuals, not as often-unwilling representatives of one or
another culture. And insist that they do likewise when dealing with others. If we
do otherwise we risk miring our schools in incessant and counterproductive ethnic
and racial conflict.

Decide if you would Prohibit, Take no position On, Permit or Encourage the
1. Participate in a harvest festival
2. Regard the earth as one's "mother"
3. Regard the elderly as having special knowledge

4. Resist using English
5. Select marrage partners for children
6. Suppress female aspirations for education

7. Corporally punish children

8. Leave old people to starve if they can't fend for themselves

9. Make fun of disabled persons
10. Eat special foods
11. Share one's wife with a friend
12. Marry multiple womn
13. Seclude married women from the world
14, Have old men digitally deflower all 8 yr old girls

15. Eat the flesh of cats and dogs
17. Take hallucinegenic drugs for religious purposes

18. Require pubescent girls to have clitorectomies

19. Wear special decorations on clothing.
20. Hold hands with same sex in public