Teaching Innovations

Multicultural Teaching Requires a More Subtle Balance

George M. Fredrickson, October 1994

I strongly support the general thrust of Professor Takaki's essay. The teaching of American history should indeed reflect the fact that the United States has been a multicultural society from its beginnings. The increasing extent to which our students come from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds makes his advice all the more compelling. The challenge, according to Professor Takaki, is how to teach diversity "without jettisoning traditional history, pushing 'political correctness,' and threatening our unity as Americans." His solution is to adopt a comparative approach rather than to treat each group in isolation. Traditional history enters the equation mainly as context for the struggles of racial or ethnic groups. Unity comes from the efforts of subordinated groups to appropriate "America's principle that 'all men are created equal,' endowed with 'unalienable rights' of life and liberty."

But it may be somewhat more difficult than he suggests to achieve a proper and workable balance between the traditional and evolving subject matter of American history as a whole and the focus of ethnic studies. It is not quite true, in my opinion, that all of American history is ethnic history. Such topics as economic development, political economy, and gender deserve attention in their own right, and the subject matter of the new environmental history—the relationship between human beings and nature—also requires perspectives that are not easily derived from multiculturalism. The actions of government or the state are strongly influenced by the ethnicity of the powerful, but few political scientists would see that as the whole story. The Euro-American majority did oppress racial minorities, but it did a lot of other things as well. It may not be possible to do full justice to the complexity of American history in, let us say, a survey course or an introductory text by viewing everything through the lens of multiculturalism. Making it a major theme does not mean that it is the only theme.

A good case can be made, however, for requiring or strongly encouraging undergraduates to take a course in the history of race and ethnicity in the United States that would be distinguishable from a more comprehensive survey. The problems currently associated with diversity on campus and in American society generally compel special attention to multicultural issues, not for the purpose of indoctrination in "politically correct" views, but to encourage clear and historically informed thinking about the questions our students have concerning their ethnic identities and how they relate to a broader American identity. For several years, I have taught such a course at Stanford with my colleague Albert Camarillo. On the whole, the subject matter of this course is very similar to what Professor Takaki recommends as a multicultural approach to American history. We have found, however, that it is still necessary to pay considerable attention to what Professor Takaki calls "stereotypes," or more broadly to the Anglo-American or Euro-American attitudes and practices that have made life difficult for groups defined as "other." White ethnocentrism and racism have provided the context and climate of opinion in which the struggles of excluded racial and ethnic groups have taken place. To focus exclusively or even mostly on how oppressed or disadvantaged groups forged communities and made a life for themselves risks romanticizing and depoliticizing their experiences. If a single-minded emphasis on victimization is a half-truth, so also is a celebration of agency and achievement that obscures the real obstacles to self-determination that often existed. Students should be made acutely aware that their ancestors suffered from injustices—or perpetrated them—and be informed about what oppressed or stigmatized groups managed to achieve against the odds.

A central issue for discussion in such courses is whether our past provides us with some basis for hoping that the United States can combine cultural diversity with a consensus on underlying national values. Multiculturalism comes in two versions—pessimistic or optimistic. The former advocates separatism of one kind or another on the assumption that whites are inherently racist and that group differences are permanent and unbridgeable. The latter calls for what John Higham has described as a "pluralistic integration," a bringing together of Americans on a basis of equality without forcing any group to deny its past or give up its cultural distinctiveness. The optimists view this path as the fulfillment of the promise of equal rights for all contained in the Declaration of Independence and affirmed by a series of democratic movements, culminating in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It is an open question whether a democratic diversity of cultures contradicts or confirms traditional American values. It seems to me, therefore, that our teaching of American ethnic history should include the study of white dissenters against the racism and ethnocentrism that normally predominated, to see if there is a viable antiracist tradition among whites with which the Euro-American students in our classes can identify and build on and that can give students of color some confidence that white America has the capacity to redeem itself. This may not be the kind of issue that can be fully resolved by looking at historical facts; but the facts might make the optimists more realistic and the pessimists more hopeful, thus enhancing the kind of creative dialogue that instruction in the history of race and ethnicity should be designed to provoke. My own experience has been that such discussions are a learning experience for teachers as well as students.

—George M. Fredrickson is Edgar E. Robinson Professor of United States History at Stanford University. His most recent book is The Arrogance of Race: Historical Perspectives on Slavery, Racism, and Social Inequality (Wesleyan University Press, 1988).