Teaching Innovations

Tensions within Multiculturalism's Ideals

Robert K. Fullinwider, October 1994

At a time when our nation was preoccupied with the experience of two world wars fought against autocratic and totalitarian systems, historians not surprisingly wrote the story of America as a story of struggle for liberty and freedom against tyranny and oppression and as a story of efforts to create and perfect the institutions of democracy and citizen sovereignty. Nor is it surprising that the stories historians wrote reflected a unified perspective, the literary counterpart to the unified effort required of the country to prosecute its wars.

At a time when the memories of the world wars (and their political aftermath) have grown dim and when our nation is preoccupied with the socially stressful transformation of the old gender and racial orders as well as the profound changes in the ethnic and national character of our population, it is not surprising that historians have begun to write the story of America as a clash of ethnic, racial, and national groups, a contest of domination and resistance. Nor is it surprising that the stories historians write reflect both among and within themselves many different and conflicting perspectives, the literary counterpart to the fractured, cacophonous character of contemporary public discourse where old hegemonies have lost their grip and no successors have ascended to undisputed primacy.

Much about the old history seems dated, erroneous, and distorted from the vantage point of the new history. Even so, much good history was written from the old preoccupation, history with lasting value. Likewise, the multicultural history written from the new preoccupation will undoubtedly produce great and lasting scholarship, just as it will also produce work that in turn will look dated and mistaken from some future vantage point with yet a different preoccupation. Still, there is ample room for scholars to quarrel about the fecundity of particular preoccupations in generating good historical scholarship. Perhaps the new preoccupation with race, ethnicity, and gender will in the end be found more limiting than its predecessors or successors. Perhaps there are reasons already apparent for resisting the full sway of a multicultural perspective. Historians should continue to argue this out.

This argument, however, is often overwhelmed by and mixed up with a quite different and more volatile quarrel. Within Professor Takaki's essay, two quite distinct reasons are offered for teaching multicultural history, reasons that stand in some tension with one another. We should teach multicultural history, according to Takaki, because it is "more accurate" history; and we should teach it because it "will promote greater understanding" among people—it will help us, in Rodney King's words, "to get along." The first reason draws upon some idea of good scholarship, the second posits a civic goal. "Accurate" history may teach us to get along together, but then again, it may not. The history that teaches us to get along together may be "accurate," but then again, it may not. Takaki thinks that if we look at the struggles and fortunes of different ethnic and racial groups throughout our history, we will find an "inclusive vision" our students can appropriate, a vision of different groups struggling to make real the value all Americans share, equality. Does that vision somehow ineluctably emerge from a cold, dispassionate examination of our checkered racial and ethnic past? Is it forced on us by the overwhelming weight of evidence? Or is it projected into the past by our current desire to make it true, to make the civic goal a success?

The same unresolved tension runs through Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s, The Disuniting of America (Norton, 1992). Defending the integrity of history against those who would "exploit the past for nonhistorical purposes" and "manipulate" it as "an instrument of social cohesion," Schlesinger insists on "disinterested intellectual inquiry" as the only standard. Schools should teach history "for its own sake." But these last words are hardly out of his mouth before he announces another reason to teach history: "Above all, history can give us a sense of national identity." In studying our history, we can see the prospects for and the value of the American Creed that holds us together, Schlesinger urges. Perhaps so, but only if we tell that history in the right way.

There is a difference between teaching history for nation-building purposes—teaching history that prompts us "to get along"—and teaching history for its own sake, whatever its effect. As a disinterested inquirer, the historical scholar doesn't care what, in the words of Robert Penn Warren, he "digs out of the ash pile, the midden, the sublunary dung heap, which is the human past." But the nation builder, the civic educator, very much cares—must care—about the effects of her lessons, and shapes them accordingly.

The quarrels about multiculturalism turn most sharply on its role as civic pedagogy. A pedagogy that emphasizes our racial and ethnic differences and compares and contrasts the experiences of different groups will disarm racial antagonisms and ethnic hostilities: that is the hope, that is the prescription. It may seem obvious that the way to overcome our racial and ethnic divisions is to confront them head on, but like so many seemingly obvious propositions, the central multicultural prescription may turn out to be quite mistaken. Here the quarrel should go on as well, but we should separate this quarrel from the one about good historical scholarship.

—Robert K. Fullinwider is senior research scholar at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland at College Park. He has recently edited a volume of essays, Public Education in a Multicultural Society: Policy, Theory, Critique, forthcoming in 1995.