Towards a Multicultural Society and Education
by Mehmet A. Ocak
Democratic societies are strengthened by fundamental principles, such as freedom, equality, and justice. To keep the identities of people who produce knowledge and research quiet seems paradoxical in a democratic society. When variables like culture, ethnicity, race, and diversity are utilized in order to give some privileges to individuals from some groups and to reject others, then the provision of equal opportunities becomes a serious challenge for a society. Interestingly, every human being has a tendency to react against all forms of domination and has an intrinsic desire for freedom. For this reason, more than ever, education in and for a society must supply the schooling that is required for each student so that they can develop their own interests and learn to live, if not in cooperation with others, then at least peacefully. Dewey, probably the most influential thinker and philosopher in progressive education, strongly opposes putting students into fixed categories or classes and treating them as a member of a class or group.1 In other words, the school must provide a good balance between the curriculum, the teachers, and the administrators, as well as ensuring physical and moral conditions.
What is multicultural education?
A good place to start is with a workable definition of what is meant by the terms “multiculturalism” and “multicultural education.” Multicultural education is a progressive approach for transforming education which holistically critiques and addresses current shortcomings, failings, and discriminatory practices in education.2 It is based on social justice, educational equity, and respect for thought. More specifically, the components required in ensuring a multicultural education are: content integration, the knowledge construction process, prejudice reduction, equity pedagogy, and an empowering school culture and social culture.3 It seems apparent that each element, somehow, is related to the others, and each requires considerable attention, particularly when thinking about the efforts of conflict resolution in the world. In this paradigm, to be tolerant in social interactions, to give value to every opinion, and to not criticize and object to others seems to be the distinguishing features of a multicultural society. When people are overly harsh the result is destruction, while people who are trying to be constructive bring richness and reflection.4 The idea of “if you do not like something, make a better one” fits very well with the idea of multicultural education, in which the main task is to reduce the form, stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination between in-groups and out-groups.
Why do we need multicultural education?
We live in a world in which interracial conflicts and tensions seem to have become an inevitable phenomenon of daily life. On the positive side however, the last millennium has made us more knowledgeable about the nature of global acceptance, the equal-status situation, and mutual expectations. In today’s society, as we enter the 21st century, the deepening ethnic background of nations, diversity within societies, and an increasing percentage of people who speak a second language have made multicultural education crucial. Multicultural education is seen as an opportunity to improve race relations and to help all students gain the knowledge, attitudes, and skills needed to take part in cross-cultural interactions. Children learn the difference when playing with one another.5 The same is true in education, as teaching has become a multicultural experience. Instead of fearing or ignoring the diversity in the classroom (and society), teachers can use diversity to enrich instruction. Multicultural education helps teachers to use diversity as a resource that can bring more meaning, tolerance, and opportunity to multicultural classroom. Both teachers and students belong to diverse groups distinguished by variables such as age, social class, gender, race, and ethnicity.
Multicultural education for a changing world
In American public schools and colleges, about 46% of the student population comes from students from different ethnicity with 14 % of school age youth living in homes in which English is not the native language.6 Today, most classroom teachers are likely to have students from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This brings its own problem in that many students are assimilated in social interaction, and are faced with cultural assimilation. To overcome these difficulties, educators keep looking for more creative, thoughtful, and meaningful educational reform movements. In this sense, multicultural education is able to help students develop a sympathy and understanding towards each group’s perception and point of view. Dewey repeatedly stresses the importance of interaction in education. This interaction is an ongoing process between the individual and the subjects and other people. Dewey talks about a person who tries to build a castle in the air; even when he tries to do that, he interacts with the objects which he constructs in his imagination. As a human being, however, we are more complex creatures than animals. Each human being is a special creature, composed of different feelings and characteristics. Dewey’s ongoing interaction between the individual and other persons becomes essentially important when thinking about the existence of cultures with their uniqueness and distinctiveness. In this sense, school is a place of social interaction between teachers and students. Teaching and learning in a school environment mostly occurs through social interactions in groups. Helping students to develop a sense of reflective and positive identification with their cultural groups does not mean that it is not possible to establish an intercultural exchange between different groups. It means that through developing and clarifying the boundaries of cultural identifications, optimistically students will acquire more positive attitudes towards their neighborhoods and communities.
The rise of multicultural education
Democratic changes in nations contribute and stimulate the growth of multicultural education. Providing people with the freedom to function beyond their ethnic and cultural boundaries keeps societies more democratic and free. Using dimensions of multicultural education (e.g., prejudice reduction) can help students to develop more democratic values and attitudes. Improving dialogue efforts and tolerance in this kind of education might help students to understand, investigate and determine how equal opportunities could be gained by giving everyone a voice. Educators today face unusual challenges and want rapid solutions to educational problems. In particular, problems associated with racism, ethnicity, and prejudice make the situation intolerable, because of the high public expectations. In this sense, multicultural education can be a promising factor in implementing intercultural exchange and in helping students to gain democratic values and attitudes. One of the most effective ways to teach respect for diversity is to eliminate unawareness. If we want to understand other cultures, whether they be superficial or insightful, we had better gain a sense of perception that allows us to distinguish things more clearly and with less bias.7 For that reason, establishing cultural exchange programs has proven to be successful in improving understanding, insight, and eventually tolerance into the classroom. Teaching lessons that either directly or indirectly address the issues of multicultural communities in the classroom, neighborhood, and nation is another important tactic that teachers can adopt when trying to help children and young adults understand the importance of respect for diversity. Teachers who bring their healthy values and virtues to the classroom can strongly influence the attitudes of their students.
Multicultural education is a new trend and it will become incorporated into most school curriculums in future years. Several prestigious universities in the world today require students to take classes in social studies. Thus, by using multicultural education, teachers, in particular, can help children value the significance of treating all people with self-esteem and not judging groups of people for the actions of a few. More importantly, teachers must model tolerance and compassion in their words and behavior. They should also encourage children to explore their feelings about prejudice and hatred. In doing this, the society will secure a better chance to stop any further destruction and will be able to present potentially powerful opportunities for the next generation to learn and integrate respect and dignity for all people.
Many people today, even those who already live in a multi-cultural society, have problems dealing with “others,” and blame each other for certain issues or follow a different way.8 Blaming each other because of our origins or culture is not the solution. Rather, trying to understand and analyze people for their personal values and cultural diversity will help to mobilize and construct a caring society. As a matter of fact, religion teaches us to tolerate others and accept that people live in different groups and societies. The beauty and uniqueness of diversity is expressed in the Holy Qur’an and in the New Testament:
O mankind! Surely We have created you from a single (pair of) male and female, and made you into tribes and families so that you may know one another (and so build mutuality and co-operative relationships, not so that you may take pride in your differences of race or social rank, and breed enmities). Surely the noblest, most honorable of you in God’s sight is the one best in piety, righteousness, and reverence for God. Surely God is All-Knowing, All-Aware. (Hujurat 49:13)
You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you. (Matthew, 5:43-44)
1 Dewey, J., Democracy and Education, Southern Illinois University Press Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1916.
2 Gorski, P, Multicultural education and the internet: Intersections and integrations, McGraw-Hill, Boston, MA:2000.
3 Banks, J., Educating Citizens in a Multicultural Society, Teachers College Press: New York and London:1997.
4 Gulen, F., Pearls of Wisdom, The Fountain, 2001.
5 Dewey, J., Experience and Education, the Kappa Delta Pi Lecture Series Simon Schuster, 1938.
6 http://www.census.gov/apsd/www/statbrief/ (U.S. Bureau of the Census)