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E Pluribus Nihil: Multiculturalism and Black Children

There are few things more futile than the effort to second-guess history. Yet it is difficult not to wonder, especially at this moment in our national affairs, what might have happened had the civil-rights movement not made the schools a key focus of its attentions. We do not really know why so much civil-rights energy came to center so directly on the schools. Perhaps they seemed the institutions most vulnerable to outside pressure, or perhaps they seemed simply the most welcoming. Possibly it was Jewish influence in the early days of the movement that was responsible for the idea that getting an education—specifically, a college education—would be the quickest and easiest route into the middle class, and that if at long last black children were fairly treated they would head straight for college and then into the professional schools.

In any case, just suppose that, having established the principle in Brown v. Board of Education that legislatively segregated schools were unconstitutional, the movement had gone on to something else and let nature take its admittedly creeping course in the schools themselves. Suppose that civil-rights activists in major Northern cities had not insisted that what they called “de facto segregation” was just as reprehensible and unconstitutional as the de jure segregation of the South. Suppose they had instead made housing patterns their chief priority. (Who nowadays remembers that all those postwar slum-clearance public-housing projects were originally intended to be fully integrated but became predominantly black and Hispanic under great political pressure from those communities, who claimed their own greater entitlement to cheap housing, along with, most fatefully, the right not to be excluded on the grounds of having criminal records?) Or suppose that instead of attempting to impose school integration they had simply spent all their energies on improving the schools as they stood. Suppose all of these things: would little black kids in the big cities—theoretically the objects of the exercise—have been any worse off?

They have certainly had a lot going against them, these children. Forget for the moment their currently famous troubles at home. Forget, too, their history as the descendants of slaves and of the victims of Jim Crow. Apart from all this, there is the simple fact that many, many of them are members of a community of relatively recent migrants from the farm to the big city.

Were we European, we would call those migrants peasants. The education of peasants in the ways of metropolitan literacy and skills is a complex affair; no one anywhere on earth has yet figured out how to do it with either comfort or speed. Moreover, by some grim coincidence, a kind of unfunny historical joke, black migrants from off the farm came flooding into the big-city public schools of America at just the moment when these institutions had triumphantly assimilated the psychological and pedagogic theories made fashionable by the practitioners of progressive private education. Very roughly summed up, these theories held that children, with psychic support from their parents, could basically teach themselves to read and write while the schools led them to ever higher levels of noncompetitive socialization. While for the children of the educated upper middle class in private schools such ideas proved to be only mildly disastrous, for a majority of the children of unacculturated immigrants they were bound to be, and were, catastrophic.

Add to these natural, probably unavoidable, difficulties—difficulties enough to be getting on with—the fact that for nearly 30 years now, inner-city black children have, when it has come to their schooling, been little more than expendable counters in an ideological game. The game, moreover, is one whose rules and end terms have shifted with sometimes dizzying rapidity.

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First, the objective was racial integration. Implicit in the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Brown—i.e., that segregated schools were inherently unequal—was an idea that in its translation to Northern school systems was itself profoundly racist. Though obviously unconscious of what they were saying when they argued for mandatory school busing—in cities of any size, the only way to achieve even minimal integration—civil-rights advocates were actually insisting that without a sufficient number of white children in a classroom, black children would not be able to learn properly there.1

The argument took a variety of forms: the teachers would teach better if enough white children were present; white parents would be able to put up a better fight to improve conditions; the state would provide more resources; and so on. Whatever the argument, to oppose school busing was to earn the first dousing in what was to become a deluge of charges of racism; and in those early days, the word was to be found as much on the lips of white liberals as on those of black activists. (No one, of course, got around to asking whether black mothers were enthusiastic about having their children bused to schools in strange neighborhoods far from home; by extension, they, too, were merely pieces being moved around on the board.)

When school busing became a worse than pointless exercise—though there seem to be judges here and there around the country who have not yet heard the news—the demand shifted to money and services: for special programs, or for hiring black teachers to be role models, or for teaching the kids in “black English,” or for rewriting the tests, or for turning budget and hiring control over to local community boards. Each of these measures was at one time or another offered as a decisive improvement for inner-city schools that meanwhile were becoming increasingly black, and whose students were failing at an alarming rate.

The point is, the school had been appointed to do it all, the whole job—not merely to teach, but to repair past injustice, to urbanize, and to become as well the source of psychic healing, physical health, and moral, ethical, and sexual upbringing. Small wonder that the schoolhouse roof began to buckle from the sheer weight of the load. And each time there was a new sign of cave-in, more weight was added to the burden.

Beyond the bitter joke that by, say, the late 1950’s public-school pedagogy had become something even middle-class parents were struggling to compensate their children for, there was another. Just when inner-city kids were displaying an ever greater need for order and orderliness, the larger culture that surrounded them was getting caught up in an ever more shrill assertion of the demand for new areas of permissiveness called—how disruptively to these and all other children we have not yet begun to imagine—“rights.”

Recently, the principal of a notoriously troubled high school in Brooklyn electrified, and elated, the student body (and, it is said, visibly improved academic performance) by requiring the boys to wear shirts, jackets, and ties to school every day. What ought to be most surprising about this event is how long it took to happen and how much courage on the principal’s part had been needed. As for the boys in that school, pawns of a movement that from the very beginning had no faith in them and aspirants toward a culture that had no faith in itself, this may have been the first time it was borne in upon them that anybody cared.

Dismal historical coincidences aside, the black children of the metropolitan ghettos have, as everyone knows, profound troubles all their own. They are more likely than not to be living on welfare, to be fatherless and illegitimate, to be surrounded by the spectacles of alcohol and drug addiction, to be endlessly subject to temptations to crime—latterly even forced to dodge actual bullets—and to be quite passive about, or downright indifferent to, their own futures. So much we hear about them every day. Whatever the cures for such troubles—and one is forbidden by the law of life to suppose that there can be none—they surely cannot be administered in school.

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Nevertheless the school continues to be the recipient of an endless series of nostrums. And given the intractability of the condition—and the unspoken but implicit despair of the civil-rights activists over the failure of their ministrations—a new, and new kind of, struggle looms ahead. Now there is a move on in many states across the country to convert the school-house from a place of disappointed longing to a place of plain and open hostility to its own real purposes.

In New York, the terms of this conversion have recently been spelled out by Thomas Sobol, the state Commissioner of Education. As are all government threats and promises, this one is contained in a report. Issued on June 13, 1991 under the title, “One Nation, Many Peoples: A Declaration of Cultural Interdependence,” the report was drawn up by a group of experts—primarily school administrators, educators, and historians—brought together by Sobol, as the Executive Summary puts it,

to review existing New York State social-studies syllabi and to make recommendations to the Commissioner of Education designed to increase students’ understanding of American culture and its history; the cultures, identities, and histories of the diverse groups which comprise American society today; and the cultures, identities, and histories of other people throughout the world.

This might have seemed a rather tall order for a school system whose products, white and black, have been found wanting, for example, in any clear impression of which century witnessed the American Civil War and which, World War II. Those acquainted with the language of public persuasion, however, will recognize in such a formula not a worthy if unattainable ambition but rather a warning signal for an oncoming attack of disingenuousness. This is a language that speaks of groups but means only minorities, that speaks of minorities but means mainly blacks, and that speaks of diversity but means the imposition of a single set of attitudes.

In addition, it is important to know that the Social Studies Review and Development Committee which issued this report was preceded two years earlier by another group, a Task Force, also convened by Sobol. It, too, was asked to review instructional materials to determine if they “adequately reflect the pluralistic nature of our society.” Before that, it seems, the Task Force itself had had several predecessors. Since the 1970’s, in fact, the New York State Board of Regents had commissioned a whole series of similar investigations, more or less focused on something originally called Global Education but later referred to as a “broader cultural perspective,” and more generally known these days as “multiculturalism.”

The 1989 Task Force, chaired by Hazel Dukes, then president of the Council of the New York Chapters of the NAACP, was somewhat less modestly, and much more honestly, named than its successor: Task Force on Minorities: Equity and Excellence. Its report, “A Curriculum of Inclusion,” was, as such documents go, on the flamboyant side. It contained certain undisguisedly sweeping and radical recommendations: for example, that New York State acquire an entirely new set of text materials more favorable to blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, and Asians along with a new state Department of Cultural Equality among whose duties would be the initiation of “intensive discussions” with textbook publishers and the definition of new standards of certification for teachers and principals that would involve “appropriate education and competence in multicultural education.”

The somewhat ringing tone of the Task Force’s recommendations was derived from an even brassier set of background resource papers, one prepared by a professor of African Studies at the City College of New York (CCNY), one by a professor of the Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos of Hunter College, one by a representative of New York’s “Native American” (i.e., American Indian) community, and one by an associate in the Department of Educational Foundations at Hunter College claiming to speak for the Asians. Hardly surprisingly, each of these resource people concluded that while New York had already made a commendable effort to cover minority experiences and values in its social-studies curricula, the current situation was unacceptable. At its best, they found, existing text material was multicultural only in a formal sense. In reality, the minority groups were still, they said, the objects of hurtful stereotyping, the kind of stereotyping that led inexorably to a series of “syndromes”: for blacks, the “Tarzan Syndrome” or “Amos and [sic] Andy Syndrome”; for Asians, the “Charlie Chan Syndrome”; for Hispanics (your eyes do not deceive), the “Frito Bandito Syndrome”; and for “Native Americans,” the “Lone Ranger and Tonto Syndrome.”

We do not know whether Sobol was embarrassed by it or not, but in any case, “A Curriculum of Inclusion” set off alarm bells in certain public places. After which there followed a far more heated debate and a far more widespread and careful scrutiny than could ever have been intended either of “A Curriculum of Inclusion” itself or of the circumstances of its production.

One of the things turned up under this post-facto scrutiny were the racial theories of Leonard Jeffries, Jr., the CCNY professor who had prepared the background paper about the treatment of blacks. Aside from the by then already familiar claim that most of the truly valuable properties of Western civilization—such as the alphabet, the legal code, science and philosophy, and democracy—had originated in Africa and then been stolen without acknowledgment, Professor Jeffries had made and was most ardently teaching his students a new scientific discovery: that melanin, responsible for black skin pigmentation, was also responsible for a genetic difference in disposition. Thus blackness made people warmer, more caring, better disposed toward their fellow men, while the absence of melanin left whites, whom he called “the ice people,” selfish, individualistic, aggressive, and hence innately militaristic.

Less than a year after these things were publicized, the Board of Regents approved the establishment of yet another committee to review the curriculum yet again and yet again to offer recommendations. This was to be Phase I in a five-stage plan whose purpose, wrote Sobol, “was to ensure that any syllabus review and revision undertaken would be thoughtful, scholarly, and apolitical.” Here, as with Sobol’s formal charge to the new committee, the phrase “thoughtful, scholarly, and apolitical” operated as a screen for the true purpose of the commission, which was obviously to make respectable a policy that had been permitted to move much too close to the edge of ridicule. Beneath the stunning generality of the call to increase students’ understanding of all cultures everywhere—which taken at face value was no more than a call simply to improve education—the committee was implicitly charged to find an acceptable, or at least an acceptable-sounding, way to effect a surrender to multiculturalist demands.

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To this charge the great majority of the committee’s members enthusiastically responded. “[W]e are beginning to realize,” they announce, again in the Executive Summary,

that understanding and the ability to appreciate things from more than one perspective may be as important as is factual knowledge in the goals of education. . . . [T]he social studies should not be so much concerned with “whose culture” and “whose history” are to be taught and learned as with the development of intellectual competence in learners, with intellectual competence viewed as . . . the capacity to view the world and understand it from multiple perspectives.

The report itself is long, elaborately organized, and otherwise bears all the earmarks of a committee-produced document, in which serious disagreements are thought to be taken care of by splitting the linguistic difference:

We recognize that nation building, especially in so diverse a populace, requires that we give attention, not so much to our differences as to our commonalities. Some of us feel strongly that social studies should stress the nation’s common values. . . . Others of us feel that those values . . . have become truncated as a result of the hegemonic ascendence of cultural elements . . . associated with our European ancestry alone. Thus the insistence on the inclusion of broader perspectives. . . .

Committee-style manners aside, however, the document as a whole comes down sternly on the side of those “broader”—indeed, ever broader—perspectives.

Twenty years of studies and recommendations have, it appears, brought insufficient improvement in the materials for teaching American history and American society to New York’s children. For example, the committee complains, children are often taught about institutions like banks, department stores, and museums that are not necessarily to be found in their own communities. Instead they need “to be exposed to the strength and potential of what does exist in their community, despite obstacles such as drugs and high visibility of crime.” Or, the story of the early colonization in the eastern United States has too often been told from the perspective of the colonists; or all nations south of the United States are lumped together, for grades 9 and 10, as “Latin America”; or, again for grades 9 and 10, the syllabus asks them to compare pictures of Greek, Roman, and Oriental art without specifying that “Oriental” means Asian and without specifying which Asians. The treatment of the European colonization of Africa “inadequately addresses the great loss of lives and the eradication of many varieties of traditional culture and knowledge.” In the syllabus for grades 7 and 8, there is no effort to connect Toussaint L’Ouverture’s defeat of Napoleon in Haiti with the Louisiana Purchase.

Then there is the issue of linguistic “insensitivity.” Here the examples abound—some we have already grown accustomed to hearing about and some quite startlingly fresh. The syllabi, declares the report, refer to “slaves” or “the everyday life of a slave” as if “being a slave were one’s role or status, similar to that of gardener, cook, or carpenter,” whereas to refer instead to “ ‘enslaved persons’ would call forth the essential humanity of those enslaved, helping students to understand from the beginning the true meaning of slavery. . . .” Geographical terms like “Far East” and “Middle East”—not to mention the term “America” itself—too much reflect their Western derivation.

The syllabus for grades 9 and 10, we are also told, betrays an unintended but real bias when in discussing Africa it states that 45 percent of the continent consists of desert and so is hostile to human migration, whereas Western Europe is described as having a great diversity of geography and climate and it is mentioned that there people have used technology to reshape their physical environment. “Why,” asks the report, “is desert seen as a hostile environment, but not freezing rain and snow?”

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To remedy these flaws and myriad others like them, the committee asserts, a revamping of the whole curriculum, with a far sturdier multicultural underpinning, is essential. And given the fact that, like educators everywhere, the committee’s members subscribe to the idea that there should be no sharp demarcations between and among academic disciplines, it is not only the teaching of social studies that will be revamped in this process. For general guidance, the group recommends seven organizing “concepts.”

First comes the concept “Democracy,” for helping the students to assess the gap between democratic ideals and American reality. Second, there is “Diversity,” under which students are to be helped to make sense of their place in a multicultural world. Third is “Economics and Social Justice,” under which students are to learn the workings of diverse economic systems and the “moral consequences of their own, their neighbors’, and the nation’s actions.” Next “Global-ism” will help students recognize “interdependence and world citizenship”; “Ecological Balance” will do roughly ditto; “Ethics and Values” will lead them to the “pursuit of fairness and search for responsibility”; and “The Individual and Society” will enable them to discover the ways individuals and communities become or refuse to become part of the national culture, or are discouraged from doing so.

Beyond the establishment of this curricular agenda, teaching methods are also to be reformed. They are to be “culturally inclusive”; they are to be based on subject matter representing “diversity and unity within and across groups” and treated as “socially constructed and therefore tentative—as is all knowledge”; and they are to be built on the experience and knowledge that students bring to the classroom. “Multicultural perspectives” should infuse the entire curriculum, from pre-kindergarten through high school, and teaching should “incorporate a range of interactive modes.”

The final section of the report is devoted to guidelines for implementing the committee’s material recommendations, large and small, for transforming both content and mind-set in the teaching of social studies. These are what might have been predicted: school boards must make a serious commitment; new curricula must be developed; assessment procedures must be established; and last but not least, funding must be provided.

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Here, then—despite the many efforts to mask naked meaning behind the cardboard language of committee-speak—is a full compendium of the multiculturalists’ attitudes and ambitions. What they propose to do can be very simply stated. In the name of being inclusive, they mean to skew the entire educational content of public education to serve—and to serve only—their definition of the needs of three minority groups: blacks, Hispanics, and “Native Americans.”2

But the case can be narrowed even further. According to the Task Force on Minorities: Equity and Excellence, there are some 39,000 identifiable “Native Americans” in the state of New York. Double that number would hardly even qualify as a minority. And though few are ever heard to say so, were it not for resentment at the demands for special treatment issued in the name of the black community, the Hispanics would almost certainly be thinking of themselves as no more than among the newest, and hence the least assimilated, of a long line of immigrant groups.

That leaves the blacks, who are, as in the past, the true objects of the exercise. As we have seen, it has from the very beginning been with their problems in mind that the schools have been pushed this way and that, hauled into court, studied and restudied, reformed and re-reformed. The teaching of what the committee euphemistically calls “cultural interdependence”—that is, the doctrine that all cultures are equal—has also been devised with the blacks in mind. Even the dubious, and certainly unproved, notion that studying one’s own ancestral ethnic culture leads to enhanced self-esteem which in turn leads to achievement was lifted straight out of the college black-studies departments (later imitated by women).

Out of a committee of 24 accomplished citizens, of whom twelve were university professors, only two found it in their hearts to dissent from the committee’s assault on the centrality of American culture: Kenneth T. Jackson of Columbia and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. of the City University of New York. This, despite the far from hidden real agenda of multiculturalism, which is not merely to keep the students focused on the particularities of their own group experience but to teach them how very imperfect from its very earliest beginnings has been the society, and the country, in which they live, and how no ethos is to be preferred to any other. The ideas behind this report might be described as the trickling down to the elementary level of the higher academic corruptions of our day.

Once again, then, little black kids are to be used as ideological cannon fodder. And just as black studies in universities have encouraged anxious, perhaps frightened, black students to back off and take themselves out of the game, multiculturalism is likely to put a lid on the little ones altogether.

For all the damage that has been done to them, black children are not fools. Perhaps more than any other children, they know a hustle when they see one. Tell them they are African, and that African civilization is superior to the one that surrounds them, and they will get your message: they have no American future, they are hopeless, fit for nothing but to swell the mob scene of some Reverend Al Sharpton or other.

This is not a new message, it is an old one, only with each succeeding variation it grows more extreme—concluding with the irony that those who imagine blacks to be genetically inferior and those who style themselves their champions are now holding hands across an ever-narrowing chasm.

In that chasm, getting squeezed from both sides, are the only people who can offer those children, or indeed any troubled children, or indeed any children at all, something of what they need: the people who think them worth a real effort to discipline. To be sure, such an effort in school is not—at least not for an ever-increasing number of these children—going to be sufficient. But it is a necessary minimum. And a central part of that discipline is not only the imposition of order and the enforcement of the demand for self-respecting behavior, but the insistence to these children that, whatever was the case with their ancestors, they are the legitimate heirs of a common culture in which the disparate racial and ethnic groups living here come together as Americans, sharing the same national traditions and speaking the same language, and that this common culture must be the name of their desire. For the last thing America’s black children need is a bunch of insensate curriculum-mongers, supported by the ever-complaisant Thomas Sobol and his ilk all across this country, making a virtue of their already desperate alienation.


Footnotes

1 The integrationists could never understand, or at least admit, that “white” was a meaningless term, especially in big cities, where as far as the issue of education was concerned, Jews were one thing, Italians another, the Irish still another. Like their belief in the magic of schooling, the integrationists' avowed belief in the existence of the “white community” would set them on a dangerous course.

2 For polemical purposes, the “Asians,” i.e., Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese, have been included. The dishonesty involved in this is breathtaking: if there are any prizes, academic honors, scholarships left after the Asians have walked off with theirs each year, they are strewn among the ostensibly privileged “Europeans” as crumbs from the table. To borrow from Abraham Lincoln's tribute to Grant, would that all the children felt as excluded as they.

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