Guest Column

To Value Diversity, Begin With a True View of Past


Faced with increasing cultural diversity in their classrooms and growing attention to the need for multicultural education, educators need to know and understand how American schools have viewed and addressed cultural diversity in the past. With that knowledge, they can better serve the students in today’s classrooms.

Most conservative educators and social historians paint a romanticized portrait of American schooling--one that suggests public schools long have honored diversity and downplayed intellectual or social conformity. The result is a mostly fictitious view of the past that offers no insight into what the school’s relationship with culturally diverse students should be and how educators should approach multicultural education.

Guaranteeing Failure
From the beginning of organized public schooling in this country, educators "understood" that some of the schools’ immigrant children were naturally inferior. For example, the 19th century common school theoretically was open to all children, yet it did not necessarily include either black children or white children who held religious beliefs apart from the majority of the day, such as Irish Catholics.

In his book Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860, Carl Kaestle, education historian and professor of education at Brown University, says people at the time believed that human potential was limited by race, ethnicity and gender. The prevalent view among educators then was that no amount of education would change the inherent inferiority of some children.

The common school curriculum complemented this view. One of the widely used textbooks at the time was geographer Jesse Olney’s 1836 edition of the Practical System of Modern Geography. The following are sample "facts" from that text, which teachers expected students to learn: "The Irish in general are quick of apprehension, active, brave and hospitable, but passionate, ignorant, vain and superstitious." The Italians are "affable and polite, but they are effeminate, superstitious, slavish and revengeful." South American Creoles are "naturally indolent, and altogether averse to serious thought and deep reflection." Negroes are "destitute of intelligence."

This intolerance continued into the early 1900s, when immigrants were described as hordes of "dirty, smelly, ignorant" masses, set apart by their differentness. In the 1962 book Education and the Cult of Efficiency, Raymond Callahan, director of the liberal studies program at the University of Delaware, explained that the dominant cultural ideology of the early 20th century was one of extreme assimilation. He says the efficiency and scientific management movement in schools--preparing students for work through tracking and extreme sorting and selecting--all but guaranteed that the bulk of these immigrant children would be identified as best suited for slots near the bottom of the occupational hierarchy.

Creating a New History
Valuing diversity in the school is not merely about building self-esteem and group identity, as some conservative commentators today are prone to argue. Nor is true multicultural education embodied in the trivial approach to diversity that most schools take.

The history of American education, as well as critical analyses of contemporary schooling, show unequivocally that public education’s charge to help students acquire the knowledge and skills that enable them to think for themselves and facilitate their social and economic success has not included all students.

To better understand the present and what multicultural education should be, we must acknowledge that in various ways, intellectual or social conformity always has been a goal and a trait of both American society and schooling. Although educators as a group do not have a history of valuing diversity, they can begin creating that history now.

Clark Robenstine is associate professor of educational leadership, University of South Alabama, UCOM 3850, Mobile, AL 36688-0002. E-mail: