- Ethics Home Page
- About the Center
- Focus Areas
- Contact Us
- Site Index
"The Responsibility for Multicultural Education: An Ethics of Teaching and Learning"
Ethics at Noon, April 27, 2004
I would like to start with the assumption that, at Santa Clara University, our goal is student learning for all students so that they succeed while at SCU and after they graduate. However, there are many demographic trends that make meeting this goal challenging, yet, I would submit, exciting. The world from which our students come and the world they will encounter when they leave Santa Clara is becoming more diverse, and we need to prepare students to succeed in that diverse world. Many of our teaching strategies that worked 10 or 20 years ago might not work as well now for all our students.
Besides, the market-place of higher education is becoming increasingly competitive and challenging. Some relevant facts from a recent report of the American Council on Education (2002): More and more 4-year institutions want: larger freshman classes (60%), better freshmen classes (56%); and more diverse student bodies (52%). Luckily, between 1995 and 2015, 20% more students are projected to enroll in U.S. colleges and universities, reaching 16 million by 2015 (assuming today's college participation rate of about 66%). Also, students of color--traditionally a segment that under-enrolls in college--will represent 80% of the increase in college-aged students between 1995 and 2015. Further, much of this growth is happening in the Western states, which is good news for us. But, institutions of higher education in the Midwest and East are looking to the West to build their ideal freshmen class. Given these demographic trends, it is not surprising that SCU's undergraduate student body has become more diverse in the last 10 years. For example, the percent of ethnic minority students at SCU has increased from 29.1% in 1991 to 37.1% in 2003. Thus, SCU has made significant strides in compositional or numerical diversity. And some of this shift has certainly also been intentional.
Yet, I should point out that compositional diversity, while necessary, is not sufficient, if we are to succeed in our goal of educating all students. We will also need to be more intentional about curricular and interactional diversity. Research following Gordon Allport's Contact hypotheses (for example, Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pederson, and Allen, 1998) and following a social integration hypothesis (Tinto Vincent, 1993) has shown that when institutions only pay attention to crafting a diverse student body but ignore the importance of diversity in course content and in informal interactions, the outcomes are not necessarily positive. Let me provide some examples of these challenging outcomes. The rates of retention vary for subgroups of students. During 1992-1995, the rolling average for freshmen to sophomore retention has been about 91-92% for all major ethnic groups at SCU. These rates have remained unchanged since then. However, higher percentages of European American (75%) and Asian American SCU students graduate (73%) within 4 years compared to (57-69% of) Hispanic Americans and (46-62% of) African American students. Similar patterns hold for graduation within 6 years. One way (certainly by no means is it the only way) of making sense of the lower retention levels of some groups of students is offered by Vincent in his "Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition" (1993). Leaving college before it is time reflects an absence of needed academic and social support and ultimately effective integration into the academic community.
A second example is the events of Winter '04 with the Multicultural Center demands for more space, their T-Shirts and other efforts to publicize their demands, and the anonymous comments posted by students on Dogears.net. These events reflected a lack of consistent communication and misunderstanding among students. When the students did hear each other talk about these issues at the forum that followed, there seemed to be some growth in mutual understanding. And one might ask, why do we wait to have such forums until Dogears-like-events happen?
Another reason for the curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular emphases on diversity is that, as per research, everyone benefits. Educational researchers (Humphreys, 1998; Astin, 1993; Bowen & Bok, 1998; Milem, 1994) have demonstrated that an integrated approach to diversity is associated with widespread beneficial effects fo all students (irrespective of race/ethnic background). It improves their cognitive, affective development, racial understanding, satisfaction with college experience, sense of community, and civic participation: all qualities, one could agree, that will help them succeed in college as well as in a diverse, globalizing world.
So, now one might ask, if all students benefit from a diverse environment, shouldn't diversity be everyone's responsibility? Unfortunately, on many campuses, diversity education is often the responsibility of faculty/staff/students of color. SCU is slowly becoming an exception. I would contend for the reasons mentioned above that educating for and in diversity should be everybody's responsibility.
How then do we make our work--teaching, for example--more diverse? I offer three simple strategies for your consideration. The goal is to capitalize on what we already do, but do it differently. When possible, using class material that captures as many students' experiences is one way to keep students connected to and invested in their learning. No doubt, this might not be possible in some disciplines (the hard sciences come to mind). But, doesn't teaching happen outside the classroom as well? Paying attention to the different learning styles and needs of students of color and non-traditional students might go a long way in helping these students succeed. SCU's Bridge Program, advising tips for faculty who have first generation college student advisees (prepared by the Drahmann Center based on research conducted by my colleague Dr. Laura Nichols) are some ways in which SCU is diversifying its learning environment. Another strategy that has been found to be effective is to create as diverse groups as possible when students work on team projects. Rossin and Hyland (2003) have demonstrated that this form of class-based interaction improves student's cultural sensitivity and tolerance.
In these simple, but significant ways, we can begin to legitimize our diverse interactions, our learning, and ultimately our community (following Lave and Wenger's "legitimate peripheral participation"). Also, we can all begin to take responsibility and ownership for multicultural education and benefit from such an intentional multicultural environment.
In the final analysis, a SCU which is genuinely and intentionally multicultural, would be an institution that provides its members a diverse group environment where there is active participation in the diverse environment and where social and cultural awareness is an implicit and legitimate academic norm.
Allport, Gordon. 1954/1979. The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Allison-Wesley.
American Council on Education (ACE) and American Association of University
American Council on Education (ACE). 2002a. "Making the Case for
Affirmative Action in Higher Education."
American Council on Education (ACE). 2002b. Minorities in Higher Education
American Educational Research Association (AERA). 2000. Compelling
Astin, Alexander. 1993. What Matters in College? : Four Critical Years
Ball, Howard, S.D. Berkowitz, and Mbulelo Mzamane. 1998. Multicultural
Bowen, William G. and Derek Bok. 1998. The Shape of the River: Long-Term
Churchill, Ward. 1995. "White Studies: The Intellectual Imperialism
of U.S. Higher
Fernandez, Marilyn, Laura Nichols, and Charles Powers. 2002. "Diversity
Gurin, P., Eric L. Dey, Sylvia Hurtado, and Gerald Gurin. 2002. "Diversity
Humphreys, Debra. 1999. "Campus Diversity and Student Self-Segregation:
Humphreys, Debra. 1998. "Diversity and The College Curriculum: How
Hurtado, Sylvia, Jefferey Milem, Alma Clayton-Pederson, and Walter Allen,
Kalogrides, Demetra. 2003. "Multicultural Transformation at Santa
Lave, Jean and Etienne Wenger. 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate
Milem, Jeffery. 1994. "College, Students, and Racial Understanding."
Thought and Action (9)
Milem, Jeffery. 2000. "The Educational Benefits of Diversity: Evidence
from Multiple Sectors." In Compelling Interest: Examining the
Evidence on Racial Dynamics in Higher
Rossin, David and Terry Hyland. 2003. "Group Work-based Learning
withing Higher Education:
Vincent, Tinto. 1993. Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures
of Student Attrition. 2nd
Many people, both within and outside of educational institutions, think of multiculturalism as solely a matter of demographics and/or politics; in fact, some see it as solely a matter of "political correctness" (a loaded and usually dismissive term).
I'd like to argue that multiculturalism and multicultural education are at least as much matters of ethics as of politics. I believe that it is the responsibility of all educators to think seriously about the goals, theories, practices, and future of multiculturalism. Multicultural education is important not only to help our students live and work successfully in an increasingly diverse and multicultural nation and a globalized world, but also to help us and our students understand and embrace our responsibilities, as educated people, to help heal a world often fractured by differences rather than enriched by them.
It wasn't that long agoand during many of our lifetimesthat most curricula and classes, in both K-12 schools and universities, focused primarily on historical events shaped by white men, scientific discoveries made by white men, philosophies constructed by white men, and literary and artistic works created by white men.
Since at least the late 1960s, this normative maleness and whitenesswhich went unacknowledged and passed for the "universal"have been challenged by the development of ethnic studies, women's and gender studies, and multiculturalism.
In turn, syllabi, anthologies, curricula, and scholarly conferences and journals have changed to include a far more diverse array of writers, texts, voices, experiences, traditions, and communities than had been true even 10, let alone 20 or 30 years ago. As Professor Fernandez has demonstrated, the student bodyboth in universities and in K-12 educationhas become much more diverseculturally, ethnically, linguistically, experientially, socioeconomically. While these changes have not been nearly as great in the demographics of college faculty as of college students, and while some faculty and some disciplines have been more influenced by the move toward muticulturalism than others, for the most part, what is taughtto whom and by whomis very different in 2004 than it was in 1960.
What is multiculturalism? The OED defines "multicultural" as "pertaining to a society consisting of varied cultural groups." Is multiculturalism simply the co-existence of different cultures within a larger culture that may or may not subsume them? Is multiculturalism in education simply synonymous with ethnic and racial diversity (of students and faculty, in syllabi, curricula, and departments)? Or is a commitment to multicultural education also an ethical and political commitment, and a commitment to critical and/or transformative pedagogy?
Defining and assessing "multiculturalism" require us to define "culture," a notoriously difficult task. But let me provide a fairly typical definition. The American Heritage Dictionary (2000) defines "culture" as "the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought" or "these patterns, traits, and products considered as the expression of a particular period, class, community or population."
Clearly, using these and many similar definitions, not only does the
"global village" include a vast array of cultures, but so does
the U.S., California, Silicon Valley, and Santa Clara University. As Professor
Fernandez has already said, we all inhabit a multicultural world, both
locally and globally. But the terms "multicultural" and "multiculturalism"
have had a more specific and contested history as used in the United States
over the last 20-30 years and as used in education.
In academic settings, the term "multicultural" has sometimes been used to mean "multiracial" or "multi-ethnic," even as a synonym for "racialized," "non-white," or "including people of color," as in "we have a multicultural student population." I agree with Susan Stanford Friedman that such a use of "multiethnic, multiracial, and multicultural to refer only to people of color . . . reinforces the racist notion that whiteness or Euro-Americanness is a 'natural' identity, not a social construct" (Mappings 37). After all, it is certainly not only people of color who "have" race or ethnicity. Whiteness is a racial identity too, and white people, like "Asian Americans" come from a variety of different nations, histories, traditions, and ethnicities.
Whiteness, however, has not just been one racial identity among others, since we live in a country in which racism and white privilege have long existed and still exist (see, e.g., Peggy McIntosh). Whiteness, like African-Americanness, is what Michael Omi and Howard Winant call a "racial formation" and one contribution of multicultural theory has been to make whiteness visible. This visibility opens up a space for analysis both of whiteness itself and of the relations between white people and people of color. Such analyses of relationality (as theorized by Friedman) can help break down seemingly fixed borders between white people and people of color, as we realize that we are all someone's "other" and all "different" from lots of others.
Some use the term "multicultural" to mean "pluralistic" or culturally diverse, or simply as including a variety of cultures (however such "cultures" are defined), as in the phrase "American society is multicultural." A commitment to this form of multiculturalism does not necessarily connote an attention to systems and structures of inequality or to issues of social justice. But even this acknowledgment of the multicultural realities of the worlds we inhabit and shape is preferable to a blind belief in or nostalgia for an illusory monoculture, the supposedly "common" culture whose demise conservative critics variously blame on feminists, multiculturalists, 60s student radicals, and/or postmodernistsoften not distinguishing between them.
For some, "multiculturalism" suggests an interest in and celebration of a diverse array of experiences, communities, and traditionsspecifically those of previously subordinated, disempowered, and/or marginalized ethnic or racial groups. For instance, I'm sure SCU is not alone in having regular events like "Multicultural Week," in which student groups organized around racial and ethnic identitiesFilipino, Asian Pacific, Chicano, African-Americancelebrate the food, dance, music, and dress of their cultures.
Such events can be culturally affirming for members of these groups, and can entice some people who are not members of these groups to learn at least a little about cultures other than their own. However, this form of "multiculturalism" can be an invitation to mere "cultural tourism" rather than to genuine multicultural engagement or education. And such cultural tourism on campus or in the classroom can have two very different effects, neither one ethically or educationally ideal. On the one hand, it can reinforce exoticism and what Edward Said termed "Orientalism"seeing "the other" as irremediably and essentially different from (and usually inferior to) oneself or one's own culture. Or it can reflect the liberal idea of "tolerance" of others unlike oneself. "Tolerance," while obviously preferable to its opposite, is nonetheless a problematic idea, since it implies the superiority of the tolerator to the tolerated. Rather than reifying or effacing difference, effective multiculturalism needs to be based on a more radically ethical idea of acknowledging and respecting alteritynot only the differences between others and ourselves, but the differences within all of us, as we occupy different roles and identities at different times.
How do we move beyond an unthreatening (and ethically unchallenging) view of "multiculturalism" as primarily this spectatorial interest in or tolerance of cultures we still see as irremediably different? This move is an ethical necessity as well as a political one.
In their reconception of such a radically ethical and politically effective multiculturalism, Christopher Newfield and Avery Gordon, in Mapping Multiculturalism, distinguish between what they call "weak" and "strong" multiculturalism. For Newfield and Gordon "weak multiculturalism" grows out of the ideology of "assimilationist pluralism," in which, although multiple groups are acknowledged, the final goal is that "multiple groups are subsumed into a single whole." This is similar to the oft-used but passé metaphor of "the melting pot." They advocate instead a "strong multiculturalism," that relies on "strong versions of cultural pluralism, like the 1970s multiculturalism developed largely by people of color," which "tried to rehabilitate pluralism as an alternative to assimilationism" and . . . argued in favor of cultural equal time and a redistribution of institutional space and power" (81-82).
Gordon and Newfield, like some other recent theorists of multiculturalism, emphasize the political challenges and opportunities of such "strong multiculturalism." I also think such strong multiculturalism offers opportunities and challenges in the realm of ethics. How do we conceive of ethical relations to individual or collective "others"? What roles do seeing (or imagining) similarities vs. acknowledging and embracing differences play in establishing ethical relations?
As teachers committed to multiculturalism, we can both emphasize the need to recognize and respect differences and also acknowledge the need to find common ground with those unlike ourselves (in terms of many cultural and other identities). We can emphasize similarities and relations between and among groups (and not only groups defined by race or ethnicity) as well as differences. We can help our students think critically about the world they live in, including systems of power and privilege that impede progress toward a more egalitarian and humane society. Such matters are pedagogical challenges as well as ethical and political ones.
I'm often surprised how many of my studentslike many others of their generationthink we have moved past all forms of inequality, particularly gender and racial inequalityalthough this view is held much more often by white male students than by white female students or students of color. It's important for educators to highlight the significant changes and progress that have been made in the last few decades in gender and racial relationsespecially but not only to reinforce hope and a belief in the possibility of change. But it's also important to highlight how much remains to be done. Unequal treatment, unequal opportunities, unequal resources, unequal access, still persist.
The concept of tikkun olam or repairing the world through social action is one that is central to Judaism, and it has its analogues in many other religious and/or ethical traditions as well. For Jews, tikkun olam is an expression of compassion and a desire to become more righteous and just. To work toward repair of the world, we first have to acknowledge that the world is in need of repair. Clearlyand unfortunatelyinequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia still exist, not only in the U.S. but also around the globe.
A genuine education must be one that better enables us all to understand and deal with differences as well as commonalities. Effective multicultural education entails an ethical commitment to work toward the repair of the world. As educators, we have an ethical obligation to help equip our students not only to live and work in an increasingly diverse and multicultural world but also to join us in trying to make that world more just and peaceful.
Friedman, Susan Stanford. Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998.
---. "Beyond White and Other: Relationality and Narratives of Race in Feminist Discourse." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 21.1 (1995): 1-41.
Gordon, Avery F., and Christopher Newfield, eds. Mapping Multi-Culturalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
McIntosh, Peggy. "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal
Account of Coming to See
Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1999s. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1978.