Friday, November 13, 2009

ARE WE ALL MULTICULTURALIST YET?

I am amused and annoyed by the last quarter-century’s educational fondness for multiculturalism, a modern doctrine derived from a nineteenth-century, northwestern European idea for the bias-free study of other cultures—an idea alien to them. The irony is lost on its true believers in the socially therapeutic virtue of the doctrine implemented in education. In theory, the idea sounds good: studying and celebrating other cultures promote pride in one’s heritage and appreciation of others’. But because studying and celebrating are two different things, in practice, multiculturalism becomes superficial in serving political ends.

Sometimes multiculturalism may be harmless in its superficiality. Some educators think it is well served by textbooks with pictures of people of different colors and dress. Others include in their instruction selected artifacts of another culture without regard to their context. Years ago, a fellow teacher embarked upon a study of American Indian poems and stories. Learning that I had a record of some Navajo music, he wanted to play it for his class. I cautioned that, without a cultural context to make it meaningful, it would not prove educational; he thought otherwise. When his students became restless after about 15 seconds, he stopped playing it. I hope that his edified and enlightened students do not want Indians confined to reservations, but I worry that they think them cultural primitives having for music only grunts and yips accompanied by scratchy rattles. So much for the Yeibichei ceremony, with its dances and chants to alleviate a sufferer’s illness or pain.

Sometimes multiculturalism is not harmless in its superficiality. Not a few educators truncate or distort European and American culture because they regard it as too old, too white, too male. Thus, political correctness costs us a general appreciation—I do not mean total approbation—of the culture of our country.

When the educational purpose of multiculturalism study is to celebrate other cultures, it requires teachers to assume a positive judgment of them and to include only facts which reinforce that judgment and to exclude those which do not. The result is a distorted, sanitized view of other cultures which includes what we find aesthetically attractive like their decorative arts, dress, dance, music, and the like; and excludes what we find morally repugnant like clitorectomies, incest, and infanticide. In short, we appreciate or deprecate in other cultures what accords or not with the biases of our culture—not multiculturalism at all.

I have a fondness for Navaho art but am mindful that Navajos once trained infants not cry by briefly but, as necessarily, repeatedly smothering them when they did until they learned not to. Even when teachers explain the purpose of this practice—survival in concealment from hostile forces—many students cannot overcome their repugnance. Likewise, I admire Comanches as the best horsemen, hunters, and leatherworkers on the Great Plains after they acquired horses from the Spaniards, but remember that they were the most feared of all western tribes because of their expertise and enjoyment in torturing their captives. Teachers who praise Comanches for their adaptability to new circumstances omit their allegiance to old customs.

The antidote to cultural distance is something like immersion. My example is my teaching a long narrative poem written about a minor event in the higher echelons of Catholic society in early eighteenth-century London to a class of 17-year-old boys 250 years later. By snipping a lock of hair from a noblewoman whom he adored, a love-besotted baron prompted a quarrel between their families. In an effort to make peace, the poet wrote a mock epic poem to trivialize and laugh at the episode and thus humor them out of their peevishness. The poem failed to restore social peace but succeeded to establish itself as a minor masterpiece.

Without benefit of intensive study, I read, or perhaps dozed through, it as a high school senior and as a college sophomore. But I decided to teach it to find out why it had its high reputation. I said so to my students, and I think that my forthrightness mattered to them. Then we set to work. I skip the details except to say that we learned the relevant conventions of the mock epic and the features of the heroic couplet, and found examples of them. All the while, we were slowly reading our way through the poem and learning some social and cultural history as we went. By the time we got to the line, “When lovers, or when lapdogs, breathe their last,” they laughed in appreciation of its multi-faceted humor. Among other questions, the year-end class evaluation asked students which works they had enjoyed most and least. To my astonishment, over half my juniors reported that “The Rape of the Lock” was their favorite work.

It took me a while to understand what this meant for curriculum and instruction: multiculturalism requires, not exposure to, but mastery of, the material. If it requires this much work for Vietnam-era juniors to enter into, experience, and enjoy vicariously the cultural and social world of eighteenth-century London Catholic society, perhaps, for many reasons, we should be effectively unicultural, though more inclusive as we move into the modern period, before we embark on eclectic and superficial multiculturalism.

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