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May 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 8

Melting Pot or Mosaic?

In the past, multicultural education often attempted to assimilate new groups into a single American culture. Now, tradition has a rival: cultural pluralism.

In recent years, many educators have supported multicultural education as a way to deal with global interconnectedness and America's increasingly multiethnic population. What is disconcerting is that educators have yet to agree on what multiculturalism really is or how it might affect curriculum and teaching.
Indeed, two different—and diametrically opposed—perspectives of multiculturalism are currently vying for predominance. The goal of cultural pluralism is that ethnic groups will remain intact and that their idiosyncratic ways of knowing and acting will be respected and continued. Assimilationism, on the other hand, accepts the importance of understanding multiple beliefs, but has as its primary goal the amalgamation of all groups into the American mainstream.
Many educators have not recognized the dual philosophies underlying multiculturalism, and the result has been a good deal of confusion in multicultural education. Teachers have thus at times developed curricular materials that are at odds with school district philosophies (Janzen 1992).


American education has traditionally been assimilationist. Educators with this view believe that studying other cultures is worthwhile in that it leads to better relationships among ethnic groups and enables the dominant culture to select and adopt significant non-Western cultural accomplishments.
Assimilationist educators might support bilingual education, but not primarily so that students might maintain and appreciate their own language and culture. Instead, assimilationists value bilingual education as the quickest way for non-English-speaking Americans to become literate in English.
In the 1990s, programs to incorporate all groups into a single culture are likely to try to meet the needs of individual students and accommodate their idiosyncratic backgrounds. Educators structure activities in such a way that all newcomers eventually melt together in the pot.
Assimilationists know, however, that their position is under attack. They fear the strength and solidarity of cultural pluralism, and sometimes they sharply deplore what they see as its end result. Jarolimek (1988), for example, declared: Ironically, the once popular concept of America as a “melting pot” is now sweepingly derided by intellectuals at a time when it is closer to reality than before.... Teaching an attachment to one's own ethnic identity should be kept within reasonable limits.

Cultural Pluralism

To cultural pluralists, having one set of cultural principles amounts to imperialism toward minority groups. Multiculturalism, this group believes, should not only develop appreciation for the perspectives of others, but should sustain a value-tolerant acceptance of diverse cultural understandings, belief systems, customs, and (perhaps) sociopolitical traditions.
Horace Kallen formulated the notion of cultural pluralism in 1915. In a series of Nation articles (Gordon 1964), Kallen reasoned that “democracy for the individual must, by extension, also mean democracy for groups.”
  • Every culture has its own internal coherence, integrity, and logic;
  • No culture is inherently better or worse than another; and
  • All persons are to some extent culturally bound.
Pluralist educational experiences promote the value of retaining cultures, not simply tolerating them or melting them down (Pizzillo 1983, Banks 1988). Pluralist teachers and their students try to construct meaning together and thereby create an empowering environment (Tiedt and Tiedt 1990).

Points of Contention

Many educators and community leaders acknowledge that pluralism has helped make Americans aware of their past denigration of non-Anglo-Saxon cultures, but fear that cultural pluralism's acceptance of many religious, social, and political perspectives will lead to a fragmented society (Schlesinger 1991, Howe 1991). (Cultural pluralism is not, however, altogether separatist. Many of its adherents value national unity and equal interaction among ethnic groups.)
The contest between traditions in multiculturalism is also an absolutist versus relativist disagreement. Americans have historically subscribed to principles of constitutional democracy, which are grounded in the Judeo-Christian heritage. Defenders of this tradition dislike relativistic approaches that encourage individuals in ethnic groups to “be who they are,” even if being who they are means supporting a divergent interpretation of democratic ideals and practices (Bowers 1987).
Historical judgments are yet another zone of contention. While assimilationists say that they welcome new historical views, they do not always accept as fact curriculum with a “multiple perspective.” For example, in The Disunity of America (1991), Arthur Schlesinger Jr. noted that scholars dispute Asa Hilliard's Afrocentric studies series, which identifies Egyptians as black Africans and maintains that Greek civilization was dependent on Egypt.

A Double Bind for Teachers

Confusion has arisen as schools have asked social science teachers to infuse pluralist multiculturalism into their courses at the same time that they tell them to produce graduates who are culturally literate in the traditional sense. Additional confusion stems from the reality that teachers must make choices among many topics and curriculum materials, which may take either assimilationist or pluralist perspectives.
Take, for example, the western migration of white Americans. Curriculum documents, personal beliefs, and community pressure may demand that social science teachers present white westward migration as a great exploratory achievement that spread civilization from sea to shining sea. James Banks has pointed out, however, that from the perspective of the Lakota people, white settlement represented an “age of doom” and “the end of their people.”
One way to negotiate such a teaching minefield is simple awareness. Teachers, other educators, parent groups, and students need to enter into continued dialogue about the assumptions and interpretations that underlie various multicultural curriculum approaches. For example, in an interchange about the multicultural assumptions in historical accounts of westward migration, teachers and students might discuss this remark from a Native American: Oh, yes, I went to the white man's school, learned to read from school books, newspapers, and the Bible. But in time I found that those were not enough. Civilized people depend too much on man-made printed pages (DeRoche 1988).
Even if we do not reach general consensus about which path of multiculturalism to take, educators and students must understand that different paths exist and that different classroom activities may fall on one or the other pathway. Placing ideas within a conceptual approach encourages students to think critically and make connections among a variety of viewpoints. As we engage in such discussions and analyses, we may ultimately come to a clearer understanding of what multiculturalism means for the curriculum in American schools.

Adler, P. (1974). “Beyond Cultural Identity: Reflections on Cultural and Multicultural Man.” Topics in Culture and Learning 2: 23–40.

Banks, J. (1988). Multiethnic Education: Theory and Practice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Bowers, C. A. (1987). Elements of a Post-Liberal Theory of Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

DeRoche, M. (1988). “Honor the Earth: Learning from Native Americans.” In Teaching Social Studies: Portraits from the Classroom, edited by V. Rogers, A. Roberts, and V. Weinland. Washington, D. C.: National Council for the Social Studies.

Gordon, M. (1964). Assimilation in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Howe, I. (February 18, 1991). “The Value of the Canon.” In New Republic: 40–47.

Janzen, R. (1992). “Social Science Education Philosophical Works, Framework Documents, and Textbooks: An Analysis of the California Scene, 1960–1990.” Doctoral diss., University of Southern California.

Jarolimek, J. (1988). “Born Again Ethnics.” In Voices of Social Education 1937–1987, edited by D. Roselle. New York: MacMillian.

Pizzillo, J. J. (1983). Intercultural Studies. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt.

Schlesinger, A., Jr. (1991). The Disunity of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. Boston: Whittle.

Tiedt, P., and I. M. Tiedt. (1990). Multicultural Teaching: A Handbook of Activities, Information, and Resources. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Rod Janzen has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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