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May 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 8

On Educating for Diversity: A Conversation with James A. Banks

    James A. Banks explains how to “transform the mainstream” so that all students function better in their home communities as well as in the larger world.

      James A. Banks explains how to “transform the mainstream” so that all students function better in their home communities as well as in the larger world.
      You often speak and write about three orientations to multicultural education: the contributions, additive, and transformative approaches. You obviously think the transformative approach is better, but the other two are far more common, aren't they?
      They are—and that may be all right. Many of the school systems I work with that are at the additive and contributions stages see their current efforts as prerequisite to moving farther. They start with contributions—you know, Black Day, Indian Morning, and Jewish Afternoon. I used to be critical of that, but I've come to see that you've got to start somewhere. I was criticizing the contributions approach one day when a teacher said to me, “I just wish we had days that recognized contributions. I'd be proud if we could just do Martin Luther King Day.”
      So I'm more sympathetic to the contributions approach now. I think it's OK to start with Black History Month, as long as you don't stop there. And I think it's fine to start by adding good books to the existing curriculum—let's say, Let the Circle Be Unbroken by Mildred Taylor (1981) to 5th grade language arts. You can't transform the curriculum overnight. It took 300 years to get the current curriculum structure—the Renaissance, the Middle Ages—and it's going to take a long time to transform the current curriculum into new patterns.
      Transformed to what? What does a transformed curriculum look like?
      What I mean by transformation is helping kids to look at reality differently. For example, you can put Indians into the curriculum without really changing its structure. What Indians do you add? Typically, we add Sacajawea and other “good” Indians to the curriculum. But if you really transform the curriculum—change its perspectives, change its assumptions—you might study Geronimo, who challenged the social and political structure.
      Another example I often give is “the Westward Movement.” Westward to whom? It wasn't westward to the Lakota Sioux; for them, it was their homeland, the center of the universe. And, of course, it wasn't west to the Mexicans, who considered it north, or the Alaskans, for whom it was south, and so on. I think kids should talk about the many meanings of “the west”—what it meant for different people.
      Now, this is not to debunk the people who went west, or to make anyone feel guilty. It's to help kids understand that when some people went west, other people were already there. To the Lakota Sioux, the settlers were not heroic pioneers but invaders. We may not see them that way, but that's how others saw them.
      So the idea is to look at a topic that is an established part of the curriculum and think about it from other points of view.
      Yes, to reconceptualize it.
      I can see how this applies to social studies, and to the arts and humanities, but does it apply to other curriculum areas?
      Not to all, but the broader aspects of multicultural education apply to all subjects, all teaching. For example, a physics teacher may be able to do something with content transformation, but not much. What may be more appropriate for the physics teacher is “equity pedagogy.” By that I mean changing teaching strategies so that girls and kids of color will learn more effectively.
      A good example of equitable pedagogy is the work of Philip Treisman at Berkeley. Treisman noticed that the Chinese students were doing well in freshman calculus but that black students weren't. These were very bright kids—Berkeley gets only the best—so he decided to try to find out what they were doing differently. He found that the Chinese-American students were helping each other in tutorial study groups, so he structured groups like that for African-American students, and sure enough, they increased their academic achievement in calculus.
      When we hear the term “multicultural education,” many people think only of curriculum content, but you're saying it also includes such things as teaching for equity and working to reduce prejudice.
      That makes sense, although for this conversation we'll probably focus mostly on curriculum. For example, Rod Janzen (See “Melting Pot or Mosaic,” p. 9), says there are two ways of defining multicultural education: one emphasizing assimilation of multiple cultures into a common American curriculum, the other emphasizing pluralism, or what some call a cultural mosaic. Do you agree there are these two perspectives, and that teachers get caught in the crossfire between them?
      The two perspectives certainly exist, but I don't think it's such a dichotomy. The goal is to help kids function in their home communities—their ethnic communities—and in the mainstream world; they have to do both. And we do that by transforming the mainstream—the center—so that it accepts some differences. Everybody has to make some accommodations; students should read Langston Hughes, but also Charles Dickens and Robert Frost.
      As a black growing up in the South, I had to change—but I didn't have to give up all that I was. In my segregated school, we sang the National Anthem each morning and then the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” We knew we needed both.
      I've heard you say that including more material from a wider range of cultures doesn't mean we're neglecting Shakespeare and Benjamin Franklin, but there is really only so much time available to teach history and literature. If you're going to do more of one thing, you have to do less of something else.
      Not necessarily. Maybe you rethink what you're doing. For example, at a museum in Germany last summer, I saw a painting of a black Madonna, which reflects a black presence in early Europe. That made me realize that, in history, we need to know more about the African intersections with Europe. Africans influenced Western civilization in many ways. For example, Picasso's work was heavily influenced by African art.
      A book by Jack Weatherford called Indian Giver (1988) describes how Native American contributions to Western Civilization transformed the world. Another is called Native Roots (1991) which describes how the Indians enriched America. Such books help us see interconnections between cultures. I don't think it's either/or.
      I can see why you say that in many cases we need to transform design of the curriculum. If you're doing the traditional survey of English literature, it's going to be hard to incorporate other cultures. You're stuck with Chaucer, Keats, and Shelley, and so on.
      Yes, but as Toni Morrison points out in her book, Playing in the Dark (1992), even the absence of blacks in some of these major works makes a statement about the black presence. Morrison argues that the identity of whites was formed to contrast to the black population. For example, whites were able to describe themselves as free because blacks were enslaved. White was defined as beautiful, and black as ugly. Morrison's point is that even the absence of blacks in white mainstream literature makes a statement about the black presence. When studying works in which the black presence is not explicit, the teacher can help students to identify ways in which blacks are implicitly present and why their presence is implicit rather than obvious.
      That suggests another controversial topic. In recent years, some educators have set out to reorganize the entire curriculum around the culture of the particular students they're teaching. The prime example of that, of course, is Afrocentric curriculum. Is there a danger in such a relatively narrow approach?
      Here's my feeling on that. Given the desperate situation of black males and blacks in general in this society, I think we need some dramatic experimentation. I don't need to go over the litany of statistics; everybody knows we have a major crisis—and we don't know what to do about it. As long as innovative approaches are constitutional and as long as they don't hurt kids, we ought to give them a chance.
      I visited an Afrocentric school in Detroit—the Paul Robeson School—which, by the way, had some girls enrolled—and I was deeply touched by what they are doing. They're taking young black kids who live in an inner-city community plagued by poverty, crime, drugs, and gang activity, and they're giving them security, pride, and hope. Those of us not directly involved in schools have to be supportive of people who are struggling in the trenches to make a difference.
      A movement that seems closely related to multicultural education is global education, but I know you distinguish between the two. How?
      They're similar in many ways, but one emphasizes cultures of other lands, while the other deals with ethnic diversity within the United States. Both are needed. They both have important goals. But confusing the two can lead to avoidance of critical concerns: we try to get teachers to teach about the internment of the Japanese Americans in World War II; they do a nice unit on Japan. We encourage them to deal with the barrio in Los Angeles, and they do a nice unit on Mexico. I've seen it happen over and over.
      They are connected, though, aren't they?
      Sure, you can make a connection. But that connection must be made explicit. If you want to know the difference, talk to Japanese Americans who have visited Japan. They're not Japanese; they're as much foreigners as you and I are. I'm going to Africa for the first time this coming summer, and, as Maya Angelou described the experience in her wonderful book, All God's Children Got Traveling Shoes (1986), I expect to be reminded of how American I really am.
      I wanted to ask a question about acceptance of cultural differences. I've been reading recently about an international movement to ban so-called female circumcision, a horrible practice, which opponents describe as genital mutilation. Defenders of the practice say it's traditional in their cultures, so critics should mind their own business. In light of what you've just said, that example may not be appropriate, because it is primarily international. Still, it is a striking illustration of the problem of differing cultural values.
      I welcome the opportunity to clarify where I stand on matters like that. Our critics misinterpret multiculturalism by claiming we are cultural relativists. Nowhere in my writing, or in the writing of other multicultural educators, do we advocate cultural relativism. Rather, we make a strong, unequivocal commitment to democracy, to basic American values of justice and equality. And that means that values that contradict justice and equality are not acceptable.
      But educators do sometimes imply cultural relativism in the language they use. With the best of intentions, educators declare their intent to teach “respect for and acceptance of other cultures.”
      Yes, goals like that are unfortunate, because they cause misunderstanding and provoke abuse from the critics. Taking such language literally would mean having respect for Nazi Germany.
      But how can we say it without being misunderstood? Opponents of outcome-based education in Pennsylvania objected strongly to the word “tolerance.” I've always considered tolerance a lukewarm term. Surely we can do better than simply tolerate one another—although even that mild word was objected to by some religious conservatives who said it implied, among other things, acceptance of homosexuality.
      Banks: Conservatives are citizens too, of course, and they have a right to express their views in a public forum. However, the right by a group to express its views within a democracy does not mean that all views should have equal power to influence the civic community. In a democratic, just society, all views cannot have equal weight. Views and opinions that violate the human rights of others, such as gay people, cannot be sanctioned or tolerated in a democracy. In a democracy, we must take a strong stand and defend equality and justice for all groups, no matter how stigmatized they are within society, because as Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
      I'm intrigued and troubled by the problem of conservative objections to multicultural education. It's very complicated because religious conservatives believe there is a correct way to think and they do not want their children to be taught, for example, to condone religions other than their own.
      I agree it's a difficult problem. However, schools are public institutions that should promote the common good and the overarching values of the nation-state. While we value diversity and are committed to that ideal, the diversity that we value must exist within the framework of American democratic values. Gunnar Myrdal calls this framework the American Creed in his study published in 1944, An American Dilemma. Myrdal points out that American values include justice, equality, and human rights. Our national values also include the right to freedom of expression and freedom of choice. Many of the religious conservatives deny these rights to others, and consequently violate some of the basic values of our democratic legacy.
      Cultural freedom and democracy can exist only within the framework of an overarching consensus of values. If cultural freedom has no bounds, then the center cannot hold and national unity becomes threatened. Democratic societies are quite fragile.

      Angelou, M. (1986). All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes. New York: Random House.

      Morrison, T. (1992). Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

      Myrdal, G., R. M. E. Sterner, and A. M. Rose. (1944). An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. New York: Harper.

      Taylor, M. D. (1981). Let the Circle Be Unbroken. New York: Penguin Books.

      Weatherford, J. M. (1988). Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. New York: Crown Publishers.

      Weatherford, J. M. (1991). Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America. New York: Fawcett Columbine.

      Education writer and consultant Ron Brandt is the former editor of Educational Leadership and other publications of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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