Multicultural Education: A Force for Equality, Freedom, and the Common Good

By Andrew Ntim


2014 marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled the “separate but equal” clause of 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson case unconstitutional, and later ordered schools to begin integrating with “all deliberate speed” (Rothstein 1). Brown, however, was only a precursor to the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and early 60s. But now, decades after the historic decision, it seems we have reached a crossroads. For the first time in our nation’s history, minorities – including African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans – outnumber whites in K-12 public schools (Strauss 1). Yet minority students still fall far behind white students, and our schools remain considerably more segregated today than they were in 1968 (Rothstein 2). More than ever before, now is the time to explore, reassess, and address how our education system succeeds – or fails – in educating our most disadvantaged students. In this paper, I will attempt to do exactly that, exploring Arendt’s conception of the meaning of education, how our current racial achievement gap has illustrated our failure in providing it, and possible solutions from the realm of multicultural education policy.

In the eyes of author and political theorist Hannah Arendt, there are two key requirements that society has in educating its youth. The first of these, as noted in her essay “The Crisis in Education,” is to “prepare [children] in advance for the task of renewing a common world” (196). Our society, or “common world” as Arendt describes it, is one in a constant state of flux. Because of the perpetual arrival of immigrants, new births, and advances in technology, our society exists not as a stable state of being, but rather a state of “becoming,” much like that of children themselves (187). Thus, in order to ensure that our society can survive, Arendt believes we must also ensure that our descendants – those that will eventually come to replace us – have the capability of “renewing” it, or contributing to the social and political spheres when they come to replace current citizens. Education, in providing our youth with knowledge of civics and critical thinking skills, serves to initiate the young into these public realms, hopefully creating future responsible and politically minded citizens in the process.

Hannah Arendt, German-born American political theorist and author. (Photo credit to The New Yorker.)

Hannah Arendt, German-born American political theorist and author. (Photo credit to The New Yorker.)

But according to Arendt, this introduction to the social and political spheres that education provides is not enough. Rather, in educating its students, a society must also be responsible “for the development of the child, physical as well as psychological” (qtd. in Topolski 266). For insight as to what this “development of the child” might entail, we may wish to look to French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. In her Ethics of Ambiguity, for example, she describes the discovery of others as one of the key aspects in a child’s development. The infantile world, she asserts, is one of absolutes: values, beliefs, and opinions are but “given facts” to young children, rather than something to challenge and argue for (35). However, “from childhood on, flaws begin to be revealed in [this way of thinking]. With astonishment, revolt and disrespect the child little by little asks himself, ‘Why must I act that way? What good is it? And what will happen if I act in another way?’ He discovers his subjectivity; he discovers that of others” (38-39). It is this learned subjectivity and acceptance of otherness, de Beauvoir argues, that separates an authentic, free individual from a “sub-man,” and therefore must be integrated into one’s psychological development (44). Thus, education that provides students with the ability to realize their freedom must provide for exposure to the truth of the world around the student, along with introduction into the social and political spheres, such that the young can come to understand – as well as respect – that of the “other.”

Still, regardless of our many efforts throughout the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, this ideal of education is far from realized in our society. To illustrate this clearly, we can look to the harsh reality of the racial achievement gap as it exists in America today. In 2013, for example, the average 17-year-old black student had reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress that were 29 points lower than that of an average white student, and math scores 30 points lower, equating to a nearly four-year difference in mathematical and reading skills (Lee 1). While major reductions in this gap have been made since the Civil Rights Movement, it is obvious that there is still much work to do. In particular, the past two decades have seen a considerable slowing – and in some cases, an even more worrying reversal – of progress in narrowing the gap (Barton and Coley 6).

Chart showing difference in NAEP Math and Reading scores between black and white students. Significant narrowing of this gap occurred until the late 1980s, but progress seems to have all but stagnated since. (Photo credit to Educational Testing Service.)

Chart showing difference in NAEP Math and Reading scores between black and white students. Significant narrowing of this gap occurred until the late 1980s, but progress has all but stagnated since. (Photo credit to Educational Testing Service.)

In order to understand how to narrow this gap, and in the process realize Arendt’s ideal conception of education for minority students, we must first understand the reasons behind our past failures in providing it. One of these, according to the Educational Testing Service, is that our educational policies thus far have focused too much on false causes of the gap. Despite popular opinion, the difference in achievement between black and white students is not merely a difference between impoverished and well-off students. Rather, according to researchers Jencks and Phillips, it is much more; socioeconomic differences, including home life, parental education level, income, and overall family environment, can only account for about a third of the gap, while neighborhoods and psychological effects may have a much larger effect (104). Nonetheless, billions of dollars have been spent in the past decades on programs like Head Start and Title I of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which focus almost exclusively on low-income students (Barton and Coley 9-10). As such, these programs, while they have had a measurable effect in raising overall achievement and a small part reducing the achievement gap (David W. Grissmer attributed them, along with overall socioeconomic gains, to about one-third of the narrowing of the gap thus far) have not fully achieved their goals (qtd. in Barton and Coley 8).

What, then, is the true cause of the racial achievement gap in public schools? And how can we serve to counteract it in our endeavor to provide our minority students with the best education possible? For answers to these questions, it would be wise to turn to psychology. According to NYU Associate Professor Joshua Aronson, one of the primary obstacles for minorities in public schools is the psychological phenomena known as the stereotype threat, or anxiety produced by the existence of negative expectations by society (Aronson et al. 87). For an example of how this threat works, one could imagine a minority student called on in class to answer a complex question, or in the midst of an important exam. Aronson asserts that, “As for anyone, low performance in such situations brings with it the risk of discouragement or shame about not doing well. But members of stereotyped groups face an extra threat because of the long-standing and widely proliferated cultural stereotypes alleging a group-based limitation of ability” (Aronson et al. 86).

This effect can be a major deterrent to educational achievement for minority students. The threat of having negative expectations of society confirmed, along with reinforcement of stereotypes from teachers, peers, or school curricula, has the ability to push minority students towards choosing less rigorous classes, speaking up less in classroom discussions, and according to Jason W. Osborne, performing worse in high stakes testing situations such as with the SAT and ACT, where these sorts of anxieties are magnified (304). This, in turn, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy – due to the stereotype threat, minority students underperform in class and on standardized tests, which perpetuates the belief that they have inferior intelligence.

It is obvious that subverting this stereotype threat must be a key part of achieving the ideal form of education that Hannah Arendt dreamed up. Not only does this psychological phenomena prevent equal access to the public and political spheres in its contribution to the racial achievement gapbut it also – by preserving false racial or ethnic presumptions regarding individuals’ capacities – serves to limithe development of de Beauvoir’s conception of subjectivity, stunting psychological growth in the process. The Civil Rights Movement, in its insistence of government respect of minority rights and liberties, was in part an attempt to nullify this and other negative psychological effects on minority achievement. In particular, the process of desegregating the Jim Crow South may have served as a major factor in much of the progress that has been made thus far. Grissmer states that desegregation helped narrow the racial achievement gap nationwide, even when discounting improvements to average class quality for minorities, because desegregation “could have led to a nationwide shift in beliefs, attitudes, and motivation of Black parents and students and their teachers” (qtd. in Barton and Coley 11). Essentially, black students saw that the government and other public institutions were committed to giving them a fair education and motivation and achievement improved as a result. This, in turn, served to reduce the stereotype threat as public belief regarding their academic abilities improved and negative stereotypes eventually began to diminish.

Public school segregation trend. Following large efforts to desegregate in the 1960s and '70s, the share of students in primarily minority students has, for the most part, been creeping upwards. (Graphic credit to Economic Policy Institute)

Public school segregation trend. Following large efforts to desegregate in the 1960s and ’70s, the share of students in primarily minority students has, for the most part, been creeping upwards. (Graphic credit to Economic Policy Institute)

Yet as we look to the resurgence of segregation in schools today, it seems that we are moving further and further from Arendt’s ideal conception of education, and chipping away at the foundation for equality the Civil Rights Movement created. Despite Brown v. Board of Education’s orders 60 years ago, blacks and other minorities are still currently more likely than in the 1970s to live in primarily low-income, minority ghettos, and thus attend highly segregated schools that are almost completely composed of minorities (Smith 27). In much the same way, whites are much more likely to be attending schools with overwhelmingly white student populations than in past decades. This situation, whereby different races lose out on the opportunity to interact with individuals whose cultures and beliefs are dissimilar to their own, lacks the exposure to “otherness” required of Arendt’s conception of education and, according to Richard Rothstein of the Economics Policy Institute, could even explain the stalling of progress in narrowing the racial achievement gap in the past 25 years (Rothstein 5).

This failure to desegregate, however, has not been for lack of trying. Since the Civil Rights movement, state Education Departments across the country have enacted a plethora of desegregation programs, ranging from school busing to housing and private school subsidies (Briggs 203). Still, this battle seems to be one that our society is losing. As many current legislators and education reformers have come to find, providing students with schools that match society’s cultural and racial makeup is a herculean task, fraught with obstacles such as income inequality, changing housing patterns, and convoluted bureaucracy. Furthermore, lack of governmental oversight on these desegregation programs has made it all the more difficult for these programs to achieve their goals (Reardon et. al 879).

In the long-term, changing the composition of schools themselves may be a viable way to bring students in contact with otherness, but it seems that for now we must look elsewhere for solutions. If we can’t change the compositions of the school districts themselves, however, why not aim to change their educational structure? This exact line of thinking is what has guided Dr. James A. Banks in much of his work on what he terms “multicultural education.” According to Banks, this type of education aims “to change the structure of educational institutions so that male and female students, exceptional students, and students who are members of diverse racial, ethnic, language, and cultural groups will have an equal chance to achieve academically in school” (qtd. in Chamberlin 87). Moreover, it is critical in understanding how to both reduce the psychological factors contributing to the racial achievement gap, and approach the ideal educational system.

Banks’s 2008 work, An Introduction to Multicultural Education, 4th edition, provides what is perhaps the most comprehensive framework for this form of teaching that exists today. In it, Banks describes the five different dimensions that multicultural education entails, and how each of them are geared towards promoting equality and reducing the sort of prejudicial mindsets that stand in the way of education’s goal. These include Content Integration, Knowledge Construction, Equity Pedagogy, Prejudice Reduction, and Empowering School Culture (32). By definition, these five dimensions serve to reduce the presence of the stereotype threat and other psychological effects that limit minority performance. In modifying students’ racial attitudes in such a way to reduce prejudices, ensuring teachers and schools can understand and respond to different cultures, facilitating academic achievement by individuals of diverse cultural backgrounds, and modifying curricula to accurately address cultural differences, a school that embraces multicultural education aims to create an environment that is less conducive to the sort of stereotype-based anxieties that reduce performance and academic achievement in so many minority students, and more supportive of exposing students to otherness in interactions with teachers, fellow students, and school curricula.

The five dimensions of Multicultural Education. (Graphic courtesy James A. Banks.)

The five dimensions of Multicultural Education. (Graphic courtesy James A. Banks.)

These suggestions provided by Banks’s dimensions of multicultural education may all sound advantageous in theory, but it would do us well to see them in practice too. More specifically, we can look to United World College Red Cross Nordic (hereafter UWCRCN), an international boarding school based around the concept of multicultural education, for a concrete illustration of these suggestions, along with possible ways to make similar changes within the framework of the American school system. Founded in 1995 in the remote town of Flekke, Fjaler in Norway, the UWCRCN selects 15 and 16 year-old students from all around the globe – nearly 80 different countries overall – to fill its 100 person class each year (Li 45). Most of these students are from “underprivileged” or “conflict-torn” areas of the world, and the school actively attempts to recruit poorer students, students with disabilities, and students with weaker English backgrounds, providing generous scholarships to those that can’t afford the cost of tuition (Li 58, 17, 15). For two years, these students take part in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, or IBDP, along with completing a number of humanitarian projects with the Red Cross in their community and two weeks of other Project-Based Learning activities (“Annual Report 2013” 4, Li 20) Yet despite their often disadvantaged backgrounds, heterogeneity in language and culture, and heavy workload, most students come to thrive in this educational setting. Overall, UWCRCN students today receive the IB diploma (requiring a cumulative 24 points on the IB exams and extended essay out of a maximum of 45) at a rate higher than that of the world average, and frequently head off to prestigious US and UK universities after graduating from the school (“Annual Report 2013” 4, Li 63).

More than just the academic success and introduction to the public sphere, however, it seems that the UWCRCN is also fulfilling Arendt’s second requirement of education; that it serves to develop students psychologically, and provide them with the means to embrace subjectivity. As one UWCRCN student stressed, the environment of the school is such that stereotypes are often challenged and broken by the time students graduate. For example, he notes that Chinese and Tibetan students, who might have had negative impressions regarding one another coming into UWCRCN, often go on to “overcome their differences and become comparably good friends” after learning about each other’s cultures in and outside of class (Li 76). He also noted that other stereotypes, such as all Muslims being conservative or the Chinese being antisocial, were challenged in similar ways.

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The students of United World College Red Cross Nordic expressing their diverse cultural heritages. (Photo credit to RCNMUN.)

Outside of multicultural curricular support, UWCRCN also provides important assistance in training its teachers to approach education from a multicultural standpoint. According to Li, workshops such as LiLAC (Language in Learning Across the Curriculum), IB conferences and paid teaching courses each assist in building a faculty more able to teach its diverse student population, and make it easier for their students to embrace subjectivity (Li 70). The effectiveness of these programs is reflected in the results of Li’s “Teacher Multicultural Attitude Survey,” which found that teachers almost unanimously supported multicultural education and the integration of cultural issues into lesson plans (67).What is the reason behind the educational success of this school and its students? Dan Li of the University of Oslo, in his case study of the UWCRCN, attributes it in part to the dedication to multicultural education that the school has. In many American school settings, students only get one perspective – that is, the ‘traditional,’ often propaganda-laden, Western ideal. Arendt, in The Crisis in Education, described this as political indoctrination, and stated that it was pivotal for us to reject it, as “education can play no part in politics” (177). However, in the UWCRCN, Li found that teachers actively attempt to incorporate as many cultural perspectives into their lessons as possible. In one science class, for example, a biology teacher was able to integrate Maldivian history into discussion on climate change, as the Maldives are one of the hardest hit countries by climate change, and a Maldivian student was in the class. The same is true in English and reading classes, where culturally relevant readings and discussions are often utilized in the classroom. These multicultural practices, one UWCRCN teacher asserts, “[give] a new dimension to the whole topic,” and assist with keeping students engaged and motivated (Li 72). This is not only true of UWCRCN, however. Rather, these observations have been backed up with experimental research; in both Texas and Hawaii-based studies, researchers have found that culturally relevant readings and lessons can significantly boost reading comprehension in minority students (Fleming et. al 1, Au and Kawakami 411).

What does the school system here in America have to learn from this approach to education that UWCRCN has? As we have seen, school support for curriculum reform, teacher education programs, and student exposure to cultures and individuals different from their own each play an important part in providing multicultural education and helping to satisfy Arendt’s requirements for an ideal education. But even schools that don’t have access to UWCRCN’s world-class teaching staff, incredibly diverse collection of motivated students, or millions of dollars in discretionary funding can still approach education in a similar way. The Marcus Garvey School in Los Angeles, for example, serves a primarily low-income, minority community in one of the most dangerous areas of California. But, due to its multicultural “Afro-centric” curriculum and commitment to teacher education, Marcus Garvey has students that test at nearly two years above their own grade level on average (Carter 46-47). Around the country, a number of individual schools are achieving similar achievements, but far too many are failing as well. Policies have been put in place on the state level to help forward multicultural education, and achieve the same things as UWCRCN and Marcus Garvey, but as with desegregation policy, most don’t go far enough. Furthermore, according to Donna Gollnick, these policies are significantly hampered by their lack of accountability (61). More than anything else, it is these policies that must change if we wish to commit to providing our minority students with the education they deserve.

Martin Luther King Jr., in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, declared, “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’” (King 3). His answer to this question was simple: “We are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’” Though his tragic death in 1968 may have precluded him from seeing it, one can imagine that King would by no means be “satisfied” with the stark departure from the ideal societal education our minority students receive today. By the time they enter senior year, our black students are a full four years behind white students, less able to make a living then their white counterparts, and most importantly, less able to be a part of the social or political realms of society. Though the Civil Rights Movement may be decades in our collective past, heeding the call of Martin Luther King Jr. today and fighting for freedom, equality, and justice is as important as any other time in our history. More needs to be done to ensure our minority students have the same opportunities to be educated as do white students. As evidenced by the persistence of the stereotype threat and the achievement gap, the work of Dr. James A Banks, and a case study of UWCRCN, multicultural education is one key tool in achieving this. By educating our teachers, reforming our curricula, and holding schools responsible, we can help come closer to a society where, regardless of their race or background, all have the same chance to succeed after going through the public school system – both as citizens and as individuals. And just as King said to conclude his famous speech, “If America is to be a great nation, this must become true” (King 5).

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.(Photo credit to Life magazine.)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. (Photo credit to Life magazine.)

Works Cited

UWC Red Cross Nordic Annual Report 2013. Florø: Natvik, 2014. Print.

Black-White Test Score Gap. Eds. Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips. Washington, DC, USA: Brookings Institution Press, 1998. Web.

Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future, Six Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Viking Press, 1961. Print.

Aronson, Johnson, Diane M. Quinn, and Steven J. Spencer. Prejudice : The Target’s Perspective. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998. Print.

Banks, James A. An Introduction to Multicultural Education. 4th ed. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2008.

Barton, Paul E., and Richard J. Coley. The Black-White Achievement Gap: When Progress Stopped. ETS Policy Information Center Report, 2010. Print.

Briggs, Xavier de Souza. “Housing Opportunity, Desegregation Strategy, and Policy Research.” Journal of Policy Analysis & Management 22.2 (2003): 201-6. Print.

Carter, Samuel Casey, and Heritage Foundation. No Excuses : Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools. Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation, 2000. Print.

Chamberlin, Scott A. “An Examination of Articles in Gifted Education and Multicultural Education Journals.” Journal for the Education of the Gifted 32.1 (2008): 86-99. Print.

de Beauvoir, Simone, and Bernard Frechtman. The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York: Citadel Press, 1976; 1948. Print.

Gollnick, Donna M. “National and State Initiatives for Multicultural Education.” Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995. 44-64. Print.

King, Martin Luther. “I Have a Dream.” archives.gov. 1963.Web. 12 Dec 2014 .

Lee, Trymaine. “Education racial gap wide as ever according to NAEP.” 7 May 2014 2014.Web. 12 December 2014 .

Li, Dan. “Policy and Practice in Multicultural Education: A Case Study of a Multi-Ethnic Pre-University College.” MA Thesis University of Oslo, 2013. Print.

Osborne, Jason W. “Testing Stereotype Threat: Does Anxiety Explain Race and Sex Differences in Achievement?” Contemporary educational psychology 26.3 (2001): 291-310. Print.

Rothstein, Richard. “Brown v. Board at 60 : Why have we been so Disappointed? What have We Learned?.” Economic Policy Institute (2014) Print.

Smith, G. P. “Desegregation and Resegregation After Brown: Implications for Multicultural Teacher Education.” Multicultural Perspectives 6.4 (2004): 26-32. Print.

Straus, Valerie. “For First Time, Minority Students Expected to be Majority in U.S. Public Schools this Fall.” Washington Post August 21 2014. Print.

Topolski, Anya. “Creating Citizens in the Classroom: Hannah Arendt’s Political Critique of Education.” Ethical Perspectives 15.2 (2008): 259-282. Print.

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