Is Multicultural Education a Good Idea?

There once was a time when most American educators and scholars could agree on what constituted a good education. The list of authors and works that all educated people were supposed to have read was referred to as the canon. In recent years, however, some critics have charged that the canon as it has traditionally been established is like an exclusive club, with otherwise qualified members kept out for reasons of class, gender, and race. Indeed, when one examines the traditional canon, it is clear that with few exceptions the viewpoints represented are male, middle class, and white. For this reason, some educators have proposed a more inclusive, multicultural curriculum that exposes students to more works by women, people of color, and writers from different cultural backgrounds. The result has been that literature, history, and other courses at many high schools and colleges are now more culturally diverse than they were several years ago.

A fierce debate rages, however, around the issue of multicultural education. Critics charge that some teachers care less about the intellectual quality of the works on their reading lists than they do about the racial and ethnic backgrounds of the authors represented. Others contend that multicultural courses are more concerned with making students feel good about themselves than with fostering critical thinking. Still others say the curriculum is being broadened at the expense of the great works of Western thought that reinforce our society’s basic values.