Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

See Related Articles: Teaching ESOL
The Limits and Possibilities of Multiculturalis


An earlier version was published in educational Horizons

Despite President Trump’s efforts to date, immigrant children are flooding into our schools. They are no longer chiefly of European stock. They herald from every corner of the world; and their cultural beliefs and practices offer bewildering and conflicting variety. 

As prime socializers of the young, teachers are particularly challenged by this extraordinary expansion of the nation’s diversity. They wonder how they should deal with the fact that the very first world society is being born in their classrooms. 

The problems posed by his unprecedented event are very real. Often, however, all these teachers are offered in the way of help is warm, fuzzy humbug. Those in the trenches agonize over new and challenging realities. What should they do when Cambodian-American and Vietnamese-American children refuse to sit together, much less work together? How should they react when kids come to school with shaved heads, the results of parental attempts to shame them into submission? How should they react when a student tells them she is going to run away, rather than marry the middle aged man her parents picked for her? Meanwhile rear echelon school administrators crank out b.s. about the school district being a rainbow where “you can be you and I can be me.” Would that it were that easy. 

Why can’t our public schools be one big happy family where everyone gets along? Because the various cultural values and behaviors brought into the schoolhouse often are at odds with one another. Moreover, some of these values and behaviors are incompatible with basic American values, including the very tolerance that makes multiculturalism possible. Advocates of multicultural education argue that the United States should no longer be a melting pot, but a salad bowl. The salad bowl simile has much to commend it. But it is important to remember that one doesn’t make a palatable salad by just throwing whatever is at hand into the bowl willy-nilly. Some flavors and textures go well together; others do not. Remember too that the American “salad” is already well along, so it is relevant to ask if what is being added complements the pre- existing ingredients.

Some advocates of “multicultural education” do not deeply consider what immigrants might bring with them from their native land. That is precisely why they are so enthusiastic about the possibilities of easy tolerance. Consider, for example, that some cultures partially define themselves in terms of their animosity for other cultures. What happens when these antagonistic cultures collide in the classroom? 

An E.S.O.L. teacher told me of a class where children from two antagonistic cultures refused to even sit together, much less work together. In fact, when she turned her back to write on the board they began hissing one another. Clearly even the most ardent multiculturalist doesn’t want the teacher to respond to such behavior by saying something like, “See how these kids hate one another? They are expressing their respective cultures. Isn’t that great!” At this point respect for these cultures has to give way to a non-negotiable demand for tolerance. Otherwise, multicultural education will die by its own hand. But how many advocates of multicultural education have even thought about this sort of clash? 

Similarly, many cultures tolerate, even endorse, boys treating girls as inferior — representatives of a subordinate sex. This is part of a broader cultural pattern of regarding women as inferior members of the human race. Should the hard-won rights of U.S. females give way to a desire to accommodate cultural difference?

This is not an argument for Pat Buchanan-style jingoism. Certainly a child’s native language and culture can be a wonderful resource for them as individuals — particularly if they aren’t female, homosexual, or handicapped. And selected aspects of foreign cultures can be of great value for America as a nation. (We hardly have a corner on wisdom.) Nevertheless, many imported cultural beliefs and practices must be discouraged if, for example, we value free and unfettered expression and democracy, think that women’s rights should equal those of men, or hold that homosexuals should at least be left unmolested. 

In addition, who says that cultural background is the sine qua non for classifying kids to begin with? Every one of us has many different characteristics, only some of which are linked to our culture(s) of origin. Consider a child with the following characteristics:

  • Female
  • Studies hard
  • Is self-disciplined
  • Loves to play the violin
  • Writes well
  • Hates algebra
  • Speaks limited Spanish
  • Has one parent from Mexico

Why should this young lady’s one-sided affiliation with Mexican culture be the characteristic an educator zeros in on? Is that more worthy of consideration or accommodation than her love for the violin or her talent for writing? Besides, not all students want to be defined by their parents’ cultural practices and affiliations. Some kids long to escape into mainstream America. In support of multiculturalism, should educators join forces with their parents to keep them in the Old World fold? Suppose, for instance, a high school junior confides to her teacher that she is going to run away with the American boyfriend she loves, rather than marry the middle-aged man her parents picked for her, as is their culture’s custom. Should the teacher tell her parents? If old ways start to die in a new land, is it the job of educators to try to keep them alive? 

The hard core in all this is that multicultural education has limits. And that’s the point of the table that follows. To help you explore where you would place those limits. Here is how it works. Rate each of the listed cultural beliefs or practices in terms of how you think educators should deal with them. Use the listed choices. If, for example, members of child’s native culture eat dogs and cats for food, decide if educators should: 

  • celebrate — have assemblies praising, provide ceremonial expression for, favorably publicize? 
  • maintain neutrality — no interfere with practice of? 
  • discourage — provide disincentives for, support activities incompatible with?
  • prohibit — bar the practice of

Now further explore your limits by filling out the survey below ? (These are actual cultural practices, not fictions.)

Cultural Belief or Practice  Prohibit    Discourage   Maintain Neutrality   Celebrate 
1. Participate in a harvest festival               
2. Regard the earth as one’s “mother”               
3. Regard the elderly as having special knowledge               
4. Resist using English               
5. Select marrage partners for children               
6. Suppress female aspirations for education               
7. Corporally punish children               
8. Circumcise 12 year old boys w/o painkillers              
9. Hang homosexuals              
10. Make fun of disabled persons               
11. Eat special foods               
12. Share one’s wife with a friend               
13. Marry multiple women               
14. Seclude married women from the world               
15, Have old men digitally deflower 8 yr old girls               
16. Eat the flesh of dogs               
17. Take hallucinegenic drugs for religious purposes               
18. Impose clitorectomies on pubescent girls               
19. Wear special decorations on clothing.               
20. Hold hands with same sex in public               

Multicultural education is far more problematic than it first appears. With any in- depth consideration, easy uninformed tolerance inevitably turns into worried reflection. How, then, shall we deal with these youngsters who are entering our classrooms from all over the world? Respect their worth as individuals, not as sometimes-unwilling representatives of one or another culture; and insist that they do likewise when dealing with others. Mindless tolerance undermines American values and risks miring our public schools in incessant and counterproductive ethnic and racial conflict.