Misguided Multiculturalism

Our Historical Illiteracy

An American-history requirement hallows ethnocentrism just as everyone else is embracing internationalism and preparing students to become citizens of the world.
—Joanne Reitano, history professor and chair of the Community College Caucus, New York Post, May 28




Both my parents were immigrants from Russia. In my neighborhood, Yiddish was a first and second language. I grew up in the depths of the Great Depression. There were weeks when my father came home with $5 or less. My mother walked blocks to save a few cents on food.

I went to public school. Some of my friends were sent to the yeshiva—an Orthodox Jewish religious school—but my parents, having experienced the vicious, pervasive anti-Semitism in the Old Country, wanted me to learn what America was all about.

At Boston Latin School and Northeastern University—a working-class college—I took classes that taught a great deal about the fundamental rights and liberties that had to be fought for during this still "unfinished American revolution," as Thurgood Marshall called it. These were required courses, and inspired my lifelong involvement in civil rightsand civil liberties.

This is a personal prelude to an intense controversy over a proposed four-year master plan for the City University of New York by CUNY's Board of Trustees, which will be voted on by the New York State Board of Regents in September. The leading, and impassioned, advocate of the part of the plan that I'm focusing on here is Herman Badillo, chairman of CUNY's Board of Trustees.

A key element in the plan is its call for a core curriculum, including a required course in American history—which is already in place in the state university system. A number—not all—of the faculty members on the various campuses vigorously object. Some say trustees have no business meddling in what should be the prerogative of the faculty. Others call the very idea of a required course in American history absurd. "The assumption," says professor Joanne Reitano, "is that our immigrant students need to be taught what it means to be an American."

Over the years, I have given classes in this city's public schools, from elementary grades through high school. And as a reporter, I have spent considerable time in other classrooms. As is the case throughout the country—from failing schools to the prestigious high schools—the teaching of American history, with few exceptions, is cursory, scattered, and superficial.

It's just as bad in most colleges. A recent survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (David Broder's column, The Washington Post, July 2) reveals "historical illiteracy" about this country across the board—even among students at Amherst, Williams, Harvard, Duke, and the University of Michigan. Moreover, "none of the 55 elite colleges and universities (as rated by U.S. News & World Report) requires a course in American history before graduation." As for high schools, Broder notes, a report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress disclosed that "fully 57 percent of the high school seniors failed to demonstrate a basic level of understanding of American history and institutions—the lowest category in the test."

The foremothers of women's liberation, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as well as civil rights leaders like Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X, used the First Amendment as an essential weapon; but how many Americans, including students, know the embattled history of free speech in this nation?

Also neglected in the vast majority of secondary schools and colleges is the history of the American labor movement—its fight against repression in the 19th century and well into this century.

When teaching, I have found interest among a wide array of students in the story of why we have a Fourth Amendment—British officials' random, often savage searches of the colonists' homes and businesses to look for contraband. As Supreme Court Justice William Brennan told me, the resultant fury of those initial Americans was a precipitating cause of the American Revolution.

I told that story and others about resistance to discrimination, and worse, throughout American postrevolutionary history to a large group of predominantly black and Hispanic high school students in Miami a couple of years ago.

Before I started, one of their teachers told me, "Don't be upset if they don't pay attention. What they're mostly interested in is clothes and music."

After more than an hour, there was a standing ovation. Not for me, but because they had discovered America—its triumphs and failures. Talking to some of them later, I was told they'd heard none of those stories in school.

Multiculturalism is a welcome development in American education so long as some of its college courses do not exalt one particular culture and history over others. Then, it is indeed ethnocentric. But to understand where you came from, you also have to understand where you are now. You have to know how the society you live in works, and that requires a full-scale knowledge of its history—from its guiding principles to what still has to be done to make them real. For everybody.

Justice William Brennan said: "We do not yet have justice, equal and practical, for the members of minority groups, for the criminally accused, for the displaced persons of the technological revolution, for alienated youth, for the urban masses, for the unrepresented consumer—for all, in short, who do not take part of the abundance of American life. . . . Ugly inequities continue to mar the face of our nation. We are surely nearer the beginning than the end of the struggle."

To do something about that, CUNY students should know the strategies, successes, and failures of widely diverse Americans who have been part of that struggle. For insisting on core American history courses, Herman Badillo should be cheered, not scorned.

 
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