A version of this essay was published in educational Horizons 78,2 (Winter 2000)

Multiculturalism & The Problems of Immigration
©2000 Edward G. Rozycki

We should never be ashamed to approve truth or acquire it,
no matter what its source might be, even if it might have come
from foreign peoples and alien nations far removed from us.
To him who seeks the truth, no other object is higher in value.

-- Rasa'il al-Kindi (810-873) Arab philosopher and physician

reedited 3/26/12

See also, How Multicultural Are You?
A Timeline of American Education and Immigration

A Multicultural Experience

For three years in the early '60's I worked summers for the College Settlement of Philadelphia farm camps as a counselor. This was an interracial, interreligious, coeducational organization (ethnicity, back then, was a frivolity hardly mentioned) that provided a camping experience for kids from impoverished homes. We worked and lived long days together with very, very seldom a sermon or admonishment from our directors on the value of getting along and appreciating each other's differences. Two of the four camp directors were college-educated African-Americans -- a new experience for most of the poor white kids in camp, and not a few of the counselors. One of my cabin mates was Thai; another German. In these early uptight Sixties, males and females were segregated in different cabins, but the females were a Rainbow Coalition in their own right. We were different and we got along. Only when we went into town together -- on the rare occasions we could avoid bunk duty or evening activities -- did it strike us that outsiders saw our group, with its not infrequent interracial couple, as, perhaps, unusual. But we were young; we were believers in a better society; we didn't care what they thought.

I think back on those days because they were remarkably free of the sanctimonious droning of professional "multiculturists" whose games of holier-than-thou have not managed in these last thirty years to replicate in the schools I have worked in the camaraderie of my College Settlement experience. What made the difference is that back then in camp we did not, for all our differences, have that underlying sense of adversariness that pervades so much of the schooling context nowadays. As platitudinous as it sounds, we counselors treated each other as, well, "family and friends." I remember the shock when one of our group, Bobby, spat out, as we were watching the 1963 March on Washington on TV, that it was all merely a shallow political demonstration by grandstanders and hypocrites.

Was this racism? From one of our camp buddies? From a white guy who was dating an African-American woman? It may have been. But it seemed to be verbal only. His day-to-day conduct never seemed to be infected with the venom he expressed on that one occasion. We generally felt no compulsion toward politically correct speech, choosing, rather, to judge a person by his or her actions. On the rare occasion that we felt someone acted consistently hatefully toward another on account of race or religion -- ethnicity was not really a cogent category at the time -- we had that person booted out of camp.

The "Culture" Concept: pedagogical gold

Spending almost all of the twenty years, 1972 to 1992, in bilingual and multicultural education in a large, underfunded, urban school district, I became somewhat inured to the scarcity of basic teaching materials. Like many, many other teachers I reached into my own pocket to help my classes with what was needed to make each day a learning experience. Besides teaching ESOL to kids from twenty different countries and various middle-school subjects in Spanish, I also spent many afternoons training staff in the nature of cultural difference, how it might be identified and how it might affect their students learning.

I could put up with insufficient supplies, with programs only two-thirds funded, or undercut by sudden reallocations of materials. What I could not tolerate -- nor can I even today -- was the appropriation by sloganizing educational gurus of usable, insight-generating concepts from honest scholarly disciplines for their own messianic agendas.

Take "culture," for example. This is a concept originating in anthropology (1) that was meant to mark off an idea of total social, linguistic, and material environment -- common to all humans -- from the haute couture notion of "superior activities and artifacts" that had long supported ethnocentrism of all kinds. This concept of culture was not often found in sociological and psychological writings -- in the United States, at least. "Culture" was to convey a sense of the inescapable internality of community, the anthropological emic, as opposed to the behavioristic bias of externality, the etic (2), promulgated in sociology and, especially, educational psychology in the '60's and '70's.

This concept of culture was very useful. One could help rather ethnocentric teachers begin to make steps toward acceptance of "the other." Also, one could explain and anticipate differences and problems a teacher might have with students from different cultures while managing to distinguish cultural from idiosyncratic manifestations of behavior. Was Jerzy's interrupting a manifestation of a cultural practice called "overspeaking," or was he just being rude? Was Huong's reticence a gender deference signal, or was she just unprepared? Was Jaime's glance downwards a sign of respect or guilt? So long as "culture" does not abound in variants, so long can it provide alternative interpretations to understanding students.

Culture as Fan Club: turning gold to lead

In many of the "multicultural" textbooks misinforming teachers-in-training today, "culture" is characterized as something that develops when any person forms any relationship with any other person in any context.(3) We have, as a result, ethnic cultures, professional cultures, children's cultures, Three Tenors-aficionado-cultures, occupational cultures, wrestling-fans' cultures, disability cultures, Brownie-lovers-cultures, religious cultures, criminal cultures, flea-market-frequenter cultures, sexual-fetish cultures and pancake-lovers cultures.

The original notion of culture comprised a complex, difficult idea, requiring long periods of time to come to understand -- not for naught were doctoral candidates in anthropology required to go into the field and live for years with those they would study. Today the concept has been transformed into a buzzword that can be bandied about by people who do not comprehend the complexities of their own society, much less that of other peoples.

With the new, transformed concept of culture -- haute couture without the haute -- we, each of us, become carriers of indefinitely many, possibly behaviorally indistinguishable, often trivial "cultures." The distinction between an idiosyncratic and a cultural behavioral manifestation is lost. Worse yet, is that the broad indoctrination given teachers and students to the effect that we all must manifest cultural, not to mention ethnic, racial and gender differences in our behavior, works at undercutting attempts at objective evaluation of educational programs by insinuating that all such attempts are inevitably, fatally biased. The dross that the concept of culture has become also works to ease acceptance of even the more sociopathic forms of idiosyncratic behavior in the school.

What has come to replace "culture" as a focus in many educational contexts is "ethnicity." This, politically powerful, quasi-mythological stigma of groupness, "self-or-other ascribed," as its enthusiasts characterize it, requires little or no shared culture among those identified as ethnically the same. Everyone, we are told by the gurus of this latest fad, belongs to at least one ethnic group.(4) However, the truth of this statement depends upon little more than prejudice -- or the political aspirations of the ascriber. Such a concept derives from conflict, and presumes -- as ethnicist Frederick Barth (5) describes -- the maintenance of adversary relationships.

Interestingly enough, research conducted in many countries by Marshall Swift of Widener University seems to indicate that teacher descriptions of preferred and undesirable student behavior in class seems not to vary much from culture to culture. A characterization such as: "Brings in outside material relevant to class discussion," is universally recognized as a trait of a successful student. "Exhibits high, unfocussed anxiety levels" is seen to characterize unsuccessful students in the U.S., Canada, France, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan. There are cultural variations in what is recognized as high, medium or low levels of anxiety; but, the overall descriptions are amazingly consistent.

Attitudes towards Immigration

Recently at Widener University I team-taught, -- for three semesters together with a political scientist and a historian -- a course for undergraduate seniors on immigration. We ran the course as a debate, preparing students to argue pro or con on issues by putting them on the side of propositions they initially disfavored. The idea here was to "broaden their outlook" or "open them up" to perspectives they would otherwise tend to dismiss. Debating by its nature, unfortunately, focuses less on determining the truth and more on beating the other side. Consequently we, the instructors, would have to threaten dire academic consequences, should debaters -- impressed by us into defending "the wrong idea" -- deliberately throw the match by underpreparing, misrepresenting, or otherwise making their positions look ridiculous. (So much for the flexibility of young minds!)

The propositions advanced and assaulted were prodigious in both number and import. Immigrants steal jobs from the native-born. Immigrants take unwanted jobs that the native-born won't touch. Educated immigrants provide high-level expertise, i.e. in electronics and health care, for lower cost. Immigrants place an extra burden on the welfare system. Immigrants generate more taxes for welfare than they use up. Immigrants put a strain on already overstrained resources. Immigrants create new markets. Immigration will "Balkanize" the USA. Immigrants enhance the "cultural salad." Immigrants import crime. Immigrants are, in the vast majority, law-abiding. Like 60% of native Americans, immigrants tend to be politically uninvolved. Immigrants bring strange customs and practices with them. Strange customs and practices are as American as apple pie. Immigrants create ghettos. Like native-born Americans, they want to live in communities of their choice. Immigrants are poor. Any wealthy immigrant is more than welcome.

Most of the issues we examined were only indirectly educational ones. Educators are certainly in no position to affect policy on them. The schools, no matter their high hopes, can only react to these situations; since proaction has been forestalled by our legislators, who in their wisdom, have regularly denied educators the funds to do much more than sit, talk and wait. And brace themselves for the chaos.

Happily things have changed. Now, we have multicultural education. Previously, when American school systems absorbed millions of immigrant children at the early part of this century, there were only minimal adjustments made to help them along. The result? A vast underclass of non-millionaires, who had to manage day-to-day working at some non-intellectual pursuit, who proudly called themselves Americans, although they could hardly tell a Mayflower from a daisy, or a pate from a fois or a gras. They appeared, on the surface, to get along with each other, even intermarrying, but underneath it all, there was dislike, even hatred, as words such a hunkie, polak, spic, etc., demonstrated.

Now we have educators who have been trained to believe that they are capable of various and extensive depth therapies: textbooks tell teachers -- whether or not programs provide training -- they must be prepared to diagnose and handle sexual abuse, tourette's syndrome, student depression, suicidal impulses, and substantial variations in intelligence, competence and motivation. Teachers are expected to adapt traditional and future curricular developments to students whose rights to sit in a classroom now far outweigh any reasonable hope for what that classroom could do for them, or their classmates.

Now we have multicultural education. We educators can now expunge those deep hatreds, and make each individual self-actualizing and independent, while at the same time, strengthening ethnic and cultural practices and beliefs.(6) With our new, revised concept of culture which means ... uh, whatever it means, we will analyze and understand the behavior of students, who even if they look and act normal we know to be different but that's ok 'cause we're all in the salad together. All struggling with each other for the occasional crouton.


(1) For an interesting history of this concept by an anthropologist highly critical of it, see Marvin Harris The Rise of Anthropological Theory (New York: Crowell, 1968).

(2) See, for example http://www.cs.uchicago.edu/l-c/archives/1996/Seo/msq0007.html

(3) See Forrest W. Parkay and Beverly Hardcastle Stanford, Becoming a Teacher. Fourth Edition. (Boston: Allyn Bacon, 1998) page 239. For a broader but functionally no clearer definition see also Sonia Nieto, Affirming Diversity. Second Edition (Boston: Longman, 1992) page 138

(4) "All Americans are members of an ethnic group ...which differ(s) from...other groups" J. A. Banks, Teaching Strategies for Ethnic Studies Second Edition (Boston: Allyn Bacon, 1979) page 10. Who defines? Why?

(5) Fredrik Barth, "Ethnic Groups and Boundaries" pp. 198-227 in Adam Kuper (ed.) Process and Form in social life; the selected essays of Fredrik Barth (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981)

(6) "All ethnic groups are expected to conform to those elements of the macroculture that are necessary for societal well-being." P.15 Christine I. Bennett, Comprehensive Multicultural Education 2nd Edition (Boston: Allyn Bacon, 1990). Who expects what? Who defines the "macroculture?" Who says what is necessary? Who determines what "societal" well-being is?