The Politics of Multicultural Teaching

M. A. R. Habib,
Bloomsburg University

Professor Habib graciously gave us permission to publish the paper this paper, presented previously at the MLA convention, December 29, 1992.

I will open with a quotation: ". . . we must not forget the question of what . . . education is to be, and how one ought to be educated. For in modern times there are opposing views about the tasks to be set, for there are no generally accepted assumptions about what the young should learn . . . " These words were written over two thousand years ago, by Aristotle. My point here is that, however far back in time we go, the central conservative argument against multiculturalism fails. This argument, advanced by Allan Bloom, Arthur Schlesinger, and others, assumes, firstly, that in the past there existed a period of consensus with regard to the aims of education, political ideals, and moral values; secondly, that this consensus, which underlies the national identity of America, is threatened by the cacophonic irreconcilable voices of multiculturalism. But, as Aristotle testifies, this past consensus is imaginary: the educational curricula adopted at various stages both in the U. S. and elsewhere have been the products of conflicting political attitudes. In late nineteenth century America, conservatives who desired a curriculum that would foster religious conformism and discipline, were opposed by those, like the pragmatist John Dewey, who wished to stress liberal arts, utility, and advanced research. In 1869, President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard initiated a program of curricular reform, amid much controversy. Disciplines such as history, sociology, and English itself struggled to gain admission into various liberal arts curricula. In 1890 the MLA witnessed a heated debate over the relative merits of the Classics and the moderns. And the l920s and l930s saw a struggle to make American literature part of the English program.

A third assumption of conservatives is that great literature somehow conveys "timeless truths"; Schlesinger states that history should be conducted as "disinterested intellectual inquiry," not as therapy; William Bennett, Lynne V. Cheney, and the National Association of Scholars have all appealed to the notion of timeless truths. But, to speak in such language is to dismiss the traditions of Hegelianism, Marxism, Existentialism, Historicism, Hermeneutic theory, and Psychoanalysis which have attempted to situate the notion of truth in historical, economic, and political contexts. What is so timeless, one might ask, about Aristotle's comments on slavery? Or Plato's Forms, which he himself refuted in his later dialogues? Is the typist in Eliot's The Waste Land a timeless characterization of woman? In fact, the appeal to "timeless truths'' has always subserved a political function. The growth of English literature, as Eagleton has argued, was from the beginning imbued with ideological motives. Arnold and subsequent professors at Oxford saw poetry as the sole salvation for a mechanical civilization. The timeless truths of literature were intended as a bulwark against rationalist and ideological dogma. Literature's purposes were to "promote sympathy and fellow feeling among all classes," to educate citizens about their duties, and to inculcate national pride and moral values. And English was a pivotal part of the imperialist effort. In 1834 Macaulay argued the merits of English as the medium of instruction in India, stating: "I have never found one . . .who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. . ." I will refrain from commenting on this except to add Macaulay's own statement that "I have no knowledge of either Sanskrit or Arabic."

Aristotle at least had the honesty to declare that our approach to education will depend on the kind of political state we desire. Schlesinger also appeals to a political basis of American unity and identity but conceals this under the mantle of presumed objectivity. Citing foreign observers such as de Tocqueville and Gunnar Myrdal, he suggests that what has held America together is what Myrdal called the "Creed." But the Creed is explicitly political; it embraces "the ideals of the essential dignity and equality of all human beings, of inalienable rights to freedom, justice, and opportunity." Moreover, Schlesinger ignores many of de Tocqueville's own comments on the nature of American democracy; he did not observe the kind of coherence imagined by Schlesinger. Rather, he saw an extreme individualism curbed only by its religious worship of public opinion and the tyranny of the majority; he saw imagination as governed by the principle of utility; he saw the educational system governed by scientific and mechanical, rather than literary, pursuits; he saw the hypostatization of terms such as "equality."

Schlesinger's position enshrines a crucial obstacle to multicultural education: the refusal to acknowledge one's own position as political. Education is a part of the political structure, not a disinterested observer of it. We must indeed ask what kind of society we want, and how a multicultural education can serve this. But, equally, we need to remind ourselves that the problems attending multiculturalism are symptomatic of diseases in the structure of education itself: the rote training for specialized functions, the linguistic inadequacy of students, the persistent anti-intellectualism promoted by evangelical, business, and political interests, as well as by university administrators. This is the general political climate in which the problems of multiculturalism must be situated.

Two further factors compound the difficulty we experience in escaping our own political and cultural biases in literary interpretation. The first concerns multicultural faculty: should a white male teach stories written by a black female? Should an Asian American teach Chaucer? My view is that these questions should be addressed at a practical level rather than as questions of principle. On the one hand, there may be a great deal of personal experience that a black person or an Arab can bring to the illumination of his or her literature. Simply including ethnically diverse faculty within an academic department is bound to broaden intellectual and cultural debate. Moreover, a person teaching his or her native literature will be more sensitized to the appropriate explanatory contexts which can be invoked. There will be more recalcitrance to the assimilation of minority or non-Western texts within Western critical approaches. For example, it is tempting for someone with a conventional Anglo-American literary background to approach a fourteenth century Arabic or Persian text looking for the "unity" or "theme" or "character portrayal" often expected of Western works.

However, this exclusive approach is also problematic. To begin with, it privileges the category of personal experience, which is both politically and philosophically a regressive step. It assumes that experience is somehow an adequate counter to the falsely objectivist presumptions of conceptual systems. Hegel's deconstruction of this naive opposition of experience and theory, echoed by Marx, Nietzsche, Derrida and others, is still valid. Secondly, if the teaching of multicultural literature is restricted to multicultural faculty, where does this leave the exchange of knowledge between faculty, which is necessary if teachers are to extend their cultural horizons? The likely consequence, already materializing, is the ghettoization of foreign and minority literatures. How can we achieve a compromise between imperialistic integration and ethnocentric separatism? We are going through an experimental period; mistakes will be made. What is needed now is a degree of patience: people cannot be converted by being called incompetent or pluralist pigs or fascists; let whites teach Black literature, let Blacks teach Dante, and let both groups engage in dialogue over their respective approaches and their incompetence. We are all incompetent to teach Homer, but we acknowledge his value. There needs to be a general change in humanities departments; the current territorialism must be replaced by collaboration. We need more courses which are team-taught, and regarded as means of faculty learning rather than merely deploying existing faculty expertise.

Finally, we need to combat the tendency of the academic institution to produce specialists in a single area, often out of touch with the requirements of most American university students. We need to move away from individualized research to collaborative projects which would render a broad training in several areas of literature. Only if there is an intimate exchange of knowledge at the highest level of research can there be a firm basis for pedagogical collaboration. For example, the Norton Masterpieces of the Orient provides a one-or two-page introduction to Arabic, Persian, and Indian literature. It contains outdated accounts of the political and religious backgrounds of the writers in question, inaccurate and obscure translations, the tendency to view Eastern literary movements as mimetic of Western movements; all this despite the fact that there has been much research in all of the areas covered by this anthology.

In the face of such problems, I advocate the following: 1) an institutional commitment to articulating our own political and cultural perspectives; 2) collaborative research projects to produce teachers with broadly-based training; and 3) truly integrative curricula, informed by the experience of collaborative teaching. We cannot implement these without experimentation and some failure; but a beginning has been made. Marx once asked, who will educate the educators? We are obliged to educate one another.

M. A. R. Habib

Contents, No. IX