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Beyond folktales

Print edition : Dec 16, 2011

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The collection of essays emphasises the importance of multiculturalism and diversity in the classroom.

OVER the past many years, educators have attempted to recognise diversity and multiculturalism in society and incorporate them into the classroom. But little progress has been made. Academics need to make concentrated efforts to effect both deep and equitable changes. It calls for a focus on liberation, justice and activism. The emphasis is on transformation. The collection of essays focusses on a curriculum that gives equal attention and depth to all contexts. This would require the total reworking of the existing curricula without allowing the dominant cultural curricula to be used as the yardstick with which everything else is measured.

Contributions made by critical scholars show their commitment to redefining the conversations on multiculturalism and diversity within the United States which ought to go beyond the distinctions of race, ethnicity and gender to other ways in which people are marginalised, especially on the basis of ability, religion, economic status, size, and location of an ethnic group. The debate has a direct bearing on the formulation of curricula that can help in subverting the dominant curricula. Moreover, the problems of physical diversity, geographic diversity and difference in sexualities are also of utmost relevance.

As pointed out by Noam Chomsky, Education is a vital weapon of a people striving for economic emancipation, political independence, and cultural renascence. A truly emancipatory and democratic educational system could only emerge from a broad-based people's movement that was dedicated to the needs of its people and expressive of their aspirations. However, any attempt to homogenise education stands rejected for not taking diversity into account. This problem is visible in educational institutions in the country, which come under the impact of mass immigration and deserve a less blinkered, more vivacious and more multi-ethnic approach to education. This is an area where multiculturalism and diversity express the spirit of a free and just society that can overpower the symptoms of fragmentation or split in the nation.

The important question is: Should racial or ethnic borders define the needs or should society move towards a more open, borderless policy? This undying conflict between the politics of diversity on the one side and multiculturalism on the other cannot be wished away. The salad bowl versus the melting pot debate is here to stay. It has to be noted that the respective needs of the minorities must not be seen as a problem of social conflict that is generated from differences; instead, conflicts and clashes of opinion need to be regarded as essential to a dynamic society, and this should not be a source of worry to multiculturalists.

These are some of the issues that are discussed in the collection of essays, which is edited by Shirley R. Steinberg, who emphasises that inclusiveness is the necessity of a curriculum. She argues: We've created a lot of school plays, spent lots of money infusing diversity and multiculturalism into the curriculum but these attempts have merely been tokens that re-enforce the dominant culture. She is of the view that mere tokenism of diversity is not enough: putting up a poster of Martin Luther King or staging plays on Native Americans only reinforces the idea that there exists the dominant white culture and that all other marginalised cultures are represented as the other'. Being tolerated, being tokenised, is not enough. No one deserves merely to be tolerated, or to be described as a token. Individuals are diverse and consequently must be understood and accepted as diverse.

The pedagogues coming together in this meaningful debate try to look beyond the cultural representations of various groups through food, festivals, and folktales. Their standpoint is to break the status quo of the binary of the dominated and the marginalised and set out on a critically diverse and multicultural programme without ushering in a flat, homogeneous society. Education as a medium to perpetuate economic, political and cultural domination demands a fearless reassessment. Pedagogy, therefore, becomes a fundamental site in the larger struggle in the renovation of society.

Section 1 of the book takes up the issue of doing diversity' in more than one way and uses the medium of the film as a tangible approach to redefine curriculum designing with an equitable stance that rids it of the overpowering dominant culture. Taking up the underlying issue of the politics of education that is directly linked to questions of diversity and multiculturalism, Shirley Steinberg, in a provocative essay, asks hard-hitting questions about the very existence of paradigms that govern educational systems. She feels that it is essential to interrogate the various forms of diversity and multiculturalism and thereby pit the conservative approach of believing in the superiority of the white patriarchical culture against the liberal programme that emphasises natural equality and common humanity of individuals from varied racial and class backgrounds. The latter approach stresses ideological neutrality and equal opportunity.

Shirley Steinberg also examines the pluralist angle, which stresses the difference between citizens from diverse racial backgrounds more than the sameness between them, and brings out the liberating implications of a curriculum that does not ignore the racial heritage while engaging in the study of diverse social groups. Such an approach exotocises difference and asks, for instance, What are the social roots of racism and what structural changes are required to combat it? The approach demands the recognition of one's particular identity, public affirmation of one's cultural difference, and respect and tolerance for one's cultural beliefs.

Another position on the question of diversity and multiculturalism is the left-essentialist practice that believes in valorising the point of view of authentically oppressed groups who have the right to express their condition and their stance on various issues. Existing systems of education serve a hegemonic role in the acceptance of the status quo for those in power. This provokes resistance strategies to power and domination that can enable the marginalised to assert their self-determination, thereby promoting a critical pedagogy aimed at ushering in a culture of egalitarianism.

For collective action

Carolyn M. Shields, in her essay Administration, Leadership, and Diversity: Reproduction or Transformation, analyses power relations by taking up the views of the French critic Pierre Bourdieu, according to whom we must move away from a posture of blame and understand a system that persistently but unconsciously legitimises the privileging of certain groups of children and marginalising of others. It helps us to perceive the interconnections between the reproduction of the status quo and the inability of current educational systems to be agents of change and social mobility in society. The emphasis in such an argument is to move the general public towards collective action and transformative leadership.

The next section aptly places whiteness within the question of diversity, problematising the issue of measuring the other' or the marginalised against the dominant white culture. Section 3 takes up issues of ethnicity and race and locates them within the culture of the classroom.

The essay by R. Deborah Davis examines language and its role in manipulating varied perspectives on life. The idea overall is to put multi-ethnicity on the radar, with the aim of transforming a society that still labours under racist hangovers. Section 4 looks at human relationships from the point of view of sexuality and gender. Section 5 takes up the relevance of social and economic classes to diversity and multiculturalism. For example, issues of poverty are often not discussed in the classroom and it is generally accepted that if they are not included in the curriculum they do not exist. Important issues of religion, physical disability, rural and urban differences, location, and the relevance of multiculturalism and diversity as a subject to be taught to teachers take up the concerns of other sections.

The book thus draws attention to a few small steps that have already been taken and suggests that with these steps equity and justice, which are conspicuously absent from the curricula, can be created. We need to remember that academic institutions are locations of struggle where new opportunities need to be created, especially for the marginalised and the disadvantaged. A genuine redirection of education towards the promotion of the immediate and long-term needs of the marginalised is therefore urgently required.

Any indifference to the overhauling of the curriculum would only leave us with the status quo. I hate indifference, says Antonio Gramsci. Living means taking sides. Indifference means weakness, cowardice, and parasitical attitude. It doesn't belong to life. Indifference is the dead weight of history.

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