The Holocaust Historiography Project

The Challenge of 'Multiculturalism' In How Americans View the Past and the Future

Samuel Taylor

Of all the ways in which a nation defines itself, few are more important than what it teaches its children about itself. In the history classes of its public schools, a nation retells its own story and instills a national identity in the minds of young citizens. In today’s America, where competing racial, cultural and linguistic claims now make it nearly impossible even to speak of national identity, questions about history have become a struggle for the possession of America’s past.

The multicultural, multiperspective history that has arisen from this struggle is not merely a departure from the history America has always taught its children. It may be the first time that a nation has abandoned the single identity of its origins and set out deliberately to adopt multiple national identities.

Significantly, the understanding by many non-whites of multicultural history is entirely different from that of whites. For whites, the central concepts are “inclusion” and “pluralism.” American history is to be rewritten so that racial and cultural perspectives that were once “ignored” or “neglected” will get equal treatment. For many non-whites, however, multicultural history is merely a step on the way to an explicitly racial, Afrocentric or Hispanic history. Their goal is separation rather than inclusion.

The “conservative” view is that explicitly racial histories are illegitimate. America, it is argued, must be united by a common history, and exclusionist histories will disunite us. This position is logically correct; exclusionist histories are divisive. But as we shall see, the “conservative” position is wrong — practically, emotionally, and even morally. America is already disunited by race, and no approach to history can change that. Just as it would be impossible to use the same history book in both France and England, it is impossible to write a single American history that satisfies, white, black, Indian, Hispanic, and Asian.

Schooling as Assimilation

The purpose of American public education has never been simply to impart knowledge. One of its central goals has been to make children into Americans. American schools fly the American flag and students pledge allegiance to it. The central events of history are from the American past. The most glorious achievements are American achievements. There is nothing odd about that. Every nation gives its children a national education.

Nevertheless, American schools have had an even more explicitly nation-building purpose than others because of the need to assimilate immigrants. John Quincy Adams wrote that immigrants “must cast off their European skin, never to resume it.” Horace Mann argued that “a foreign people — cannot be transformed into the full stature of American citizens merely by a voyage across the Atlantic.” One of the strongest motives for building public schools was, therefore, the need to make Americans out of Europeans.

Europeans weren’t going to be made into Americans by teaching them about the contributions of Africans, Mexicans and Indians. The old, standard history united Americans because it has a coherent purpose and a single voice. It emphasized one point of view and ignored others. To put it bluntly, it was history about white people for white people.

This history served the country well, so long as the population was overwhelmingly white, and the two traditional minorities — blacks and Indians — did not have voices. All this changed, beginning in the 1960s. The civil rights movement gave voices to blacks and Indians, and changes in immigration laws brought a massive influx of non-whites. It was the end of a certain kind of America.

Non-whites began to complain about a version of history that left them out. The nation-building history that has bound Europeans into a single people had not bound whites and non-whites into a single people. “Multicultural” history was therefore to be a broader, more inclusive history that would give every American his rightful share of America’s past. At the same time, “culturally relevant” history would keep blacks and Hispanics in school and stop them from dropping out at ever-increasing rates.

Squaring the Circle

Something that well-meaning whites did not understand is that an “inclusive” history — one that would be all things to all people — is impossible. History has winners and losers, and they see the same events with different eyes. At the same time, virtually every non-white group sees the conflicts of the past as struggles with whites, so multicultural history becomes a collection of perspectives that are often not merely non-white but anti-white.

How, for example, is a multicultural history to treat the discovery and settlement of North America by Europeans? The old history called it a triumphant advance for civilization. But for Indians, the same historical events are an unending sequence of defeats and disaster. Does a multicultural textbook call this a triumph or a disaster or both or neither?

What about the Mexican-American War [1846-1848]? At the time, it was thought a glorious success because it added huge chunks to the American West. But was it, instead, an imperialist atrocity? Are today’s school children to rejoice that California is part of America or are they to weep over the stolen birthright of their Hispanic brothers?

Slavery poses a similar riddle. Blacks want to make it the centerpiece of their history, and in many ways it is. For nearly 300 years, most American blacks were slaves, and virtually everything that blacks did or thought was circumscribed by slavery. Today, it is still the centerpiece of black history, because it excuses failure and can be used to extract benefits from whites.

For whites, though, slavery is a minor historical event. Except for the Civil War (which was set in motion and fought by whites) the course of the nation’s history would hardly have been different if there had been no slavery. To give it a prominent place in white history is a transparent effort to manipulate the way that whites think about the present.

Once slavery is promoted to the status of unparalleled evil, much of the past becomes incomprehensible. Is George Washington both the Father of his Country and a wicked man because he owned slaves? Is Abraham Lincoln the storied savior of the Union or is he a fiend because he thought blacks were inferior and should be sent back to Africa?

Those of us who went to school when American history still had coherence are likely to learn about the new, multicultural history only by accident. One such accident is that this year is the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America. A typical multicultural problem has thus spilled out of the classroom and gotten wider notice: Was Columbus a great explorer or was he a genocidal tyrant? Are we to celebrate half a millennium of European America or are we to hang our heads in shame? Or are we to do both?

Problems and Uncertainties

Multicultural histories, by their very nature, cannot answer these questions. And because they cannot, they present American history as a bundle of uncertainties, as a series of unsolved “problems.” Unlike the old history, which viewed the past with pride and the future with confidence, multicultural histories are diffident and perplexed. Unlike the old history, which at least gave white children a firm foundation for national identity, multicultural history says, in effect, that America has no identity. The only thing left to unite a multicultural America is geography.

One way to understand the impossible task that multicultural history has set itself is to imagine how one would write a school history book to be used in both France and Britain. How would it treat Napoleon? The very geography of London — Waterloo Station, Trafalger Square — is a monument to Englishmen who killed Frenchmen. Napoleon’s tomb, Austerlitz station, and street names like Jena and Ulm all mark the pride the French take in their ancestors' readiness to slaughter foreigners. A “multicultural” history book of the Napoleonic wars would be an absurdity, and everyone knows it. And yet, it would be no more absurd than the history books American children use today.

Non-whites have a much keener sense of their group interests than whites. They see very clearly that the future will have its winners and losers, just as history has had them. Thus, while virtually every school district with a white majority is trying to square the circle by teaching a history that is everything to everyone, school districts with black majorities are beginning to replace the old “Euro-centric” curriculum with one that is openly “Afro-centric.” They are not interested in supplementing the traditional history with different points of view. They want a single, African point of view.

In Atlanta, where 92 percent of the public school students are black, history and social studies courses have been rewritten from an “African-American” perspective. New York’s public schools recently authorized a curriculum revision based on an openly anti-white position paper drafted, in part, by the black-supremacist professor, Leonard Jeffries. In California, school districts in heavily-black Oakland and East Palo Alto started the 1991/1992 school year without social studies textbooks. They decided to develop their own black-centered materials because they could find nothing suitable.

Private black schools have gone the farthest. Some reject America, and teach their pupils that they are the African diaspora. Many teach patent nonsense, claiming that the ancient Egyptians and even King Solomon were black. Nevertheless, even if some of their material is ridiculous, Afro-centric teachers have recognized something that white teachers have forgotten: History has a point of view; it cannot be all things to all people.

Building a Nation

Blacks, then, are learning the kind of history that whites once learned — a history that builds identity and certitude. White children are learning that every interpretation is valid, that nothing is certain, that their nation’s past is all paradoxes and unsolved problems. Patriotism will not grow in the heart of a child who cannot look back with pride upon his nation’s past. We have come a long way from schooling that made Europeans into Americans. We now make Americans into nothing at all.

Multicultural history is like Affirmative Action. Just as whites are to step aside to give hiring preferences to minorities, whites are to set aside their own point of view and study those of others. Non-whites, on the other hand, are free to promote their own interests and exclusionist histories.

Like Affirmative Action, multicultural history is possible only because the majority has abandoned its position at the center. If whites insisted on their own history as strongly as non-whites insist on theirs, the inevitability of separate histories would have been recognized long ago. Nor will whites be willing to forego their own history forever. They will eventually realize that only they are studying a past with no answers and no certainties. They will eventually see that there cannot be one history that satisfies all. And they will begin to wonder whether there can be one nation that satisfies all.

History for Everyone and No One

Five years ago, the California Board of Education adopted guidelines for a new history curriculum that would “accurately portray the cultural and racial diversity of our society.” Several book companies proposed texts to meet that requirement, and last year, Houghton Mifflin won approval for its series for grades one through eight.

The title of the fifth-grade text tells the whole story. It is a line from a poem by the black writer, Langston Hughes: America Will Be. It is hard to imagine any other country publishing a history book that puts the nation in the future tense. Most nations want their children to look back on their people’s history with pride. This book seems to suggest that the real, multicultural America is yet to come.

Of course, as the texts go to great pains to explain, America was always multicultural. A typical section is entitled, “A Nation of Many Peoples,” and this does not mean Englishmen, Swedes, and Germans. One gets the impression that Europeans were a furtive side-show in a vast history that began with Indians and ends with Chinese, blacks, Hispanics, West Indians, and Native Americans.

Among the “moments in time” that the books illustrate with full-page portraits of people typical of a period, is a lasso-whirling, bronco-busting, Mexican lady-cowboy, or vaquera. Such an apparition would probably have astonished the longhorns as much as this “moment in time” astonished anyone over the age of twenty. In the 50 pages that one text devotes to the horrors of Negro slavery, there is a full-page portrait, not of a working slave but of an escaping slave.

This was not enough for the racial activists, for what they want is their own, exclusionist history. Houghton Mifflin officials, who expected praise and gratitude for their painstakingly “inclusive” history, were astonished by the accusations hurled at them. They did not realize that, for the most part, it is only whites who want a multiperspective history.

The overall director of the series, Professor Gary Nash, is a well-known leftist and a leading proponent of multiculturalism. He, too, was shocked by critics who called him a racist and a white supremacist. “If I'm the bad guy,” he wanted to know, “who are your allies?”

Several majority-black school districts rejected the texts outright. In San Francisco, where 82 percent of the public school children are non-white, the school board reluctantly accepted the books, but added a supplemental reading list with titles like Black Heroes of the Wild West, Chinese Americans, Past and Present, and Gays in America. (Homosexuals were angry that these grade school texts said nothing about their contributions to America.)

The battle over text books was especially bruising in California because, by 1995, a majority of its public school students will be non-white. Nevertheless, the white decline is rapidly moving East. The struggle for America’s past is only warming up.

Some battles have already been lost. A 1983 study by Nathan Glazer and Reed Ueda of six leading history texts found that blacks and Hispanics got at least four times as much coverage as European immigrant groups, and even trivial non-white successes were paraded as brilliant achievements.

The multiculturalists have already come a long way. More American 17-year-olds can now tell you who Harriet Tubman was than know who Winston Churchill or Joseph Stalin were. They are more likely to know about her than to know that Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation or that George Washington commanded the American revolutionary army.

Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 159-165.