Multiculturalism in the Adult Education Class:
What changed on 9/11?
A few months ago, I wrote the first of a series of articles proposing the development of a comprehensive approach to teaching Multiculturalism in the Adult Education class. This is an area of training and research to which I have devoted the last nine years of my life.
I believe that multicultural education has always been important, but now things have changed dramatically in our country: the tragic events of September 11 have brought, in my opinion, the need for multicultural understanding to the forefront. Not only have the terrorist attacks shocked and harmed us in their overwhelming destruction, but also there is potential for even more harm if we allow ourselves to generalize negative stereotypes and blame all members of a particular group or religion because of the actions of a fanatical few.
The Need for Multicultural Education
When adult education teachers are asked to consider the challenges they face in the classroom today, they rarely mention challenges posed by multicultural classrooms; nor do they mention the lack of multicultural training opportunities for themselves. However, I believe that our classrooms are the places where an enlightened reaction to both the tragic events of September 11 and to the challenges of day-to-day multicultural interactions can and should take place. Further, I believe that teachers should be armed with training that helps them teach and model behaviors that result in successful multicultural interactions.
What is Multicultural Education?
Traditionally, multicultural education has been aimed at understanding and appreciating other languages and cultures. This happens through teaching not only actual information about the target culture, but also what Senator Paul Simon called "an intellectual and emotional appreciation of cultures other than [our] own."
One of the basic approaches to multicultural education uses data gathered by an ethnographic study of the target culture. Through careful observation (among other techniques), the ethnographer arrives at a description of the target culture that reflects hundreds of generalizations. These are based on what Bennett (1998) calls the "central tendency" of the group - that is the behavior exhibited by the largest number of people in the culture. Most multicultural education programs use this information to teach students to recognize patterns of behavior, values, and attitudes that differ from their own. While this approach is valuable and informative, it does not allow us to take the next natural step, that is, using the information learned in actual intercultural communication events.
What are the purposes of Multicultural Education?
During the last 30 years, there has been great progress toward the implementation of multicultural education, despite some serious detractors. One consistent, if misguided, criticism of multicultural education is that it is for people of color, not for the majority. Another is that the study of multicultural education has displaced the study of Western culture with the study of a varied heritage. These arguments are pernicious, and espousing them hurts us all, because multicultural education is not "for" one minority or another, but rather for all cultural groups to learn to communicate with each other. It is about adding to the canon rather than subtracting from it while expanding our mainstream knowledge.
Multicultural education is about giving everyone the skills necessary to succeed in a culturally and ethically diverse nation and world. As teachers in the adult education class in general - and the Civics class in particular - it should be our goal to prepare educated adults to succeed as citizens. In order to do that they need to understand (and we need to foster awareness of) the place of intercultural communication in our society, in the workplace, in the schools, in our places of worship, and in general in the global economy. Part of being American is being open to the diversity that makes the country strong. Part of being a good citizen is learning to legitimize, welcome, and value the heritage of all groups in our society.
Multicultural Education: The Need for a New Curriculum
In the field of adult education the inclusion of multiculturalism has had uneven success. In the ESL classroom, teachers integrate a variety of multicultural activities, but the ABE/ASE class has not seen an equal emphasis. Although ESL students are a natural group for multicultural education, we should not forget that we live in a multicultural society and all our adult students live and work in multicultural settings. It is important to realize that we are preparing adults who must succeed in a highly competitive multicultural society in which the workplace is far from culturally homogeneous. Many textbooks show diverse characters and present multicultural examples, but in many instances there is little done in terms of multicultural awareness, other than presenting a few situations mostly drawn along the lines of ethnicity and national origin.
The curriculum has to be redrawn to address the real concerns of communication in a multicultural community. The objectives of the new approach to teaching in the multicultural context are first of all to foster the recognition and acceptance of the fundamental differences that exist between groups; second, to enable students to negotiate meaning and reality in multicultural contexts; and finally, to develop tools to manage conflict in cross-cultural communication events. But what are the characteristics of such a curriculum?
Wurzel (1988) suggests that multicultural education is not "an instructional product but... a continuous process..." that starts with the development of an awareness of the student's (and our own) cultural identity or self-awareness. Included would be:
- an acceptance of the conflict generated by cultural differences as an educational tool (managed conflict is a learning - and teaching - opportunity);
- ongoing opportunities to learn there are different perspectives of reality, and that reality can be negotiated;
- integrated activities that generate controlled opportunities for improved intercultural communication; and
- an awareness of the universality of multiculturalism, given the fact that virtually all contexts in which we engage in communication are multicultural even when the major identifiers (nationality, ethnicity, etc.) are the same.
Multiculturalism - Necessary for a Multicultural World
Beyond stereotypes and general descriptions of cultural patterns, multicultural education has two very practical applications in today's world: first, the only way we can keep the competitive edge in the global economy is by learning to communicate more successfully in an intercultural market. It is simply smart to learn how to do business with suppliers and customers from other cultures, because we cannot isolate ourselves any further and expect to succeed. Second, after 9/11 there is an urgent need to adopt and adapt new approaches to dealing with the multiplicity of cultural issues, and the diversity of our teaching situation. We need to be prepared to answer the questions of our students, and we must be able to manage as far as possible in the classroom the inevitable conflicts that are likely to arise in the near future given the current world situation.
In this necessarily limited space I have attempted to establish the bases for further discussion about multicultural education in the context of adult education. I believe that without a concerted effort in that direction we will not be able to adequately address the problems of the adult education classroom today.
About the Author
Federico Salas, Director of Adult Education at North Harris College in Houston, has worked in Adult Education for 15 years. A former GED, ESL, and Spanish instructor, Federico has a Master's Degree in Applied Linguistics (ESL). The Adult Education Professional Development Center at NHC is currently developing a 12-hour training program for effective multiculturalism. The pilot for this training will be available starting in March 2002.
Bennett, Milton (ed.). 1998. Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication. Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press, Inc.
Wurzel, Jaime. 1988. Toward Multi-culturalism: A Reader in Multicultural Education. Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press, Inc.