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By Mary E. Cepeda

The Dynamics and Benefits of a Multicultural Education

Malala Yousafzai once famously said "We cannot succeed when half of us are left behind." This is especially apparent in the achievement gaps between groups of students, including students of color and white students, and low-income and middle- to upper-class students. Despite this benevolent and righteous aim, there are still critics who argue that multiculturalism has no place in schools. Research has proven this wrong countless times. Multiculturalism has both practical and creative applications that extend far beyond simply providing "representation."

What is it?

Multiculturalism can best be understood as a meeting of empathy and equal opportunity for achievement across race, gender and class. Rather than dismissing other cultures in favor of a dominant one, multicultural education seeks to embrace multiple cultures and incorporate both its history and its sociological makeup into the curriculum[i]. This reflects the five major themes of multiculturalism: content integration, knowledge construction, a pedagogy of equity, prejudice reduction and an environment of empowerment and affirmation[ii].

Content integration and knowledge construction have an especially important impact on how students will learn to perceive different cultures. This phenomenon is partly explained by the idea of relational content. It supposes that the disparity of power between the speaker and the recipient affects how a message is received.

The reception of this content is one cog in the larger wheel of socialization of the school environment whereby the older members of the social structure pass on social norms – including attitudes and customs – to the younger members. In the case of passive socialization, the younger members assimilate to these norms without an exchange of contrary ideas[iii]. Without that exchange, students may absorb the hostile racial biases of their teachers. For example, though a teacher may design a syllabus with multicultural narratives in mind, speaking in a condescending manner or leaving out key facts will be more impactful than the content of the course.

So what?

The implications of this intergenerational racial bias are damaging. Research has proven that racism has profound effects on a victim's mental health. Racial bias carried from the class to the workforce amplifies institutionalized racism, affecting an individual's standards of living, such as housing. These experiences of racism can be degenerative to an individual's psychological, emotional and physical well-being[iv].

While critics may argue that an immediate response does not always reflect truly racist values, and is thereby not threatening, it has also been proven that those quick responses can be dangerous. That immediate bias can translate into potentially devastating scenarios such as physically larger black men being perceived as threatening[v] or black women finding themselves more at a risk for pedestrian car accidents than white women[vi]. Multiculturalism addresses these issues by examining forces of stereotyping, such as media, and learning about how to develop one's understanding beyond such stereotypes[vii].

How does multiculturalism help?

Introducing, examining and affirming a variety of narratives from different cultures are important tools to introducing empathy for those typically considered "the other." For example, in a study of group bias among children, it was found that children who had refused to help an "outsider" changed their minds when introduced to the perspective of that outsider[viii]. On the other hand, studies have also found that a dominant message of denying cultural differences produced quicker responses of racial bias[ix].

The three most widely used forms of multicultural education include formal, symbolic and societal curriculums. This ranges from incorporating authentic cultural texts into the syllabus, utilizing cultural symbols such as artwork and examining the messages about culture relayed by media. Most importantly, this includes the adaptation of the teacher to the cultural-sociological framework of their students' different cultures. Following the theory of socialization, this means that students will also learn to adapt to a diverse world.

Two for the price of one?

These elements affirm that multicultural education not only narrows achievement gaps between groups of students, but also benefits students who already excel. Examinations of the decline in creative education have found that a major problem was the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality educators tend to possess. Most teacher see no reason to improve the creative dynamics of their classroom, thus making no effort to improve those dynamics[x]. Multiculturalism, on the other hand, demands that creative energy.

Sound good?

Multicultural education is both emphatic and creative, providing students a strong tool to combat unintentionally or intentionally taught biases. Deconstructing these biases has broad implications not only for public safety, but for the critical thinking skills necessary for economic and emotional reasons. Socrates called the "unexamined life" one not to be lived. The examined life – and a full, well-rounded education – should include the examination of the individual's relation to others and solutions for peaceable interactions.

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