Multiculturalism and Education: A Historical Overview

Robert Russell By Robert Russell, 20th Feb 2012 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Family>Education

Multiculturalism has slowly evolved since its origins in the 1950s civil rights movement to become part of the cultural mainstream. The civil rights movement in the United States brought to the surface issues of discrimination, oppression and inequality. Multiculturalism is motivated by the desire to recognize the diversity of cultures rather than privileging one dominant culture.


The antecedents of multicultural education are found in the late 19th and the early 20th century. A number of scholars--including George Washington Carver, W.E.B. DuBois and Charles H. Wesley--set out to challenge the prevailing views and stereotypes of African-Americans. Negative images of African-American were not only part of the popular culture but were also embedded in educational and scientific institutions in the United States. The early pioneers of ethnic studies set out to debunk pseudo-scientific theories and misinformation about African-Americans through detailed scholarship.

Civil Rights Movement

The movement toward multicultural education began with the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The original civil rights leaders were inspired by the work of DuBois and his colleagues. The civil rights movement challenged the political and cultural hegemony of white America. They targeted specific institutions, educational institutions in particular, that discriminated and oppressed African-Americans because of race. They demanded institutional equality, the end of discriminatory practices, curriculum reform and a re-examination of hiring practices.

Influence of Other Social Movements

The successes of the civil rights movement encouraged other groups of oppressed people to challenge power structures. These movements also had profound effects on the development of multicultural education. In the early 1960s and the 1970s the women's rights movement and feminist scholarship focused on the institutional sexism and oppression of women. Education was singled out as the primary culprit in perpetuating a systemic structure of sexism that denied women equal access and opportunity. Demands were made for a more inclusive curriculum that represented women's history and experiences. Other oppressed groups--including gays, lesbians and the elderly--organized and made similar demands.

Multicultural Scholarship

Multiculturalism became a dominant theme in intellectual and academic scholarship in the 1980s. This produced significant changes at the practical level of educational institutions. Theorists in sociology, philosophy, anthropology, as well as other disciplines, present a many-sided critique of Western Euro-centric culture. The criticisms revealed that the contemporary understanding of history and culture privileged Western European culture and white male-dominated power structures. The different theories of multiculturalism inspired educational activists to seek significant changes in the educational institutions from K to 12 to colleges and universities

Practical Effects for Education

The effects of multiculturalism in the classroom affect both the form and the content of education. Schools and academic institutions are compelled to exercise fairness in hiring practices. Administrators and colleagues are held responsible if they engage in sexist, racist or other discriminatory behavior in the classroom. New textbooks endorsing a multicultural perspective on subjects such as history, literature and art have replaced old texts that neglected other cultures.


1960S Social Movements, Civil Rights, Education, Multiculturalism, Sociology

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author avatar Robert Russell
I play guitar professionally in a Cajun/zydeco band named Creole Stomp. We are a nationally touring band that have been together ten years. I also have a PhD in philosophy.

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author avatar Robb714
21st Feb 2012 (#)

While this is a beautifully written article that shows the effort involved in researching it, I think multiculturalism dates back thousands of years to the tower of Babel as opposed to your suggestion of it beginning in the 19th Century. For one thing, there were African-Europeans centuries before there were African-Americans. Actually, hyphenated cultures have been around and a stumbling block to humanity for a very long time, prior to from which your research seems to suggest. If you back up your theories to Biblical times, I think you can have a much longer inclusive article or a whole book even.

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