What Price Multiculturalism?

by Matthew Cornetta

"Madrid es todo eso y mucho más— en mezcla de chulería y delicadeza, ponche ideal de limón y cerveza." -Ramón Gómez de la Serna                 (To even attempt to translate this gem of Castilian prose would be a Multicultural abortion. M.C.)

When I was back at Teachers College in New York City, I sat through class after class where we never talked about content but instead about methodology and agendas. "Let’s get something didactic in there about Native Americans," they would say, or "Let’s teach a whole class around Ghandi and link him to Martin Luther King Jr... And let’s teach it all in Spanish!" The funny thing is that I was in the History program with some hundred students and I don’t think that even ten of us majored in History as undergraduates. But that did not seem to matter. The view was—one need not know History in order to teach it; what one needs to know is the correct agendas and strategies to make the class fun and interesting... And top on this list of agendas and strategies was, Multiculturalism. It was the Multiculturalism issue that set me off.... In the first place, what the hell does it mean? Does it mean hearing Arnold Schwarzenegger say "Hasta la vista baby?" Does it mean, going down to Chi-chi’s and listening to waiters mispronounce Mexican dishes that are so rotten anyway that I should think the Mexican people would petition to have their country’s name removed from any association with that circus!? But here I am getting off the subject (if it can be called a subject).

Multiculturalism is an agenda without content. Those who would argue need only look around and see how backward we Americans are in terms of bilingual abilities and cultural knowledge. Of course, this state of affairs only prompts the Multiculturalists to proclaim even more vociferously-- "Yes—and that is why it is important to get Multicultural issues into the school, so that students may improve their knowledge of cultures and languages." But I disagree. Another language is meaningless unless you have a firm grasp of your own language. And another culture is meaningless unless you have a firm grasp of your own culture... Therein is the problem. Only when we first endeavor to learn about our history and about our language does it naturally follow that we shall discover how these two things fit into a wider web of world culture—thus allowing us to see causes and effects and to make comparisons and contrasts which will render everything as: textured, rich, and three dimensional.

The process of learning in this way is a discipline, like gymnastics, or cabinet making; it is not some half-ass Jeopardy where students get shuffled from class to class, absorbing disconnected tidbits of so-called knowledge and culture.... (Sound familiar? It must if you have ever gone to school!) But don’t get me wrong here. I am not accusing the schools of do-nothingness; on the contrary, they are trying to do too much. Indeed, they are turning the classroom into a multimaniacal "Sam’s Club" of issues, agendas, facts and debates which only leaves the students overwhelmed and confused and figuratively wanting to retreat to a hole in the wall grocery store for that particular quart of milk. We must remember that the fundamental job of school is to teach students how to learn. That is, to teach appreciation for the subtle principles that motor history and science and language... It is a very simple thing, but then, why do so many students graduate without this appreciation and yet with the ability to say "Hasta la Vista?" (Incidentally, I have never met one native Spanish speaker who has used this expression.) It is this ability to appreciate that drives the student to learn about other cultures through: friendships, work, travel and.... Life! Through living and gradually learning about our own culture and the cultures of others, we can steadily gather, build, and assimilate—thus creating the sort of knowledge-craving mind that we associate with cultured people. Let us remember that there are still plenty of cultured people out there who have had little or no schooling. (Let us also remember Winston Churchill’s famous quote, "My education was only interrupted by my schooling!")

On the other hand, when Multicultural studies are packaged into neat little lectures and stuffed into students heads over the course of a few years, they lose their context and make little, if any impression. Schools can never hope to inject students with culture or Multi-culture—they cannot supplant those much more powerful effects of family, friends, and work. (i.e. life) It is through family, friends and work that people grow to discover who they are. And as they discover this they learn about their own culture—that is, the traditions and quirks, likes and dislikes, of their particular circle of people... Indeed, culture is everywhere and it is extremely complex and interwoven into subtle patterns. It cannot be simply categorized into American Culture, Canadian Culture, etc. No, no, no-- There is a Wisconsin culture for example, and then there is a Western Wisconsin culture, and then there is a Northwestern Wisconsin culture and then there is a..... Well, go on down to Water Street and you’ll find that the culture changes from block to block!! Now, with such a diverse web of cultures going on right under our noses how can these schools even pretend to be teaching classes like "A Comprehensive Look at Japanese Culture!!!???"

They don’t even begin to know! And let’s just look at a couple of cases. I took four years of Spanish in High School and what I spoke after I graduated sounded closer to Swahili. Later, I learned Spanish all over again—in Spain. Isn’t this the better way to do it? Another case—have you ever traveled to places that you learned about in school and then discovered that they were nothing like you pictured? Indeed schools are limited in what they can do, and yet they try to do so much.... Scrap the agendas—save them for Congress. Concentrate on content, discipline, and organization. Oh! Concentrate on concentration too-- Train the mind to think and question and then think and question again... If you do not teach students how to learn or, at least how to want to learn, then you have failed... All the politically correct Multicultural facts in the world do not amount to a hill of beans without the ability to interpret them... Let’s get back to basics here... Let’s get back to quiet contemplation because, frankly, I’m sick of politics, and infomania, and correctness and agendas and condoms and sexual harassment and Multiculturalism. Etc.. Oh yes, and I’m sick of hearing, "hasta la vista." You say, "hasta luego."