THE DISUNITING OF AMERICA:
A MULTICULTURAL SOCIETY.
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
160 pages. $14.95.
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a distinguished American historian, has written an interesting if highly partisan attack on the new multicultural education movement in "The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society."
The very title itself poses the central question of when America's cultural mosaic was ever "united," except as elements held together by the dominant culture, and whether this model is what Dr. Schlesinger wishes to perpetuate by offering this volume. Citing the 18th century view of French immigrant J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur of America as a melting pot, he frets that the "new gospel [of multiculturalism] condemns Crevecoeur's vision of individuals of all nations melted into a new race in favor of an opposite notion: a nation of groups."
Yet Dr. Schlesinger admits that Crevecoeur's view was addressed essentially to European assimilation under an Anglocentric hegemony, better known as the "Anglo conformity doctrine." It was similar to the Herrenvolk doctrine practiced in South Africa -- a democratic pluralism for whites only. Even then, blacks were a group apart.
On the other hand, he errs badly by supporting the eminent Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, who suggested that the craving of both black and white American groups for historical identity was a phenomenon of "upper-class intellectuals" who were generally "self-appointed" spokesmen. How, then, does one account for the expansive movement of Marcus Garvey in the 1920s for black pride and African redemption, which swept the imagination of not only black Americans, but blacks in virtually every corner of the globe?
Dr. Schlesinger also points out that mainline historians excluded African contributions to American civilization, but cautions that one of the foibles of ethnic history resides in the idea that cultural nationalism often has led to historical revisionism, citing incidents when German and Soviet intellectuals used history in their political struggles.
Nevertheless, this does not seem to be the predisposition of ethnic historians alone -- witness the current attempt by politicians to create the myth that America "won" the Cold War, rather than that the Soviet empire simply collapsed of its own contradictions.
In any case, his point about the cultural use of history illustrates that there is a struggle over definitions involving African-American history that is the context for his powerful attack upon the current group of Afrocentric historians. They include Dr. Maulana Karenga, chairman of Black Studies at California State College at Long Beach; Dr. Molefi Asante, Director of Africana Studies at Temple University; Dr. Leonard Jeffries, chairman of Black Studies at City College of New York; Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Dr. Josef Ben Joachanan and others.
These academics have long professed the necessity for the "rescue and reconstruction" of black history and have criticized establishment historians not only for excluding Africans from Western history, but for being complicit in the debasement of African civilization and the continued devaluation of the black mind.
Dr. Schlesinger takes us through a number of permutations that reveal his solid agreement with other black and white opponents of Afrocentric scholarship, and the motivation for his dissent from the 1989 New York State History Curriculum Committee's recommendations adopting Afrocentric education.
Yet his analysis of similar curriculum revisions in other states implies what I believe to be a number of false assumptions: that Afrocentric scholars have produced nothing but erroneous facts as the basis of their view; that they have no right to assert cultural claims as the basis for the authenticity of their world view; that they are engaged in self-esteem building and ethnic cheerleading; that they have politicized the education process, etc.
These implications actually reflect a defensive posture. The fact is that the historians, politicians and bureaucrats who have controlled the nation's education curriculum are being threatened by the rapid growth of the grass-roots Afrocentric movement under way in cities such as New York, Milwaukee, Detroit, Los Angeles, Washington, Baltimore and others. Ordinary blacks are making the linkage between their own legitimacy as human beings with a history, the right of their culture to be studied within the education institutions for which they also pay taxes, and the impact of a positive self-image upon their social progress.
As long as the black studies movement was ghettoized within American higher education and posed no threat of being consumed by all students as part of the central educative core, it was tolerated by Dr. Schlesinger and other liberal intellectuals. However, Afrocentric education has become controversial because, like other aspects of multicultural education, its adherents insist upon evaluating life through the prism of the culture being studied, not solely by external standards.
Today, African-Americans -- but also Hispanics, American Indians and Asians -- are aware of their growing demographic presence and their importance to the future of this nation. As such, they are moving swiftly beyond the old plantations of educational thought and practice to establish a more valid multicultural mosaic held together by mutual consent, rather than by hegemonic educational structure. This type of education, they believe, is the route to a truly united America.
Dr. Walters is chairman of the Political Science Department at Howard University. His book, "Pan Africanism in the African Diaspora: A Contemporary Analysis of Afrocentric Politics," will be published in August by Wayne State University Press.