The Baltimore City schools' new multicultural curriculum, some five years in the making, finally hits the classroom this fall. The new materials cover grades K-12 and emphasize the contributions of minorities to American and world history.
The present program is much more ambitious than previous PTC efforts in that it brings a multicultural approach to every subject area. Not only will children learn about the Medieval African empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai and read the poetry of Langston Hughes, they will also learn the Egyptians' method of multiplication and study the achievements of Africa's Islamic astronomers. The first phase of the program, which begins this year, concentrates on people of African descent; succeeding years will introduce materials addressing the contributions of Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans.
A task force appointed by the school board studied the experience of other cities, convened panels of experts to help it develop recommendations, then submitted its proposals for public review. Out of this process grew guidelines for the school system staffers who wrote the actual curriculum.
This approach has allowed Baltimore's multicultural program to avoid the controversy surrounding similar programs elsewhere. Still, many unanswered questions remain concerning the nature of the improvements that studies of other cultures are expected to produce among city students. School officials are still developing plans to test the program's pedagogical efficacy. The concept may be admirable for any number of reasons, but the bottom line still is whether it works.
There are also problems of credibility. For example, a list of "understandings" compiled by the task force includes the statement that "Africans came to the Americas prior to 1492." This notion apparently derives from Rutgers University historian
Ivan Van Sertima's 1976 book, "They Came Before Columbus," in which he argues, unpersuasively to our mind, that African mariners may have reached the New World as early as 800 B.C.
One can only hope that this is the only example of such ideological overreaching. It's one thing to present novel ideas as intriguing possibilities, quite another to treat them as established fact. That just invites the sort of criticism this city doesn't need. The goal of multiculturalism ought to be a more accurate appreciation of the past. Baltimore's program could be a model of what such an approach can accomplish. It would be a pity see that undermined over relatively trivial issues of dubious intellectual pedigree.