The Ambiguities of Multicultural

By: Kogila A. Moodley

From: Currents Fall 1984 pp.5-7
© 1984 Urban Alliance on Race Relations

Much of the ambiguity surrounding the policy of multiculturalism also applies to multicultural education. It incorporates notions of cultural pluralism, special needs, and more recently, anti-racism as a means to change attitudes. Underlying these is the pervasive sense of cultural harmony which overlooks the prime goals of equality of opportunity and equality of condition.

A somewhat static conception of "culture" is implicit in most views of multicultural education. Culture is seen as a set of more or less immutable characteristics, attributable to different groups of people. These are used to identify people and often produce stereotypes, contrary to intention. (Rosen, 1977). The notion of culture which the Royal Commission's Book lV (1969:11) espouses as an afterthought under the heading "The Cultural Contributions of Other Ethnic Groups" in 1969, reveals a lyrical fiction that bears little resemblance to minority reality. "Culture", the Commission waxes, "is a way of being thinking and feeling. It is a driving force animating a significant group of individuals united by common tongue and sharing the same customs, habits and experiences."

If one takes the public definition of the two most stigmatized ethnic minorities in Canada, Native people and "East Indians", neither of the cultural attributes fits their experience. Native people are neither united by indigenous language nor customs and habits. So-called Indo-Canadians, who arrived in Canada from four continents and as members of three world religions (Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam) and various subsects (Ismailis, Sikhs, Protestants), are even more split in the ideological lenses they use to interpret different experiences.

What unites all groups regardless of origin, is not an alleged common culture but common exposure to manifold discrimination and being an "outsider". It is this unifying experience of conflict with and uneasy accommodation to mainstream culture that unites the minorities. Past ideological formulas for making sense of a different social environment in precolonial America or post-colonial India offer little useful guide to coping with Canadian challenges apart from giving a sense of dignity to contrast with the low status in the country of adoption. Uncritical heritage maintenance per se can be a hindrance rather than a facilitator to meaningful survival The cultural baggage of immigrants is continually examined for what is useful and meaningful in the new society and some aspects discarded as being culture-specific to another place and time. The outcome of this process amounts to a new ethnicity that has little in common with the reified notion that official multiculturalism intends to preserve nor is it identical with melting into a dominant mainstream.

The extension of welfare state provisions together with the much more diverse ethnic and occupational composition of immigrants since the late 1960's have created a new ethnicity in Canada. This is reflected in a much greater variety of responses on the part of newcomers and hosts alike that in turn amounts to a new Canadian cultural configuration for educational policy.

It is this dynamic aspect of culture which is everywhere visible and yet ignored. Seemingly homogeneous groups are in fact disparate, are at different stages of acculturation, are geographically dispersed, hail from different parts of the world, represent a tremendous array of regional linguistic and religious difference. Above all they only seem unified by their goal of success in mainstream society. There are few societies which better illustrate Malinowski's argument that culture contact produces a third cultural reality for immigrants, which is neither the original nor the new host culture. (Malinowski 1945:20-26).

The complex problem of perpetuating different cultural traditions within the school in a pluralistic configuration is evident. Foremost is the challenge to teachers as unauthentic agents of cultural transmission. Expecting teachers to communicate cultural content from highly complex cultures, without reifying, fragmenting and trivializing them to the ridiculous is not unproblematic. In many instances the value incongruence between mainstream teachers and those of other groups is a real barrier. This is not to deny the need for teachers to come to terms with their own ethnocentrism, and to have knowledge of the cultural backgrounds of their students. However, as David Kirp (1979: 132) points out, the paths to be avoided are a descent into mindless multiculturalism on the one hand and a determined effort to preserve the past for the sake of preservation.

Education about different cultures in schools need not imply a challenge to the hegemony of mainstream education. In South Africa, for example, ethnically based education has been used to limit the aspirations of subordinated groups. As Farrukh Dhondy and others have argued in Britain, about the history of the Raj in India,"Two hundred years of rule may have bred a complete understanding of Indian civilization, culture and habits, but this understanding did not alter the structure of Empire." (Stenhouse, et al 1982:18). Similarly, Jones and Kimberley suggest that "uncritical use of multiculturalism has been seen as way of defusing conflict and pacifying vocal members of affected minorities" (Tierney,:144).

While knowledge of other cultures is important for teachers, on balance, it is clearly less important than the concern about race issues, and how racism permeates society and the school through teacher attitudes, negative racial images, racial bias in schools and society. (Affor,1983:9). Teacher attitudes stand out as a crucial concern. Indeed an unbiased teacher working with biased materials within an ethnocentric curriculum may well be preferable to a biased teacher working with multiethnic learning materials and teaching ethnic history. (ibid:10). An insensitive and naive use of aspects of non-Western cultures that are non-functional in Canada can just as easily undervalue and ridicule heritages out of context and thereby further entrench their second class status. As Kirp (1982:132) maintains,"It is in fusing what deserves to endure with the contribution of the present that the educational system will most effectively respond to issues of race."

Competence Not Culture is the Major Concern of Minority Group Parents

On the whole, competence, not culture, is the major concern of minority group parents. While these are not mutually exclusive, it is foremost the mastery of modern as well as the retention of functional aspects of their own traditional knowledge to which they most aspire. The former serves their instrumental, survival needs which are priority in the country of adoption; the latter, their expressive needs, for which they themselves assume responsibility. Whereas diverse cultural inclusion in the school curriculum is an important device for raising self concept of minority children, the majority of minority parents see their children as educationally deprived rather than culturally deprived. In this respect, there has been a tendency to overstate low self-concept as a cause of minority children's failure (Stone, 1981; Musgrove, 1982). On the other hand, we overlook the fact that self concept emerges not only from cultural recognition but from being able to have greater mastery over one's life.

As my research among minority parents in B.C. has clearly shown, there is a preference for competence which overrides a concern for heritage. What most minority parents want for their children is not condescending teaching of fragmented, diluted versions of their culture, taught second hand by a non-authentic group member. They expect committed, demanding teaching aimed at mastery of the basic skills that are required to survive and succeed in the new home country. In many instances this was the prime reason for leaving the country of origin. Musgrove articulates a similar view for minorities in Britain. "What 'other cultures' want from us many would see as most worthy, distinguished, and indeed central in our educational tradition (though perhaps a little old-fashioned) - high moral teaching and good learning: a sense of values and a strenuous disciplined pursuit of knowledge ... The arguments are educational, the imperialism pedagogic" (Musgrove, 1982:180).

An example of this phenomenon is a B.C. school which established an enrichment program for Native Indian pupils. They were removed from regular classes to read from books containing native stories and illustrated entirely with Native peoples' pictures. In addition, twice a week older native community persons were invited to teach beadwork and net-mending. Several sympathetic teachers felt that the children who needed most attention were being shortchanged by a well intentioned effort. Such an instance shows all too clearly how unreal and ineffective such idealized conceptions of Native culture can turn out. They correspond to treatment outside the school gates, encapsulate and further disadvantage the students who need energetic efforts at mastering mainstream survival skills most. While such efforts may increase greater self respect toward a forgotten heritage in the short run, dysfunctional cultural survival shortchanges students' opportunities in the long run.

Along the same lines Maureen Stone (1981) points to"progressive" multicultural teaching as contributing to West Indian children's failure in adapting to child centred teaching and learning approaches. Quoting Gramsci she stresses the need for minority children to acquire the dominant forms of knowledge in order to better challenge it.

In these instances, it is clear that cultural content in the school curriculum takes second place to other forces which stand in the way of academic achievement. The most successful communities are those which have taken cultural and religious education into their hands while entrusting public schools with the training for the marketplace.

What does this leave for schools to do with the multicultural curriculum? It does not preclude information and awareness of the cultural backgrounds of pupils, to better diagnose strengths and weaknesses, as well as differences in cognitive styles. It assumes provision for learning of heritage languages for all students who so choose. It still calls for active anti-racism awareness examining teacher expectations, stereotyping and bias in school materials. It also calls for an appreciation of diversity in the curricula material which must be integrated thematically in a global perspective and not as an end in itself.

These basic achievement aspirations are the substance that all minority groups share, transcending the specific differences of country of origin, language, religious affiliation or race.

Kogila A. Moodley is with the Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.


Affor, Issues and Resources: Handbook for Teachers in the Multicultural Society, Birmingham, Russell, 1983.

David Kirp, Doing Good by Doing Little: Race and Schooling in Britain. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1979.

B. Malinowski, The Dynamics of Culture Change, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1945.

Kogila Moodley, "Canadian Multiculturalism as Ideology," Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 6, Number 3, July 1983, pp. 320-331.

Frank Musgrove, Education and Anthropology, Other Cultures and the Teacher, Toronto, John Wiley, 1982.

David Rosen, "Multicultural education: An anthropological perspective." Anthropology and Education Quarterly,8, 1977.

Lawrence Stenhouse, Gajendra Verma Robert Wild and Jon Nixon Teaching about Race Relations Problems and Effects, London, Routeledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.

Maureen Stone, The Education of the Black Child in Britain: The Myth of Multicultural Education, Glasgow, Fontana, 1981.

John Tierney (ed.) Race, Migration and Schooling, Eastbourne: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1982.

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