Reconstructing Multicultural Education through Personal Story: Transcending the Essentialist/Relativist Dichotomy

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Multicultural Education




Like so many other concepts in education, multiculturalism is a term that has lost its potency because of miseducative examples that serve to maintain Whiteness as the cultural norm. At first it offered great promise, but now as a "social science" quite often one is just exchanging one type of essentialism for another. The "packet" approach that lumps all the people under one racial, ethnic, or religious heading, as a way to learn about other cultures, is an example of this. The demographics of the United States are rapidly changing. If the fallacy of Whiteness as the "normal" background is to be kept in place, it will require an even greater propagation of historical and cultural "White lies" than what already exists in the present. Challenging the myth of a racial norm of any kind must be a vital and ongoing part of the field of education and one of the best ways to approach this is through personal stories. Every human is unique. Each one is the product of their own biological and cultural journey, with a unique schemata and capacity for personal and public ways of knowing, being, and self-expression. Both essentialism and extreme relativism miss the mark insofar as offering an adequate representation of personal signature and voice. When applied to identity, essentialism refers to "the notion that individual groups have an immutable and discoverable "essence"--a basic, unvariable, and presocial nature." The most obvious examples are categories of race, class, and gender. The concept of ethnicity breaks things down further, but still comes short of a full account of individual difference and personal story. Extreme relativism, on the other hand, treats biological differences as a socially constructed myth, and personal identity as a completely fluid concept. The inner landscape of each human is as varied as his or her outward physical features, and is the result of both genetic and cultural influences. It is through the power of personal story that people are able to move out of the essentialist/relativist dichotomy, out of abstraction and into the domain where each individual path of experience is incomparable and immeasurable in one aspect, but also universal in terms of sharing human life. It is one's personal story that provides the dynamic of teaching and learning. Students are more likely to notice ways of knowing for which one is passionate, that generate motivation to move beyond every barrier, into personal and public spaces of being. The author contends that true multicultural education is so much more than a social science. It is a release from inarticulate stasis through metaphoric connections expressed in personal story.