In his 1991 book The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, historian and former presidential advisor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. paints a vivid and compelling portrait of the potential dangers of America’s multi-ethnic culture. Schlesinger explains that the long-term struggle against the inherent Anglo-centrism in America has produced an ethnocentric upsurge that threatens to pull apart the American “melting pot” and replace it with distinct cultural separations. He recognizes that America is a unique society in that it was multi-ethnic from the time of its founding, and as such has a cultural identity unlike any other country; one that is made up people hailing from many different cultures that have all chosen to be part of the American whole. He observes that the gap between these cultures has widened rather than closed through the country’s history for various reasons, not the least of which are its Anglo-centric origins. Schlesinger explains that in our pluralistic society, national identity – the American ideals of freedom, justice and equality – is the ideal to which we must strive; otherwise the “cult of ethnicity” may finally undermine American social unity.
America is in dire need of unification. While the country was founded upon democratic ideals, the Anglo-centric and Euro-centric biases pervasive in American society caused distinct prejudices – racial, sexual, and religious, etc. – to be woven into the fabric of the American national identity. From the enslavement of Africans to the mistreatment of Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Asians, women and many others, American history is rife with racism and bigotry. These prejudices, Schlesinger argues, have created the upsurge of ethnocentrism that threatens American unity. Unfortunately, the idea of integration is a relatively recent development in American history. Racist ideals – stemming from countless sources – made assimilation and integration of other racial groups unappealing to white Americans.
The problem with history is that it is incredibly powerful, and it can be dangerous. It can be interpreted to serve as justification, and it can be manipulated as people see fit. History, like most other things, is interpreted in different ways based on the point of view of the observer, and can be reinterpreted thereafter to serve different purposes. Schlesinger simply points out that “honest history is the weapon of freedom” (p. 58), and as such it must be used correctly in order to reinforce American ideals rather than undermine them. The problem is that history – especially in education – has been viewed from the Anglo-centric point of view for the majority of American history. This view is widely opposed as it is seen to reinforce stereotypes in society in many cases. Schlesinger explains that “history is to the nation rather as memory is to the individual” (p. 51). As such, history should be presented in a fair and balanced, but ultimately objective manner. It does not need to be changed or manipulated, and one version of history certainly should not be presented above or in place of another. Rather, American history must be presented and viewed as it is: an account of the creation of the American culture.
It is easy to conceive that prejudice leads to segregation, an idea that reinforces ethnic connections while further undermining American social unity. From these ethnic connections are born the ethnocentrism that Schlesinger is concerned about. It is important to note that Schlesinger does not come across as a racist or a bigot; on the contrary, he emphasizes the importance of maintaining individual, unique cultural identities. At the same time, he realizes that extreme ethnocentrism is equally damaging to American ideals as Anglo-centrism or Euro-centrism. Using Afro-centrism as an example, Schlesinger explains that most black children identify themselves as American – rather than African-American – as they have little cultural connection to their African heritage. While those who argue in favor of Afro-centric education (or any other ethnically centered variation of education) cite the benefits of knowing about one’s cultural heritage, Schlesinger argues that the true cultural heritage of the students in question is American. The goal of multicultural education, therefore, should be to present American culture as it truly is: a pluralistic, dynamic culture with influences from around the globe.
As an educator, and specifically a history teacher, I agree with the majority of the conclusions drawn by the author. I have always struggled with the concept of multicultural education, as it seems that everyone has their own interpretation of the concept. Of all Schlesinger’s arguments, I find his summation of American history the most compelling. He goes to great length to describe the concept of history as a weapon; a tool that can be incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands. History, as the memory of our nation, needs to be presented fairly and objectively, even though it may be uncomfortable or embarrassing at times. Schlesinger’s viewpoints reflect my belief that history should not be distilled for the average consumer or to make it “politically correct”. Events in America’s history occurred, and good or bad, for better or worse, have allowed the formation of our culture and society. American history must therefore be conveyed to students, not so they can judge the decisions of our predecessors, but so they can learn from our national memory, and use it to shape the future.
This is not to say that multiculturalism should be ignored. On the contrary, it should be glorified and explored, as a true history of America is the story of a distinct and unique multicultural society. Unfortunately there are many Americans who refuse to practice the founding American virtues of equality, justice and opportunity. They choose instead to manipulate our national memory and propagate existing prejudices for various reasons, putting at risk national unity in favor of individual cultural identity. Rather than dividing society further, we must encourage a resurgence of American national identity while reinforcing the importance of cultural identity, for creating such cohesion is truly an American concept.