Culture and Society: An Educator's Perspective

by Thomas Wren

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Note: The following essay has been extracted from a longer discussion of the beginning stage of multicultural education (ca. 1970) that called itself "cultural pluralism." In it I've tried to show that multicultural educators, and by extension social philosophers and policy makers who deal with cultural groups outside the educational establishment, have recapitulated the main issues of classical anthropology. My comments on "the culture of poverty" are intended to illustrate this point, and may be of special relevance to discussions of marginalized populations. I also discuss some general similarities and differences between 20th century sociological and anthropological approaches to culture. (As you will see, many of the references are incomplete, since this is a working draft. I will give you specific references upon request.) — Tom Wren

The Mid-Century "Revolution": From Racial to Cultural Models

Nearly a hundred years after the post-Darwinian revolution in the way anthropologists understood the dynamic of human history, an analogous transformation took place in the thinking of social theorists concerning race and culture. Unlike a coup or revolt, which only changes a society's leaders and perhaps a few organizational structures, a successful revolution transforms attitudes so thoroughly that it is hard to imagine a time when its fundamental principles were not self-evident. This is nowhere more true than in the history of education. What, we now wonder, could be more obvious than the practical, theoretical, and moral importance of literacy, schoolrooms, and universal education? But amazing as it might seem to us today, people once flourished in predominantly oral societies, students were taught by the tutorial method until Jean-Baptist de la Salle introduced simultaneous instruction late in seventeenth century, and it was only a half century ago that education was sufficiently important to be included in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

It was also only a half century ago that the law of our own land was changed to prohibit public school policies based on racial differences. It is now easy to forget that in the post-war years that led up to Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (1954), a significant number of intelligent members of the mainstream, including educators,  social commentators, and public policy makers, still blithely assumed that some races were less educable than others. It was, therefore, a giant step forward when mid-century public opinion as well as educational theory abandoned racial explanations of minority children's school failure and looked instead to social factors. This change amounted to a paradigm shift whose historical significance as well as its intellectual substance is comparable to the one which created the modern discipline of anthropology. I refer, of course, to E. B. Tylor's view that the key to understanding human differences is culture, not biology.

Tylor believed "ethnographers are able to set up a rough scale of civilization — a transition from the savage state to our own" (Tylor, 1873/1958, p. 1). Similarly, the liberal educationists of the 1950s and early 1960s who rejected racial explanations of academic differences did not reject the notion of hierarchy itself. That is, they believed that ways of life can be ranked as more or less civilized, depending on the degree of similarity with their own "condition of culture," to borrow another phrase of Tylor's. They assumed that the mainstream was the best place to be, both in itself (this was a tacit assumption) and as a context within which effective schooling could take place (this was a very explicit, but equally unchallenged assumption). The social factors that they focused on were limited to the immediate circumstances of the children themselves, and did not lead to any critique of the schools or other social institutions. In other words, differences were due to deficits in the children and their families, not in the larger society. (1)

It is now commonplace to challenge both of the assumptions just mentioned. The cultural deficit model has been discredited in the literature of multicultural education though not, one fears, in the minds of many well-meaning teachers. However, like Tylor's new anthropology, the model was revolutionary in the best sense of that term when it was originally introduced in the early 1960's as a basis for addressing the disparity between the educational outcomes for the middle class and the poor. Its nomenclature varied — "cultural" was often used interchangeably with labels like "social," "sociocultural," and "socioeconomic" — but to the liberals of that era the general idea seemed straightforward enough. Poor children, especially those from minority groups, were hindered in school because of certain features in their lives outside the classroom.

These features — the most important of which had to do with the children's family situations — were cultural in the root sense of that term, which as we saw is that of nurturing or cultivation, but for the most part they reflected their families' social and economic class rather than the behavior patterns, designs for living, or webs of meaning that anthropologists called culture. Educational theorists, concerned as they were not with the definition of culture but rather with the elimination of racial discrimination, saw nothing wrong with using the term "cultural deficit" to make their crucial point that differences in the school achievement of diverse populations had nothing to do with genetic structure. However, the deficit model was something of an embarrassment for the well-meaning educators who worked within it. They knew that many of those who two decades later would be called "children at risk" were either black or hispanic, but their own antiracist consciences kept them from reintroducing race as an explanation of school failure, as they knew would happen if they made too much of the children's ethnicity. To ensure this would not happen, an alternative account was needed. "Cultural problems" such as absent fathers, promiscuous mothers, and the lack of bedtime stories and other reading readiness activities had to be explained economically, not genetically.

Fortunately, such an explanation was available from a group of social scientists influenced by Oscar Lewis (1959). Lewis and others (e.g., Harrington, 1962; Moynihan, 19??; Rainwater??, 1967) were struck by the apparent similarity between the repetition of certain economic patterns and the way that the large-group cultures studied by anthropologists tend to reproduce themselves from one generation to the next. They proposed, in tandem with the educators' cultural deficit model, variations on a complementary theme that parlayed the notion of culture into a systemic explanation of why certain groups did not succeed economically (nor, consequently, academically). This was, of course, "the culture of poverty" model, which claimed that certain personal and group attitudes such as dependency and fatalism were produced by the experience of being poor in American urban society, and that these attitudes combined with structural economic disadvantages such as reduced borrowing power added up to a "culture" which, like all cultures, tended to reproduce itself. Like the cultural deficit model favored by educators in the 1960s, the culture of poverty construct is now discredited in the eyes of most social scientists and multiculturalists ( see Valentine, 1965; Leacock, 1971; Katz, 1989; Jones and Susser, 1993). It is now commonplace among multiculturalists to reject the culture of poverty model on moral grounds, e.g., that its apparent plausibility consisted in the bully's strategy of blaming the victim. But there are logical grounds as well, which we need to consider.

"Culture" in the Cultural Deficit Approach

This is not the place to review the sociological and economic issues involved in either the culture of poverty or cultural deficit models, but it is worth calling attention to their respective conceptions of culture. Both operated with what was then the standard view of culture as a total way of life, though as Baratz and Baratz (1970, p 31?) have pointed out, the educators and social scientists who developed the cultural deficit model showed no formal knowledge of its anthropological background. Even so, their conclusions are congruent with those of 19th century evolutionary anthropologists in several important respects. The most important is their Tylorean assumption that culture is a wide-ranging complex of observable behaviors and artifacts, and "ideational" beliefs and values, whose totality constituted a collective way of life. Another is the relative informality of their approaches, which were long on common sense but short on methodological articulation. A third, closely related respect is the thoroughly objective or "etic" perspective that each group of investigators adopted toward the otherness of their respective subject matters. The cultural deficit model was framed mainly by armchair social theorists, in much the same way that Tylor and his immediate followers reconstructed accounts received from traveler-correspondents who visited, documented, and theorized about the primitive peoples they found so fascinatingly "other" (as when Tylor recycled Darwin's ethnographical account of how the people of Tierra del Fuego built their canoes). Much of the information about the lives of the children they studied was either anecdotal or second-hand empirical data gleaned from sociological surveys or experimental studies carried out by social psychologists. (2) Still another respect in which cultural deficit theory resembles the Tylorean paradigm is the language each used in speaking of culture. Like Tylor and his contemporaries, cultural deficit theorists tended to use "culture" as a singular noun, tacitly identifying it with the "high culture" of the Anglo-American middle class. When they did use the plural form, "cultures" referred to ways of life that could be ranked as more or less rich, more or less complete, and more or less similar to "the" referential culture.

However, a closer look at the cultural deficit literature of the 1960s and its later echoes (3) reveals a major difference from Tylor's project. Whereas Tylor studied the way of life of an entire people, or at least tried to, educators who took the cultural deficit approach were interested primarily and often exclusively in a single subgroup: the family. What they analyzed and criticized was not the larger group's total way of life, but the immediate environment within which school age children were reared. Consider M. L. Goldberg's statement, which is probably today's best known example of the cultural deficit approach to education owing to the use made of it by the influential multicultural educational theorists Christine Sleeter and Carl Grant (1999, pp. 41-42):

Beginning with the family, the early preschool years present the child from a disadvantaged home with few of the experiences which produce readiness for academic learning either intellectually or attitudinally. The child's view of society is limited by his immediate family and neighborhood where he sees a struggle for survival which sanctions behavior viewed as immoral in the society at large. He has little preparation either for recognizing the importance of schooling in his own life or for being able to cope with the kinds of verbal and abstract behavior which the school will demand of him. Although he generally comes to first grade neat and clean and with his mother's admonition to be a "good boy," he lacks the ability to carry out those tasks which would make him appear "good" in the eyes of his teacher. (Goldberg, 1963, p. 87).

Admittedly, the "culture" that educators such as Goldberg criticized often extended beyond the family to include, say, the "deprived" child's language community and the moral atmosphere created by the adult members of his or her social community. But these larger domains are educationally significant because of their effect on the family dynamic, not the other way around. For this reason, we must ask in what sense these critiques of the real or imagined family life of low-income or minority groups deserve to be called cultural analyses. Were children from such groups considered "culturally deficient" because the specific cultures associated with these groups seemed internally flawed in certain important ways, or because they lacked certain general competencies that together make a person "cultured"? The first alternative assumes a pluralistic (late Boasian) view of cultures as distinct, group-specific wholes, in which case it is hard to see why any culture could ever be considered defective. The second assumes a univocal (Tylorean) view of culture as a universally valid ideal, roughly equivalent to the condition of being "humane" or "civilized" — in which case it is hard to see how the description "culturally deficient" adds anything to the commonsense notion of "uneducated," and even harder to see how cultural deficiency could be a cause of school failure rather than its redescription. (4)

"Culture" in the Culture of Poverty Approach

Similar conceptual problems exist for the so-called culture of poverty model. However, they are less blatant because, unlike Goldberg and others who promoted the cultural deficiency model, many of the social scientists who wrote about "the poverty culture" were either trained anthropologists or at least conversant with Tylor's view as well as the more recent ideas of Kroeber, Kluckhohn, Goodenough, and other mid-century anthropologists. As a look at the scholarly citations in the poverty culture literature makes clear, its conception of culture has a mixed lineage. Lewis himself was an anthropologist, but he did not hesitate to combine ethnographical description with large-scale empirical studies characteristic of sociology.

Lewis was hardly the only social scientist to investigate poverty — as early as the 1920s sociologists from the Chicago School became interested in the relationship between ethnicity and economic class, providing the intellectual milieu for E. Franklin Frazier's several studies (e.g., Frazier, 1932, 1939) of the "lower class Negro family" in the 1930s. Concurrent with Lewis's own career mainline sociologists such as Herbert Gans (1962, 1965) continued to write about "the lower-class subculture" as a socioeconomic stratum, paying due attention to structural relationships between this segment of society and the larger system within which it is embedded. But Lewis was the first to approach his subject matter ethnographically, since as an anthropologist he was interested not in poverty as such but the culture of poverty. As he put it in his Five Families (1959), a seminal work consisting in extensive case studies of poor Mexican families, "To understand the culture of the poor it is necessary to live with them, to learn their language and customs, and to identify with their problems and aspirations. The anthropologist trained in the methods of direct observation and participation, is well prepared for this job, whether in his own or in a foreign country" (p. 16). (5)

Unfortunately, Lewis reported little that warrants calling the family life of the people he lived with a culture, especially in the classical anthropological sense of the term ("that complex whole...") evident in his own earlier work. For instance, in his descriptions of the Mexican village Tepoztlan, family life was only one dimension of the total culture, which also includes political divisions and commitments, rituals, ideologies, and group identity. In contrast, his later, poverty-oriented work mixed lengthy ethnographic descriptions of a few selected families with some seemingly objective statistics such as census figures, surveys, and other sorts of collated information. As one of his more sympathetic critics observed later in the decade, the focus in these studies "is so restricted to the family that the social system as a whole and its culture patterns become little more than a shadowy backdrop for personal and household intimacies" (Valentine, 1968, p. 64). (6) As with the cultural deficit model, the Tylorean notion of culture as a totality has been surreptitiously replaced with an isolated representation of one of its parts. The poor are portrayed as totally unaware of and unaffected by the larger society, and are merely players in a narrow world of family events. No account is given of how people, events, ideas, and economic forces outside the household shape the family life by opening or closing doors to employment, setting gender roles, providing rituals and religious interpretations of the meaning of life and death, and so on. Nor is any reason given for supposing that the stories Lewis has told of his several families are replicated throughout the United States and in other parts of the world, even though such replication could be prima facie evidence that a separately identifiable culture of poverty exists apart from ethnicity, religion, or nationality.

Although the term "culture of poverty" is most closely associated with Lewis, who coined it in the late 1950s, the technical literature of the 1960s and 70s included a number of similar studies called by slightly different names that also included the category "culture" (e.g., "lower class culture," "slum culture," and even "dregs culture"). Probably the most important of these are the several studies carried out, separately and jointly, by Daniel Moynihan (a political scientist) and Nathan Glazer (a sociologist), who arrived at conclusions quite different from those of Lewis, and in the opinion of most multiculturalists today (e.g., Gordon and Newfield, 1996) much more ominous. However, like Lewis they also ascribed a culture or culture-like mentality to poor people in an effort to account for the seemingly ineradicable nature of poverty. Most of the objections to these accounts have turned on the relationship between culture and socioeconomic class (see Valentine, 1968; Leacock, 1971). For instance, there seems to be ample evidence that there are many different ways of being poor, most of which are conditioned by the larger culture within which poor people (and their families) live their lives. There is also evidence that most poor people have the same values and worldviews as the more fortunate members of their society, but because of their impoverishment they experience greater frustrations and act accordingly. Finally, there is reason to think that the ideas of Lewis, and even more so those of Moynihan and Glazer, can have a number of alarmingly serious practical consequences. One is that the life of the poor is distorted in such way as to encourage contempt rather than compassion on the part of more fortunate members of society. Another is that public policy takes on the same fatalistic character that supposedly marks the poverty culture, so that the poor are seen as incorrigible and victims are blamed rather than helped. In short, efforts to identify an independent "culture of poverty" distracted social theorists, educators, and the general public from the need to reexamine and then reconstruct existing systems of social relationships. Meeting this need is the agenda of today's critical multiculturalists.

"Culture" in the Social Sciences. Although the cultural deficit model was primarily an educational theory and the culture of poverty model primarily a socioeconomic theory, each incorporated the classical anthropological conception of culture as a self-sustaining and self-reproducing way of life, à la Tylor. This claim is borne out by Lewis's programmatic statements. However, it would be a mistake to think that other social theorists who wrote on these topics in the 1950s and 60s were as mindful as Lewis was of the specifically anthropological background of their subject matter. On the contrary: most of those who investigated the relationship between (1) poverty, (2) education/cognitive development, and (3) ethnicity/race drew their formal definitions of culture from the sociological literature, where culture was regarded as an observable or easily inferred attribute of social groups rather than as a separate domain of human experience or a self-contained deep structure of beliefs and loyalties. For sociologists then and now, a group's culture is basically the set of its most visible behavior patterns and their underlying rules and other normative features. Furthermore, except for Parsons who regarded society, culture, and personality as independent though interrelating domains, American sociologists followed the lead of British social anthropologists in thinking that most or all of a group's cultural features were secondary phenomena, lacking causal force and derived from its socioeconomic relations with other groups, especially the macro group constituting the social mainstream. It is small wonder, then, that sociologists tended to see cultural features in structural terms, i.e., as closely correlated with social stratifications of class and wealth.

However, as is so often the case when the word "cultural" appears in the title of some theory or movement, more than one conception was evoked in the minds of those educators and members of the public who embraced either of these two models. After all, the term"culture" had been in the public domain for nearly a century before either model was adopted as the educational and socio-economic orthodoxy of the 1960s. Tylor had been followed by the powerful figure of Boas, then by Benedict with her best-seller Patterns of Culture, and later by the formidable anthropologist-sociologist team of Kroeber and Parsons. It was, then, understandable if not altogether accurate when in 1948 the popular author and intellectual critic Stuart Chase declared that the anthropologists' concept of culture was "coming to be regarded as the foundation stone of the social sciences" (Chase, 1948, p. 53; see the excellent discussion of the way post-war intellectuals such as Chase adopted the notion of culture, in Berkhofer, 1973). In the early 1950s the new literature on national character and personality theory also brought the concept of culture to the fore in social psychology, exemplified in an essay "National Character" by Margaret Mead (1953) and a study with the same title, concerning personality and sociocultural systems, that Inkeles and Levinson (1954) contributed to Lindzey's authoritative Handbook of Social Psychology. By the 1960s the American intellectual establishment — humanists as well as psychologists and social scientists — had thoroughly internalized the anthropological notion of culture as a shaping force in its own right rather than just a property of social structures, so that in scholarly and semi-scholarly discourse outside of sociology departments, culture was understood not only as a cause but an entity, albeit a superorganic one. To be sure, the result of this blend of disciplines was often more undisciplined than interdisciplinary. Liberal discussions about this or that culture (including the culture of poverty) merged talk about the people themselves (their behaviors, ideas, attitudes, and their individual and collective dignity) with talk about general social forces that made them live as they do, as well as about even more abstract mechanisms such as "the normative system." Similarly, social psychologists began to see culture as a determining factor in the way individuals cognized their social environment, internalized general norms, and responded to motivational cues, all of which led to the rise of the subdiscipline of cross-cultural psychology a few years later.

Cultural Pluralism and Multicultural Education

For educators at the end of the 1960s, the grand confluence of anthropology and the other social sciences had an ironic consequence: as its focus on culture sharpened, liberal discourse grew increasingly ambivalent in its recognition of those individuals whose culture was under discussion. Children and their families who lived outside the cultural mainstream were respected in spite of, not because of, their "other" cultural endowment, and yet it was now clear that this very endowment (rather than biological heredity) that determined everything important about their personalities, characters, and potential for success in the American mainstream.

However, as a formal educational theory the cultural deficit model was shortlived (as was the socioeconomic theory behind the culture of poverty model), even though as a practice it continues to this day, either tacitly or operating under other names such as "compensatory education" and "children at risk." In teacher training textbooks on multiculturalism, one often gets the impression that at the end of the 1960s the deficit model suddenly collapsed and was immediately replaced by a "difference" model, which under sobriquets like Education for Cultural Pluralism dominated educational theory of the next decade or two (see Sleeter and Grant, 1999, chap. 2). Such descriptions overstate and oversimplify what really happened, but the reaction to the deficit model was certainly swift, especially among educators who were themselves members of the "deficient" cultures. (7) In my opinion, the best way to understand the transition in American education from cultural deficiency to cultural pluralism is to see the shift not as the product of an internal debate among educators but rather as the culmination of several trends that had been gathering force in other disciplines as well as in educational theory and, equally if not more important, in society at large. Of these trends, two stand out most sharply: the development in sociology of increasingly sophisticated conflict models of intergroup relations, and the increasing visibility in society of the Black Power movement that was the aftermath of the civil rights activities earlier in the decade.

The latter trend is probably the more important historically and causally, not only because of the sheer size of the Black Power Movement but also because of the intense emotions it aroused on the parts of all those whose personal and group identities were at stake. However, the smaller and quieter shift that was taking place in the sociological literature of the 1960s and early 70s is more relevant to the formal question I now wish to pose: Just what, if anything, did educators of that time who used the seemingly ubiquitous term "cultural pluralism" suppose it to mean?

At this point in our narrative the focus shifts once again from anthropology to sociology. During the time in question sociology was much more influential than anthropology in the shaping of American public opinion and, by extension, educational theory and policy. Part of the reason for this influence may have been that anthropology in this country was in a kind of moratorium, having exhausted one paradigm and being unsure of what would replace it. The central issue in anthropology during the 1960's and 70's was the discipline's own understanding of itself and the nature of its subject matter. In the long run, the changes produced in anthropology by discussing those issues were more fundamental than the changes then taking place in sociology concerning the way scholars looked at assimilation and ethnicity. However, it was the latter discourse that most directly shaped the emerging concept of multicultural education and the correlative concepts of culture and cultural pluralism.

To see why this is so, we need to recall the sociological discussions of American cultural diversity, and to recognize how they differed from anthropological discussions of culture per se. But as we do so, we should keep in mind the remarkable similarity between the shift in recent educational theory from the cultural deficit model to that of cultural pluralism and the turn-of-the-century shift in anthropology from Tylor's evolutionary model of culture to Boas's avowedly non-ethnocentric, though not explicitly relativist, model of incommensurable cultures. In each case the new approach was initially almost completely negative. That is, each new approach focused on the inadequacies of the preceding view, especially its hierarchical assumptions, rather than on the positive claims that would emerge as the theory matured. But unlike the Boasians who rejected Tylor's evolutionary model, multicultural educators who replaced the cultural deficit model with that of cultural pluralism were motivated by a thirst for social justice rather than by a desire for more intellectually satisfying explanations, and they understood their respective projects accordingly. The initial statements by educators and other advocates of cultural pluralism were long on moral outrage but short on conceptual analysis, especially explicit definitions of the concept of culture. Fortunately, whereas it took Franz Boas over 40 years to publish his definition of culture, by the end of the 1970s there were more than enough definitions of culture available in the literature of multicultural education, some of which I have examined at length in a longer version of the present essay.

One might expect that the decade-long discussion of the social dynamics of assimilation and pluralism that preceded the multicultural education movement — then often simply called cultural pluralism — would have provided educators with a relatively sharp definition of culture, but this was not the case. Eventually, multicultural education turned to anthropology for help on this score, but that did not happen until later in the 1970s. At the beginning of the decade, educators looked to sociology, sometimes invoking the older structuralism of Parsons, sometimes the more recent conflict models of intergroup relations, and sometimes the emerging subdiscipline of social cognition theory. Or else they simply consulted their own intuitions as to the nature of culture and the need for educational programs promoting cultural pluralism. This is how the first organizational structure, the "National Coalition for Cultural Pluralism," came into being. The story is worth telling, in order to show that multicultural education was, from its very beginning, a social and political reform movement and not a theoretical discipline in its own right, and so I have included it as an appendix to this essay.

The "Culture" in Cultural Pluralism

As we have seen, cultural pluralism was originally a negative concept, generated in opposition to the assimilationist ideology that represented America as an ethnic and cultural melting pot. In itself this characterization of cultural pluralism is not particularly complicated or controversial, but it can be thought of as the commonsense version of a much more complex thesis articulated about the same time by the Norwegian anthropologist Frederik Barth. As the subtitle of his important Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Ethnic Differences (1969) indicates, ethnicity is primarily the social organization of ethnic differences (the "boundaries") rather than an intrinsic, substantive feature of a so-called ethnic group. Barth's thesis contradicted the everyday belief that certain "primordial features," be they biological or cultural, make the ethnic group what it is, as well as the belief that these features can be comprehended apart from the group's relations to other groups. His point was not that there are no intrinsic features of groups but only that such features do not constitute ethnicity, since ethnicity is a product of interaction between groups, not something lying within them. (8) For instance, common descent is often considered the key feature of ethnic groups, but what is really important is that group members have come to think of themselves in this fashion and, more importantly, to count their real or imagined common ancestry as a meaningful boundary between themselves and other groups. Similarly, having a common culture is not important in itself, though for many ethnic groups the belief (often false) that members share a distinctive worldview is indeed important. Barth's approach separated the concepts of ethnicity and culture; as he put it many years later, it consisted in "focusing on the boundary and the process of recruitment, not on the cultural stuff that the boundary encloses" (1994, p. 12).

However, as of the mid-1970s when the cultural pluralism movement had just come of age, Barth's distinction between ethnicity and culture had had little influence on the educationists who were designing principles and guidelines for multicultural programs. For better or worse, they had gone beyond the early negative definitions of cultural pluralism and had begun to articulate positive conceptions of "the cultural stuff," sometimes drawing on sociology, sometimes on anthropology, but most often on everyday notions that confounded culture not only with ethnicity but also — and perhaps more problematically — with race and class. However, as the events leading up to the birth of the National Coalition for Cultural Pluralism illustrate, there was virtually no debate among the cultural pluralists themselves over the different conceptions of culture in play, which was quite a contrast to the strident and often acrimonious debates between groups such as the British social anthropologists (e.g., Radcliff-Brown) and the American cultural anthropologists (e.g., Boas); or among Boasians (e.g., Kroeber, Benedict, Herskovits, and Boas himself); or later in the century between interpretative or semiotic anthropologists (e.g., Geertz) and cognitive or psychological anthropologists (e.g., Goodenough).

The current understanding of the term "culture" is too complex to characterize here (but see Keesing, 1997). However, it is safe to say that virtually all of today's scholars are reacting, albeit in very different ways, against the early parlance of cultural pluralism, in which cultures were "existing" social realities capable of "qualitative expansion" and "incorporation into American socioeconomic and political life." (9) This is not to say that the old parlance is no longer in use, especially among practitioners and pundits who pride themselves on their "street knowledge" rather than their ethnographic sophistication. Even today, whether or how cultures differ from other existing social groups such as labor unions (and indeed most nonethnic organizations) remains unclear, as do the notions of "qualitative expansion," "lifestyles," and the role of language. But whatever else culture is, for most thoughtful people it is definitely differential, using that term in the dictionary sense of "constituting or giving rise to differences."

From the literature and other public rhetoric of cultural pluralism, a loose but nonetheless specifiable conception of culture emerges, which can be summarized as follows. (Note that I am here characterizing but not endorsing the conception of culture that operated in the early days of multicultural education. As I have tried to show elsewhere, it is deeply flawed.) Culture was understood as a group property that varies considerably from group to group, so that it also seemed appropriate to speak in the plural of "cultures" as though they were self-contained unities. It was also considered appropriate to think of cultures as real, for the same reason that groups seem real, namely that there are apparently objective differences between people that constitute them as distinct collectives. Supposedly these differences are coherent, readily distinguishable patterns, which are either directly observable (behavior patterns or lifestyles) or, in the case of beliefs and values, expressed in a group's public activity, especially its language. Cultural differences were also thought to be correlated with a group's lineage, at least in the minimal sense that race or color was usually considered a culturally relevant feature. More generally, culture was thought to be an ascriptive property, which individuals do not earn or create but rather possess because of the circumstances of their birth and early childhood. Finally, cultures were thought of as incommensurable: each culture's lifestyle, belief pattern, and other cultural properties were deemed unique and hence worthy of the same respect.


To be sure, not all multicultural educators and other social theorists have thought of culture in the simplistic way I have just described. There have been, especially over the last decade, many sensitive treatments of culture and multicultural education written at what I call the higher stage of third-order discourse, which is essentially scholars talking to other scholars. However, most of those who wrote newspaper articles and teacher training books about cultural pluralism continue to think in cruder terms — and presumably, so do their readers and the students to whom this conception is eventually passed on through the second and first-order discourse of in-service education of teachers and the ordinary instruction of students, respectively. It is, I think, important to anchor philosophical commentary in content analysis. For this reason, I have elsewhere reviewed a number of definitions proffered in teacher training textbooks over the last three decades, in order to chart their differences and help those who read these texts appreciate nuances that might not be apparent at first sight. I would be willing to share this material with anyone who would like to continue the discussion.

Appendix. The Birth of the National Coalition for Cultural Pluralism

"The Year of the Liberal Arts" was the title given to an invitational conference for the program personnel of a federal program called Training the Teachers Trainers (TTT). (10) The conference, conducted in Phoenix over the last weekend of April, 1970, proceeded smoothly enough until the third day. The highly charged confrontation that occurred then was definitely not part of the official program. As the conference report explains,

During the morning panel discussion session, Mr. Moses C. Davis arose to read a position paper, which had been drawn up by twenty-seven members of minority groups present at the conference, representatives, in the main, of the black community, though some Chicano people were also included in the writing of the report. At the end of his paper, Davis moved that an associated group, the Leadership Training Institute (LTI), organize another conference, which would seek to represent the interests of those minority people not here adequately represented. (Bigelow, 159; with minor modifications)

The motion was passed, as administrators from the Office of Education (OE) looked on in discomfort. Technically, the motion had no teeth, since the TTT conference in Phoenix was an OE program and the LTI was itself only an advisory panel comprising educators and members of the community. However, the OE staff invited representative signers of the Phoenix protest to meet again in a few months, to spell out the kind of conference they had in mind. And so it came to pass that in May, 1971, another conference took place, this time in Chicago, under the auspices of the LTI and featuring members of minority ethnic groups who had not been prominent in the Phoenix conference. Its title was "The Conference on Education and Teacher Education for Cultural Pluralism," and was carefully planned with three principles in mind, all of which were actually followed by the speakers and organizers. First, the conference was to lead to action rather than to (only) another published collection of scholarly papers. Second, in keeping with TTT practice, the conference would involve participants from the community, the schools, and the universities. Third, members of various ethnic groups that had had little part in the Phoenix conference on liberal arts and teacher education would have a far greater participation in this one, and would have key roles as presenters of papers, discussion leaders, and reactors.

The conference was a resounding success. Most of the central participants were high profile educators, though not all were established writers and scholars (some, such as Deloria and Seda Bonilla, mentioned above, fit both categories). The papers, most of which were later published in a book entitled Cultural Pluralism In Education: A Mandate For Change (Stent, Hazard, and Revlin, 1973), were engaging but made no attempt to provide a logical analysis or technical definition of the concept of cultural pluralism. The authors assumed, no doubt correctly, that because most were members of minority groups (mainly blacks, with some chicanos) they and their primary audience already had a shared understanding of the meaning and practical urgency of this idea. The conference was supposed to lead to action, not theory, and that is what it did. On the last day, the "National Coalition for Cultural Pluralism" was formed spontaneously, in order to provide a broad base for future action, with representation from many ethnic groups and from many occupations. At the same time a "Temporary Steering Committee on Community Participation in Education" was also established to help the coalition define its structures and implement the hundred-plus recommendations that had been formulated during the Chicago conference.

Some of these recommendations focused directly on aspects of cultural pluralism and on the means of making it a central goal in American education, while others dealt with related concerns. The most relevant had to do with the curriculum and school governance (but oddly, virtually none dealt with instruction or school atmosphere). The curricular recommendations are the easiest to summarize: the subject matter to be studied and the materials used should be "accurately representative of ethnic minorities," and members of the minority community should have a voice in determining what is to count as representative. Ethnic studies, which at the time tended to focus on the history, language, and "cognitive structure" of single ethnic groups, should continue in multicultural education at all levels. But even in colleges and universities, where they were often self-standing courses, ethnic studies should be "so oriented as to serve non-minority students as well as others." The conference recommendations did not explicitly distinguish cultural pluralism from single group ethnic studies, but the implicit message was that cultural pluralism education should not only focus on more than one ethnic group (many ethnic studies programs established at the end of the 1960s already did this) but also should have a pluralistic meta-perspective. That is, students should also study the interrelationships between groups and, in the higher grades, the epistemology of cross-cultural understanding (Can outsiders have an insider's knowledge of another group? What is the difference between tolerance and understanding? etc.).

The conference recommendations for school governance are less easily summarized, but their central idea was that minority groups should be represented in educational decision-making. For instance, community groups should have regular input and the administrative and instructional personnel should include a proportionate number of minority men and women. Although it would take us too far afield to examine these recommendations in detail, they show quite clearly that multiculturalism saw itself from the very beginning as praxis, i.e., as a social struggle but not a theoretical paradigm shift. They also show that even in the earliest stages of multicultural education considerations of power were as important, if not more so, as considerations of course content and pedagogical strategy.

Neither the National Coalition nor its Steering Committee exists today, but together they fired the starter's pistol for the multicultural education effort which had, so to speak, been waiting at the opening gate wearing the colors of cultural pluralism. Their programmatic statements were widely circulated, thanks to the national platform provided by the affiliation with the OE and TTT. Even today the definition of cultural pluralism formulated by the National Coalition for Cultural Pluralism is cited in discussions about the nature of multicultural education (see also Pachow, 1977; Sleeter and Grant, 1999, p. 153).


1. An important difference between Tylor's model of cultural evolution and the cultural deficit model undergirding programs such as Head Start is that he considered only the cultural condition of the tribal group, not that of individuals or subgroups such as families. A second difference is that Tylor's theory had no practical, interventionist agenda, whereas the whole point of cultural deficit theory was to devise ways of bringing disadvantaged children "up" to the level of educational readiness characteristic of children from the mainstream.

2. "The term cultural deprivation [a.k.a. cultural deficit] became popular in the 1960s among educationalists, especially psychologists, to refer to the complex of variables it was believed were responsible for retarding the child's progress in school" (Kiddie, 1973, p.8). See also Labov's (1969) criticism that the literature on language-related cultural deprivation involves very little direct observation of verbal interaction and consists mainly of reports (usually by the children themselves) of what goes on at the dinner table. "This slender thread of evidence," he complains, " is used to explain and interpret the large body of tests carried out in the laboratory and school" (p. 183).

3. Representative statements of the original cultural deficit approach are found in Passow's education in depressed areas (1963), especially those by Goldberg and Deutsch. See also the psychological studies by Ausbell (1966) and Klaus and Gray (1968). The cultural deficit approach reappeared in the 1980s with the concept of "children at risk" (National Commission, 1983; Ralph, 1989; Pallas, Natriello, and McDill, 1989).

4. Nell Keddie (1973) once made a conceptual point similar to the one I am making here. Speaking of those considered disadvantaged because of their cultural background, she observed that "it is not clear of what culture these families and their children can be deprived, since no group can be deprived of its own culture. It appears therefore that the term becomes a euphemism for saying that working-class and ethnic groups have cultures which are at least dissonant with, if not inferior to, the 'mainstream' culture of the society at large" ( p. 8).

5. In a later work he also explained his broader purposes as follows: "I have tried to give a voice to people who are rarely heard, and to provide the reader with an inside view of a style of life which is common in many of the deprived and marginal groups in our society . . . indeed, one of the major objectives of this volume is to bridge the gap in communication between the poor and the middle class personnel . . . lead to a more sympathetic view of the poor and their problems . . . provide a more rational basis for constructive social action" (1966, p. xii).

6. Leacock also criticizes the tendency of culture of poverty theorists to interpret their data in terms of polar opposites: middle class people plan, the poor do not; middle class people defer gratification, the poor do not. "The conceptualization of behavior in terms of single dimensions obscures the fact that differences in group behaviors are generally more qualitative than quantitative" (1971, p. 26). She also questions the ability of privileged observers such as Lewis and Harrington to study "them," i.e., the other, the poor, citing with irony Harrington's own rueful comment that "we" do not even see the poor (p. 35).

7. Within the educational literature one finds many anti-assimilationist comments by black educators in the late 1950s and early 60s that were more influenced by W. E. B. Du Bois than by Booker T. Washington. But it was the Black Power movement that led educators of all colors and cultures to understand how patronizing the well-intentioned cultural deficit discourse of the 1960s really was. As we have seen in Chapter 3, the educational agenda of cultural pluralism was shaped by this understanding. To be sure, it would be wrong to think of the emergence of cultural pluralism, then or now, as coextensive with African Americans' new discourse of pride, empowerment, and self-respect, since other races and cultures were involved as well, especially in parts of the country with large Hispanic and Asian American populations. However, it is probably safe to think of the Black Power movement as the central stimulus for the discourse of cultural pluralism that in the early 1970's dominated public discussion of this and other social issues. Consider, for instance, the role played by black educators in the founding of the National Coalition for Cultural Pluralism, described below.

8. As Vermeulen and Govers (1997, p. 22 n. 2) explain, in discussions of ethnicity the term "interactionism" is often used interchangeably with the terms "circumstantialism," "situationalism," and "instrumentalism" since they all oppose the primordialist view described above. "Circumstantialism" and "situationalism" explain ethnic bonds as an artifact of ad hoc social events or states of affairs, whereas "instrumentalism" emphasizes the political function of ethnicity and conceives of ethnic groups as interest groups. I have used the term "interactionism" in my explanation since it seems to be the most comprehensive of these four terms, but any of them would do.

9. These phrases are taken from the famous "No One Model American" (NOMA) statement that was formally adopted in November, 1972, by the AACTE Board of Directors as a guide for addressing "the issue of multicultural education," and was immediately published in the Winter 1973 issue of the Journal of Teacher Education. Four years later it was reformulated as NCATE Standard 2.1.1, which still governs the evaluation and accreditation procedures of schools of education in the United States.

10. The conference report (Biglow, 1971) contains a record of the events described below (pp. 159-62). See also the account of subsequent events provided in Rivlin and Fraser, 1973, pp. 4-7), much of which I have paraphrased here.