There is a specter haunting the land and its name is "multiculturalism." Most every university is pushing it. Most government school districts are insisting that textbooks be re-written to conform to it. Most of us are vaguely uneasy about the trend, but are reluctant to speak up - just a little bit intimidated perhaps by the charges that all those who oppose "multiculturalism" are racist, sexist, bigoted homophobes who probably mistreat children and small woodland animals.
Homeschoolers are being drawn into this controversy for a variety of reasons. Changes in the textbooks definitely affect us. As the emphasis on "multiculturalism" continues, we'll undoubtedly see it reflected in the social studies section of standardized achievement tests. And changes in the state-approved (sometimes mandated) curriculum have a direct impact on homeschoolers in those states where curriculum must be approved in some fashion.
What is "Multiculturalism"?
"What is 'multiculturalism'?" is not an easy question to answer. There is no definition in Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary. It certainly seems to mean different things to different people. In early 1997, at the State University of New York at Binghamton, the administration sought to impose required courses (in the name of "multiculturalism" and "diversity") on the topics of "The Nature of Oppression" and "The Social Construction of Inequality." An uproar among students (and some faculty) forced the cancellation of the two courses before they had even begun. Make no mistake about it, I think SUNY-Binghamton's approach to multiculturalism would have been a bad idea. But I do think there are benefits to studying other cultures and there are reasons and ways for homeschoolers to do it profitably (in both an educational and spiritual sense).
If all multiculturalism meant was "the study and appreciation of other cultures," then there really would be no problems for Christian homeschoolers. The problem is that multiculturalism, as it is being promoted in academic cultures, means much more than that. And most of the "more" is bad news.
Underlying most multicultural curriculum efforts are two unshakable assumptions: First, that we must be neutral and tolerant of all aspects of all human culture. And second, that all dead or alive white European males (and the women who love them) are inherently evil and the source of all modern societal and global problems.
Now, tolerance in many areas is a commendable virtue. On non-moral issues like skin color, language, food, music, and hair styles, we ought to be tolerant. But on moral issues where the Bible has clearly spoken (dishonesty, theft, and adultery for example) there is no room for tolerance. Far too often, we are asked to tolerate sin under the false guise of simply tolerating cultural diversity. The "neutrality" of the secular government schools is a false neutrality. It forbids Christians to call sin what it is - sin. It allows sin to go unchecked and unchallenged; challenges and checks, the application of a Biblical standard, are expressly prohibited. Without a clear sense of sin, there can be no repentance. As Paul observes in Romans, we need the law in order to develop within ourselves a knowledge of our own sin.
As for the second assumption - the demonization of dead white European males, hereafter, DWEM's - I leave it to the reader to work out why this is something of a distortion of the historical record. Not that all DWEM's have been paragons of virtue, but neither have they all been evil. It is an inescapable fact of history that European civilization has dominated the world since 1500. To the extent European civilization had been (and is being) transformed by the Gospel, this has had positive effects. Political and economic freedom, religious freedom, the protection of women and children from oppression and exploitation are all the result of the spread of the Gospel along with the dominance of the DWEM's. The ugly side of DWEM dominance (and there is an ugly side) appears in precisely those areas and with those leaders who have either rejected the Gospel or never been transformed by it.
Because of these two pernicious assumptions underlying much of the multiculturalism movement (tolerance of sin and the demonization of DWEM's), I would advise homeschoolers to be very careful in their evaluation and adoption of any kind of multicultural curriculum. And I would urge caution for a third reason. Some of the problem with multiculturalism is in perspective and balance. While I do think it a good idea to study other cultures, it is vitally important that students have, first and foremost, an understanding of western culture, beginning with its roots in the ancient world (Israel, Egypt, Greece, and Rome). A thorough understanding of our own culture will also give them a much better perspective, insight, and understanding when they approach another culture with a different history and traditions.
Should it Concern Us?
There are good reasons to study other cultures - at the right time and in the right way. It is important for our children to develop an appropriate awareness and appreciation for other people and cultures. Our family has just adopted a daughter from China, so we have a new interest in all things Chinese.
As a part of the adoption process, I made a two-week trip to China. I read a great deal about Chinese history before I left and continue to educate myself about Chinese culture. I have developed a deep affection for the Chinese people.
But along with that affection is an acute sense of how much the Chinese people need to hear the Gospel. The Gospel is good news. It brings redemption and restoration to a right relationship with God. But the impact of the Gospel is not just spiritual, it will transform the culture; not obliterate it, but transform it. And I deeply believe that it is only the Gospel that will liberate the Chinese people from the oppression and tyranny that they suffer under. Multiculturalism can be (as in this example) a springboard towards missionary activity.
There is another benefit to studying other cultures. The study of another culture can provide a sort of mirror in which to view whether certain features of our own version of Christianity are biblical or cultural. When we look at how other cultures work out various aspects of the Christian walk - and then compare both their understanding and ours with what the Bible teaches - there is opportunity for the Holy Spirit to instruct us and transform our lives. Many times, without the example of another culture, we might not even think to examine certain aspects of our lives.
How can Christian homeschoolers deal with state demands that they include a multicultural component in their curriculum? It's really not so hard. Just remember that the problems come from studying other cultures with the wrong presuppositions and assumptions or with a false neutrality. You can easily demonstrate that your curriculum is multicultural by pointing to your study of Israel, Egypt, Greece, & Rome. They are all different cultures after all!
In the curriculum we use with our own children, we have found it easiest to deal with non-European cultures by studying them as they were encountered during the various voyages and expeditions beginning in the late Middle Ages (for new readers of this column - our curriculum covers western culture once, in chronological order, in grades 1-7). We do an introduction to India when we discuss the conquests of Alexander the Great. We study China when Marco Polo visits in the 14th century. We study Japan when Perry's expedition opens the doors in the 19th century. We also pay particular attention to the missionary history of the church and talk about how the Gospel was spread to every culture around the world.
Multiculturalism is not necessarily bad. Just make sure you're aware of the false and pernicious underlying assumptions of the secular movement sweeping the government schools. By all means, include a study of other cultures with your children, but do it at the right time and in the right context. And remember that Biblical standards are absolute, reliable, and binding on all men. All men (and all cultures, including our own) need to be transformed and redeemed from sin by the Good News of Jesus Christ.