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To Teach or Not to Teach [Multiculturalism]

By Joyce Swann
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #17, 1997.

Familiarity breeds... what?
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Joyce Swann

Whether or not we should incorporate multiculturalism into our educational system is a hotly debated issue. Proponents claim that we must understand other cultures in order to be accepting of our differences; by learning about and adopting some of their customs, we can become a better America. Opponents retaliate by saying, "If you want to live in America, you had better become an American." Hence, school children should be taught about Western European civilization and United States history, and other cultures should be pretty much ignored.

Multiculturalism in the Curriculum

I do not favor teaching a multicultural program as part of a curriculum, but my objections are probably not the ones we hear about most often. My first objection is strictly practical: Where does it stop? We cannot teach about every culture, and if we tried, we would not be able to do justice to any of them. Furthermore, it seems reasonable that we should teach lessons that have some practical application to our students' lives. We all agree that we sometimes pursue certain areas "just for the love of learning," but by and large, our educational experiences are designed to help us function better in the society in which we live. It makes sense, therefore, to concentrate on the history of our own country and Western Europe. If we study those regions from which most of our customs and laws have come, we will have a much clearer idea of how and why we have arrived where we are today. After all, any student of history knows that it really is true that we can avoid mistakes in the present by examining the past.

My second objection is one gleaned from personal observation: Familiarity outside of Christ does not necessarily promote brotherhood. In fact, it seems to me that we tend to be much more sympathetic toward cultures which we know very little about. For instance, in 1960 when I was a high-school sophomore, I was assigned a paper on apartheid and was shocked and somewhat outraged to discover the unjust treatment South African Blacks suffered at the hands of the white ruling class. However, I recognized no parallels between South African and American Blacks; that which was familiar to me sadly failed to concern me. This is a small example from personal experience, but history provides a multitude of instances of peoples who were trodden underfoot - not because they were misunderstood, but because those who were in a position to change things simply did not care.

Christian Principles are the Key

While I do not promote teaching multiculturalism as part of a curriculum, I do believe that we should be aware of other cultures and explore them as much as necessary in order to better understand the ethnic groups living in our society. But we do need to remember that we can never achieve harmony in our society through our own efforts; genuine care and concern for others cannot be found outside of Jesus Christ. If we expect our children to be tolerant of cultural differences, we had better concentrate on instilling in them Christian principles which will help them see all people as men and women and girls and boys made in the image of God.

Last night I sat in our church and listened to my son Benjamin preach about love. He talked about Christ's commission to go into all the world and preach the gospel (Mark 16:15). He said that most of us cannot hop on a plane and fly off to exotic places to tell people about Jesus, but we can bring the gospel to those in our world - the world in which we work and play and live.

Benjamin's world is a small community seven miles from El Paso, Texas, in which Hispanics comprise at least 85 percent of the population. He is a full-time substitute at a local elementary school where he deals with children from homes where the parents frequently do not speak English and where "Gringos" are suspect. The children call him "Mr. Huero" ("huero" is a slang term in border Spanish for any male with blond hair.) His fellow teachers call him "Pinpollo" (young rooster). As a former homeschooler of Irish, English, and German ancestry, Benjamin might understandably feel alienated from these students and co-workers who take such delight in their good-natured teasing, but he doesn't. Because Benjamin was taught the scriptures from birth, he recognizes every contact as an opportunity to bring Christ to a people who may look different on the outside and who may eat different food and speak a different language but who are on the inside just like him - God's children created in His image.

Benjamin is immersed in the ultimate multicultural experience. In addition to his students and co-workers, the teens who attend his youth group are also becoming increasingly Hispanic, and as their pastor he must reach them in ways that they can understand. As a result, he holds his Sunday night meetings at the local park where the music is geared to appeal to Hispanic teens, although the lyrics are Christian, and the dress is informal - jeans, tennis shoes, and T-shirts. The messages he delivers to these young Hispanics are strong and uncompromising, but he uses words that they understand. And they listen and respond, not because Benjamin has a personal knowledge of piñatas, and quinceañeras, and tamales for Christmas, but because he shares his personal knowledge of Jesus Christ who offers them the hope they are all looking for.

The Need to Relate

When the children were growing up, I often talked about what Paul said concerning his own ministry:

When I am with the Jews I seem as one of them so that they will listen to the Gospel and I can win them to Christ. When I am with Gentiles who follow Jewish customs and ceremonies I don't argue, even though I don't agree with them, because I want to help them. When with the heathen I agree with them as much as I can, except of course that I must always do what is right as a Christian. And so, by agreeing, I can win their confidence and help them, too.

I Corinthians 9:20-21

This is the most profound teaching I have seen concerning the need to be able to relate to various cultures. Paul did not look for the differences among the various groups to whom he ministered. He found common ground and became as one of the group so that they could be helped. Only when we have instilled this kind of concern for others in our children can we hope to have a society in which people of all cultures are treated with love and respect.

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