Public Arguments: Mortimer J. Adler and Multiculturalism

I am surprised by people who do not recognize the dangers of multiculturalism. They don’t seem to understand that there is much more at stake than “learning about other cultures.” Neither do they see the harm being done to American education and to the future of our culture. How did this happen?

No doubt multiculturalists won much approval by employing the Western notion that it is desirable to know something about nations and other peoples. They have gained even more approval by appealing to the need for empathy, by insisting that it is not enough to know about other people, we should also know what those people think about themselves. In short, we should seek knowledge with the least possible amount of prejudice.

No place but the West, with its legacy of scientific knowledge and cultural toleration, could have spawned anything like multiculturalism. What is disturbing, of course, is that the multiculturalists have enlisted Western values to promote the denunciation of the West.

If all multiculturalists wanted was for schools to cast a wider net, then there would be no need for multicultural curriculums to match the ethnicity of the student body. If the multiculturalists were sincere in letting cultures speak for themselves then they would not be manufacturing psuedo-histories of African contributions to European culture.

Multiculturalism as it is being practiced promises to be more exclusionary and more prejudicial than any form of education the West has ever known. Both curriculum and pedagogy will henceforth be tailored to the political purposes of a bureaucratic elite. This elite meanwhile will seek to distract students from noticing the education they are missing with loud protestations of concern for their psychological well-being.

I have before me a 5th-grade history textbook from the community where I live, Mt. Vernon, New York. Our 6 year-old daughter is enrolled in public kindergarten. Under the leadership of former Gov. Mario Cuomo and Education Commissioner Thomas Sobol, New York State has aggressively mandated multicultural reforms in public education. The city of Mt. Vernon, with a majority of African American residents, was designated as a vanguard community for this project.

Millions of state and local tax dollars have been spent. And what is the result? If this book, co-authored by teachers in the school district, is indicative, the results are as dismal as one could imagine. It was supposed to be only a supplemental text, but many of the predominately African American schools failed to order the primary textbook, making it the sole written resource for thousands of students in this city.

Thus, at this very moment, many Mt. Vernon 5th graders are reading an American history textbook which portrays Native Americans as a peace-loving and religious people who were ravaged by greedy and cruel white Europeans. The unit on the exploration of America shows that whatever white European males did, black Africans either did earlier or better. Africans, for example, discovered America before Columbus, who “some historians believe” used a black pilot. The four-week unit on the colonial period is almost entirely about slavery. The unit on the Revolution chronicles the involvement of blacks who “had a big effect on the outcome of the war.” The discussion of the Declaration of Independence occupies 2 pages out of 67, while the section on the Constitution once again focuses almost exclusively on the slavery and treatment of the native inhabitants.

Nothing need be said about the rest. The story is the same throughout: the white man destroyed a paradise of native Americans, enslaved African Americans, oppressed women, and destroyed the land; there was no significant, positive step taken without the input and influence of African Americans, and no harmful act or trait that could not be traced to its white, European roots.

Surely there is more at work here than a concern to learn about other cultures, more than an honest correction of previous imbalances and oversights. The aims of the multicultural curriculum lead back to a world ruled by tribalist logic, where ethnic myth and custom reign, where the political obligations due to our common human nature are ignored. Multiculturalists evince no interest in the human condition, in the study of human culture for its own sake.

Of course, multiculturalists will use the language of human dignity and rights while they turn our educational institutions into places where students cannot learn what those concepts mean. Listen closely to the sweet rhetoric of multiculturalists who continually seek a “language” the public will accept, leaving the substance of their agenda totally unchanged.

In short, there is nothing good in multiculturalism that is not already contained in traditional Western education: Understanding different cultures, grasping the self-understanding of others, appreciating indigenous cultures or marginalized groups, the need for teachers to appreciate the particular backgrounds of their students, all were curricular and pedagogical principles established long before multiculturalism. This is precisely what gives Western education its capacity for self-correction.

But if the leaders of the multiculturalist movement have their way there will be no turning back to the old curriculum and pedagogy. Imagine how difficult it would be for students from a 5th grade class in Mt. Vernon to enter, say, a traditional great books program in the 9th or 10th grade. Once you have filled a student with hostility and doubt toward the great books and great ideas of the Western world, especially at such a formative age, it is hard to turn back.

I have wondered what effect these students will have on the high schools and colleges they attend. Will the traditional curriculums and book lists survive the “demands” they are very likely to make?

What is being done to these 5th graders is shameful and irresponsible. It is adults, after all, whose responsibility it is to provide them with an education. Multiculturalism is a kind of educational welfare; it almost guarantees intellectual poverty for generation after generation. Multiculturalists who claim they are giving first priority to self-esteem are ignoring the clear evidence that there is no correlation (except perhaps negative) between self-esteem and academic achievement.

Because of multiculturalism, these students will be less able to make their way in the world, less able to carry out their responsibilities as citizens, and less capable of dealing with the unforseen moral and spiritual challenges of the future.

Mortimer J. Adler

A longtime friend Of Catholic education, Mortimer J. Adler, who celebrates his 92nd birthday on December 28, has been fighting educational battles since the 1930s. In those days the issue was not multiculturalism but pragmatism. Adler’s “Great Books” movement which began in the 20s left in its wake the programs at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico; at St Mary’s and Thomas Aquinas College in California.

Last summer at the Aspen Institute a symposium was held in Adler’s honor, where the presentors included several Catholic scholars, including myself, Russ Hittinger, Ralph Mclnerny, Jeff Wallin, and Otto Bird. At the closing banquet, a toast was offered by Dr. Bird, a “great bookie” at Notre Dame for many years, in the name of all the Catholics who read and love Adler for his seeking the “truth” about things. Since “truth” is not a welcome word in polite company these days, his toast elicited some nervous jitters. But, of course, Bird was absolutely right, and Adler knew it.

Dr. Adler, as he has explained in A Second Look In the Rearview Mirror, was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church ten years ago. After decades of teaching Aquinas, and resisting the evangelical urging of his fellow Thomists, Adler found himself reciting the Lord’s Prayer in a Chicago hospital room and recognized his gift of faith. Many, including myself, have speculated on why he stopped short of Rome. But one thing is certain, Catholics owe him thanks. Adler’s Herculean labors as a philosopher, educator, and editor have long provided Catholics with a powerful ally in upholding the tradition of metaphysical realism, the tradition of our Common Doctor — St. Thomas Aquinas.

In 1982, before the present debates over multiculturalism and self-esteem pedagogy began to heat up, Dr. Adler founded the Paideia Project to reform American education from the ground up, from kindergarten through high school. He recognized that colleges and universities are unable to rehabituate students whose intellectual habits have been shaped by twelve years of previous schooling. Paideia’s purpose was not to impose a new curriculum but to mandate the kind of teaching that would inculcate intellectual skills, impart general knowledge, and foster good lives.

For Dr. Adler, a genuine liberal education does not need relevance tacked on to it by the consideration of social issues or the purposes of social engineering. A sound education shapes people who will be prudently disposed toward grasping the moral significance of social conditions regardless of circumstance. Such students do not need to be catechized in the correct opinions about today’s headlines. Adler’s constant appeal to the fundamental relation of liberal education to the good life and the defense of democratic government is advice we should continue to follow.


  • Deal W. Hudson

    Deal W. Hudson is ​publisher and editor of The Christian Review and the host of "Church and Culture," a weekly two-hour radio show on the Ave Maria Radio Network.​ He is the former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.

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