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Multicultural Education


Multicultural education is an idea, an approach to school reform, and a movement for equity, social justice, and democracy. Specialists within multicultural education emphasize different components and cultural groups. However, a significant degree of consensus exists within the field regarding its major principles, concepts, and goals. A major goal of multicultural education is to restructure schools so that all students acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and skills needed to function in an ethnically and racially diverse nation and world. Multicultural education seeks to ensure educational equity for members of diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic groups, and to facilitate their participation as critical and reflective citizens in an inclusive national civic culture.

Multicultural education tries to provide students with educational experiences that enable them to maintain commitments to their community cultures as well as acquire the knowledge, skills, and cultural capital needed to function in the national civic culture and community. Multicultural theorists view academic knowledge and skills as necessary but not sufficient for functioning in a diverse nation and world. They regard skills in democratic living and the ability to function effectively within and across diverse groups as essential goals of schooling.

Multicultural education is highly consistent with the ideals embodied in the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights. It seeks to extend the rights and privileges granted to the nation's founding elitesthe ideals of freedom, equality, justice, and democracyto all social, cultural and language groups. Multicultural education addresses deep and persistent social divisions across various groups, and seeks to create an inclusive and transformed mainstream society. Multicultural educators view cultural difference as a national strength and resource rather than as a problem to be overcome through assimilation.


Multicultural education emerged during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It grew out of the demands of ethnic groups for inclusion in the curricula of schools, colleges, and universities. Although multicultural education is an outgrowth of the ethnic studies movement of the 1960s, it has deep historical roots in the African-American ethnic studies movement that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Initiated by scholars such as George Washington Williams, Carter G. Woodson, W. E. B. DuBois, and Charles H. Wesley, the primary goal of the early ethnic studies movement was to challenge the negative images and stereotypes of African Americans prevalent in mainstream scholarship by creating accurate descriptions of the life, history, and contributions of African Americans. These scholars had a personal, professional, and enduring commitment to the uplift of African Americans. They believed that creating positive self-images of African Americans was essential to their collective identity and liberation. They also believed that stereotypes and negative beliefs about African Americans could be effectively challenged by objective historical research that was also capable of transforming mainstream academic knowledge.

Carter G. Woodsonone of the leading scholars of the early ethnic studies movementhelped found the Association for the Study of Negro (now Afro-American) Life and History in 1915. The association played a key role in the production and dissemination of African-American historical scholarship. In addition to writing numerous scholarly works and editing the association's publications, Woodson initiated Negro History Week (now Black History Month) to focus attention in the nation's schools on the life and history of African Americans.

In 1922 Woodson published a college textbook, The Negro in Our History, which was used in many African-American schools and colleges. In response to public demand for classroom materials, he wrote an elementary textbook, Negro Makers of History, followed by The Story of the Negro Retold for senior high schools. Woodson also wrote, edited, and published African-American children's literature. In 1937 he began publication of The Negro History Bulletin, a monthly magazine for teachers and students featuring stories about exemplary teachers and curriculum projects, historical narratives, and biographical sketches.

When the ethnic studies movement was revived in the 1960s, African Americans and other marginalized ethnic groups refused assimilationist demands to renounce their cultural identity and heritage. They insisted that their lives and histories be included in the curriculum of schools, colleges, and universities. In challenging the dominant paradigms and concepts taught in the schools and colleges, multicultural educators sought to transform the Eurocentric perspective and incorporate multiple perspectives into the curriculum.

By the late 1980s multicultural theorists recognized that ethnic studies was insufficient to bring about school reforms capable of responding to the academic needs of students of color. They consequently shifted their focus from the mere inclusion of ethnic content to deep structural changes in schools. During these years, multicultural educators also expanded from a primary focus on ethnic groups of color to other group categories, such as social class, language and gender. Although conceptually distinct, the key social categories of multicultural educationrace, class, gender, and cultureare interrelated. Multicultural theorists are concerned with how these social variables interact in identity formation, and about the consequences of multiple and contextual identities for teaching and learning.

During the 1970s a number of professional organizationssuch as the National Council for Social Studies, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Educationissued policy statements and publications that encouraged the integration of ethnic content into the school and teacher education curriculum. In 1973 the title of the forty-third yearbook of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) was Teaching Ethnic Studies: Concepts and Strategies. NCSS published Curriculum Guidelines for Multiethnic Education in 1976, which was revised and reissued in 1992 as Curriculum Guidelines for Multicultural Education. A turning point in the development of multicultural education occurred in 1977 when the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) issued standards for the accreditation of teacher education. The standards required all NCATE member institutions (about 80% of the teacher education programs in the United States) to implement components, courses, and programs in multicultural education.

Over the past two decades more ethnic content has appeared in the textbooks used in elementary and secondary schools in the United States. An increasing number of teachers are using anthologies in literature programs that include selections written by women and authors of color. In addition, the market for books dealing with multicultural education has gown substantially, and some of the nation's leading colleges and universities, including the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Minnesota, have either revised their core curriculum to include ethnic content or have established ethnic studies course requirements.

The Dimensions of Multicultural Education

James A. Banks's Dimensions of Multicultural Education is used widely by school districts to conceptualize and develop courses, programs, and projects in multicultural education. The five dimensions are:(1) content integration; (2) the knowledge construction process; (3) prejudice reduction; (4) an equity pedagogy; and (5) an empowering school culture and social structure. Although each dimension is conceptually distinct, in practice they overlap and are interrelated.

Content integration. Content integration deals with the extent to which teachers use examples and content from a variety of cultures and groups to illustrate key concepts, principles, generalizations, and theories in their subject area or discipline. The infusion of ethnic and cultural content into a subject area is logical and not contrived when this dimension is implemented properly.

More opportunities exist for the integration of ethnic and cultural content in some subject areas than in others. There are frequent and ample opportunities for teachers to use ethnic and cultural content to illustrate concepts, themes, and principles in the social studies, the language arts, and in music. Opportunities also exist to integrate multicultural content into math and science. However, they are less ample than they are in social studies and the language arts. Content integration is frequently mistaken by school practitioners as comprising the whole of multicultural education, and is thus viewed as irrelevant to instruction in disciplines such as math and science.

The knowledge construction process. The knowledge construction process describes teaching activities that help students to understand, investigate, and determine how the implicit cultural assumptions, frames of references, perspectives, and biases of researchers and textbook writers influence the ways in which knowledge is constructed.

Multicultural teaching involves not only infusing ethnic content into the school curriculum, but changing the structure and organization of school knowledge. It also includes changing the ways in which teachers and students view and interact with knowledge, helping them to become knowledge producers, not merely the consumers of knowledge produced by others.

The knowledge construction process helps teachers and students to understand why the cultural identities and social positions of researchers need to be taken into account when assessing the validity of knowledge claims. Multicultural theories assert that the values, personal histories, attitudes, and beliefs of researchers cannot be separated from the knowledge they create. They consequently reject positivist claims of disinterested and distancing knowledge production. They also reject the possibility of creating knowledge that is not influenced by the cultural assumptions and social position of the knowledge producer.

In multicultural teaching and learning, paradigms, themes, and concepts that exclude or distort the life experiences, histories, and contributions of marginalized groups are challenged. Multicultural pedagogy seeks to reconceptualize and expand the Western canon, to make it more representative and inclusive of the nation's diversity, and to reshape the frames of references, perspectives, and concepts that make up school knowledge.

Prejudice reduction. The prejudice reduction dimension of multicultural education seeks to help students develop positive and democratic racial attitudes. It also helps students to understand how ethnic identity is influenced by the context of schooling and the attitudes and beliefs of dominant social groups. The theory developed by Gordon Allport (1954) has significantly influenced research and theory in intergroup relations. He hypothesized that prejudice can be reduced by interracial contact if the contact situations have these characteristics: (1) they are cooperative rather than competitive; (2) the individuals experience equal status; and (3) the contact is sanctioned by authorities such as parents, principals and teachers.

An equity pedagogy. An equity pedagogy exists when teachers modify their teaching in ways that will facilitate the academic achievement of students from diverse racial, cultural, socioeconomic, and language groups. This includes using a variety of teaching styles and approaches that are consistent with the range of learning styles within various cultural and ethnic groups, such as being demanding but highly personalized when working with American Indian and Native Alaskan students. It also includes using cooperative learning techniques in math and science instruction to enhance the academic achievement of students of color.

An equity pedagogy rejects the cultural deprivation paradigm that was developed in the early 1960s. This paradigm posited that the socialization experiences in the home and community of low-income students prevented them from attaining the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed for academic success. Because the cultural practices of low-income students were viewed as inadequate and inferior, cultural deprivation theorists focused on changing student behavior so that it aligned more closely with mainstream school culture. An equity pedagogy assumes that students from diverse cultures and groups come to school with many strengths.

Multicultural theorists describe how cultural identity, communicative styles, and the social expectations of students from marginalized ethnic and racial groups often conflict with the values, beliefs, and cultural assumptions of teachers. The middle-class mainstream culture of the schools creates a cultural dissonance and disconnect that privileges students who have internalized the school's cultural codes and communication styles.

Teachers practice culturally responsive teaching when an equity pedagogy is implemented. They use instructional materials and practices that incorporate important aspects of the family and community culture of their students. Culturally responsive teachers also use the "cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them" (Gay, p. 29).

An empowering school culture. This dimension involves restructuring the culture and organization of the school so that students from diverse racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and language groups experience equality. Members of the school staff examine and change the culture and social structure of the school. Grouping and labeling practices, sports participation, gaps in achievement among groups, different rates of enrollment in gifted and special education programs among groups, and the interaction of the staff and students across ethnic and racial lines are important variables that are examined and reformed.

An empowering school structure requires the creation of qualitatively different relationships among various groups within schools. Relationships are based on mutual and reciprocal respect for cultural differences that are reflected in school-wide goals, norms, and cultural practices. An empowering school structure facilitates the practice of multicultural education by providing teachers with opportunities for collective planning and instruction, and by creating democratic structures that give teachers, parents, and school staff shared responsibility for school governance.

Evidence of the Effectiveness of Multicultural Education

The Handbook of Research of Multicultural Education comprehensively reviews the research on multicultural education and the effectiveness of various kinds of multicultural curricular interventions. At least three categories of research that describe the effectiveness of multicultural education can be identified: (1) research that describes the effectiveness of multicultural curriculum interventions such as Banks's 2001 research review; (2) research on the effects of cooperative learning and interracial contact, such as Robert Slavin's 2001 research review; and (3) research on how culturally responsive teaching influences student learning, such as Carol Lee's 1993 study and Gloria Ladson-Billings's 2001 work. An extended discussion of studies in the first genre is presented in this entry. Research reviews of the other two genres are found in the Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education.

Slavin's 2001 research review and Cohen and Lotan's 1995 research on cooperative learning and interracial contact activities indicate that these interventionsif they are consistent with Allport's theory of intergroup contacthelp students to develop more positive racial attitudes, to make more cross-racial friendships, and have positive effects on the academic achievement of Latino and African-American students. Lee's 1993 research on culturally responsive teaching indicates that when teachers use the cultural characteristics of students in their teaching the academic achievement of students from diverse groups can be enhanced.

Research on curriculum materials and interventions. Research indicates that the use of multicultural textbooks, other teaching materials, television, and simulations can help students from different racial and ethnic groups to develop more democratic racial attitudes and perceptions of other groups. Since the 1940s a number of curriculum interventions studies have been conducted to determine the effects of teaching units and lessons, multicultural textbooks and materials, role playing, and simulation on the racial attitudes and perceptions of students.

These studies provide guidelines that can help teachers to improve intergroup relations in their classrooms and schools. One of the earliest curriculum studies was conducted by Helen Trager and Marion Yarrow (1952). They found that a democratic, multicultural curriculum had positive effects on the racial attitudes of teachers and on those of first- and second-grade students. John Litcher and David Johnson (1969) found that white, second-grade children developed more positive racial attitudes after using multiethnic readers. Gerry Bogatz and Samuel Ball (1971) found that Sesame Street, PBS's multicultural television program, had a positive effect on the racial attitudes of children who watched it for long periods. In a study by Michael Weiner and Frances Wright (1973), children who themselves experienced discrimination in a simulation developed less prejudiced beliefs and attitudes toward others. Multicultural social studies materials and related experiences had a positive effect on the racial attitudes of African-American four-year-old children in a study conducted by Thomas Yawkey and Jacqueline Blackwell (1974).

Research indicates that curriculum interventions such as plays, folk dances, music, role playing, and simulations can have positive effects on the racial attitudes of students. A curriculum intervention that consisted of folk dances, music, crafts, and role playing positively influenced the racial attitudes of elementary students in a study conducted by M. Ahmed Ijaz and I. Helene Ijaz (1981). Four plays about African Americans, Chinese Americans, Jews, and Puerto Ricans increased racial acceptance and cultural knowledge among fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade students in a study conducted by Beverly Gimmestad and Edith De Chiara (1982).

Jossette McGregor (1993) used meta-analysis to integrate findings and to examine the effects of role playing and antiracist teaching on reducing prejudice in students. Twenty-six studies were located and examined. McGregor concluded that role playing and antiracist teaching "significantly reduce racial prejudice, and do not differ from each other in their effectiveness" (p. 215).

Demographic Trends and Issues

The ethnic, cultural, and language diversity within the United States and its schools is increasing. The U.S. Bureau of the Census projects that 47 percent of the U.S. population will consist of ethnic groups of color by 2050. Between 1991 and 1998, 7.6 million immigrants entered the United States, mostly from nations in Asia and Latin America. The U.S. Census estimates that more than one million immigrants will enter the United States every year for the fore-seeable future. Thirty-five percent of students enrolled in U.S. schools in 1995 were students of color. If current demographic trends continue, students of color will comprise approximately 46 percent of the student population in 2020. The increasing ethnic and cultural diversity of the U.S. student population stands in sharp contrast to a teaching force that was 90.7 percent white, middle-class, and three-fourths female in 1996. Many of the students entering U.S. schools speak a first language other than English. The 1990 census indicated that 14 percent of the nation's school-age youth lived in homes where the primary language was not English.

In addition to increasing ethnic, language, and cultural diversity, a significant and growing percentage of children in the United States, especially children of color, are being raised in poverty. The number of children living in poverty rose from 16.2 percent in 1979 to 18.7 percent in 1998. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, of the 12.7 percent of the United States population living in poverty in 1997,8.6 percent were non-Hispanic whites, 26.0 percent African Americans, and 27.1 percent Hispanics.

Multicultural education theorists believe that the nation's schools should respond to its increasing racial, ethnic, and language diversity. However, they have different views about how to define the field's boundaries and about which social groups should be included under its umbrella. Some theorists are concerned that as the field expands to include an increasing number of cultural groups, its initial focus on institutionalized racism and the achievement of students of color might wane. The discussions and debates within multicultural education reflect the vitality and growth of an emerging discipline.

An increasingly low-income and linguistically and culturally diverse student population requires a transformation of the deep structure of schooling in order to experience educational equity and cultural empowerment in the nation's schools. Multicultural education is a process of comprehensive school reform that challenges racism and prejudice by transforming the curriculum and instructional practices of schools, and by changing the relationships among teachers, students, and parents.

A major goal of multicultural education is to help students from diverse cultures learn how to transcend cultural borders and to engage in dialog and civic action in a diverse, democratic society. Multicultural education tries to actualize cultural democracy, and to include the dreams, hopes, and experiences of diverse groups in school knowledge and in a reconstructed and inclusive national identity. The future of democracy in the United States depends on the willingness and ability of citizens to function within and across cultures. The schools can play a major role in helping students to develop the knowledge and skills needed to cross cultural borders and to perpetuate a democratic and just society.

See also: African-American Studies; Curriculum, School; Elementary Education, subentries on Current Trends, History of; Race, Ethnicity, and Culture; School Reform; Secondary Education, subentries on Current Trends, History of; Social Studies Education; Woodson, Carter Godwin.


Allport, Gordon W. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Banks, James A. 1973. Teaching Ethnic Studies: Concepts and Strategies. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies.

Banks, James A., ed. 1996. Multicultural Education, Transformative Knowledge, and Action: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. New York: Teachers College Press.

Banks, James A. 2001a. Cultural Diversity and Education: Foundations, Curriculum and Teaching, 4th edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Banks, James A. 2001b. "Multicultural Education: Its Effects on Students' Racial and Gender Role Attitudes." In Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education, ed. James A. Banks and Cherry A. McGee Banks. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Banks, James A., and Banks, Cherry A. McGee. 1995. "Equity Pedagogy: An Essential Component of Multicultural Education." Theory into Practice 34:152158.

Banks, James A., and Banks, Cherry A. McGee, eds. 2001. Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Banks, James A.; CortÉs, Carlos E.; Gay, Geneva; Garcia, Ricardo L.; and Ochoa, Anna S.1991. Curriculum Guidelines for Multicultural Education. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies.

Banks, James A., et al. 2001. Diversity within Unity: Essential Principles for Teaching and Learning in a Multicultural Society. Seattle: Center for Multicultural Education, University of Washington.

Bogatz, Gerry A., and Ball, Samuel. 1971. The Second Year of Sesame Street: A Continuing Evaluation. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Code, Lorraine. 1991. What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Cohen, Elizabeth G. 1994. Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom, 2nd edition. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cohen, Elizabeth G., and Lotan, Rachel A. 1995. "Producing Equal-Status Interaction in the Heterogeneous Classroom." American Educational Research Journal 32:99120.

Gimmestad, Beverly J., and De Chiara, Edith. 1982. "Dramatic Plays: A Vehicle for Prejudice Reduction in the Elementary School." Journal of Educational Research 76 (1):4549.

Gay, Geneva. 2000. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research and Practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Harding, Sandra, ed. 1998. Is Science Multicultural? Postcolonialisms, Feminisms, and Epistemologies. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Ijaz, M. Ahmed, and Ijaz, I. Helene. 1981. "A Cultural Program for Changing Racial Attitudes." History and Social Science Teacher 17 (1):1720.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. 2001. Crossing Over to Canaan: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lee, Carol D. 1993. Signifying as a Scaffold for Literary Interpretation. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Litcher, John H., and Johnson, David. W. 1969. "Changes in Attitudes Toward Negroes of White Elementary School Students after Use of Multiethnic Readers." Journal of Educational Psychology 60:148152.

McGregor, Jossette. 1993. "Effectiveness of Role Playing and Antiracist Teaching in Reducing Student Prejudice." Journal of Educational Re-search 86 (4):215226.

National Education Association. 1997. Status of the American Public School Teacher, 19961997. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

Pallas, Aaron M.; Natriello, Gary; and Mc-Dill, Edward L. 1989. "The Changing Nature of the Disadvantaged Population: Current Dimensions and Future Trends." Educational Researcher 18 (5):1622.

Roche, Agnes M. 1996. "Carter G. Woodson and the Development of Transformative Scholarship." In Multicultural Education, Transformative Knowledge and Action: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, ed. James A. Banks. New York: Teachers College Press.

Slavin, Robert E. 2001. "Cooperative Learning and Intergroup Relations." In Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education, ed. James A. Banks and Cherry A. McGee Banks. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Terry, Don. 2000. "U. S. Child Poverty Rate Fell as Economy Grew, But Is Above 1979 Level." The New York Times, August 11.

Trager, Helen G., and Yarrow, Marion R. 1952. They Learn What They Live: Prejudice in Young Children. New York: Harper.

U. S. Census Bureau. 1999. Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1991, 119th edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Weiner, Michael J., and Wright, Frances E. 1973. "Effects of Undergoing Arbitrary Discrimination Upon Subsequent Attitudes toward a Minority Group." Journal of Applied Social Psychology 3:94102.

Yawkey, Thomas D., and Blackwell, Jacqueline. 1974. "Attitudes of 4-Year-Old Urban Black Children toward Themselves and Whites Based Upon Multi-Ethnic Social Studies Materials and Experiences." The Journal of Educational Re-search 67:373377.

James A. Banks

John Ambrosio

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Multicultural Education/Curriculum

Multicultural education/curriculum


Multicultural education describes a system of instruction that attempts to foster cultural pluralism and acknowledges the differences between races and cultures. It addresses the educational needs of a society that contains more than one set of traditions, that is a mixture of many cultures.


The goal of multicultural education is to help students understand and appreciate cultural differences and similarities and to recognize the accomplishments of diverse ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic groups. It is a practice that hopes to transform the ways in which students are instructed by giving equal attention to the contributions of all the groups in a society. Special focus may be placed on minority groups that have been under-represented in the past. A multicultural curriculum strives to present more than one perspective of a cultural phenomenon or an historical event. The old American melting pot metaphor is challenged as no longer being valid. Adherents of multicultural educational theory believe that the idea that students should be Americanized, in reality, assumed they should conform to a white, Eurocentric cultural model. In its place, multiculturalists believe school curricula should embrace a whole host of voices that exist in multicultural U.S. society. Their belief is that this transformation in the methods of learning is a start in addressing inequities in U.S. society. They believe this is increasingly important because of the changing population mix in the United States. For example, demographers estimate that by the year 2020, 46 percent of all public school students will be children of color.

The roots of multicultural education lie in the civil rights movements of various groups, including African Americans and women. In addition, the rise in ethnic consciousness and a more critical analysis of textbooks and other materials played a role. Community leaders, activists, and parents began to demand curricula that were more supportive and consistent with the cultural and racial diversity in the United States. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the concepts of multicultural education begin to emerge, and by the 1980s, an entire body of scholarship addressing multiculturalism existed.

One of the pioneers of multicultural education was James Banks, who believed all aspects of education needed to be transformed in order to create a multicultural school environment. These aspects include teaching methods, instructional materials, teacher attitudes, as well as the way the performance of students is assessed. Banks described five areas of multicultural education in which teachers and researchers are involved:

  • Content integration: Concepts, values, and materials from a variety of cultures are included in teaching.
  • Knowledge construction: This belief asserts that all knowledge is created in the minds of human beings and can, therefore, be challenged. A critical part of multicultural education, the idea that knowledge is a human construct challenges teachers to alter their own perceptions of the world before they can teach multiculturally.
  • Equity pedagogy: Teachers must modify their methods of instruction by allowing for students' cultural differences before they can encourage academic achievement.
  • Prejudice reduction: Teachers must work to shift students' prejudices regarding race and ethnicity. Prejudice reduction may also encompass teaching the tolerance of various religions, sexual preferences, and disabilities.
  • Empowering school culture: Schools must identify those aspects of education that hinder learning and then empower families and students from all backgrounds, so that the full development of students is achieved.

Types of multicultural education programs

As of the early 2000s, there is no universally agreed upon multicultural curriculum. Teachers tend, however, to take one of two approaches. Some use what has been called the multicultural festival approach, in which students are invited to celebrate ethnic diversity by being exposed to foods, holidays, and festivals of other cultures. Many critics say that this conveys the notion that diversity is only important during celebratory moments. Other teachers apply a transformative approach, weaving different perspectives on cultures throughout the curriculum. Multicultural education can also be roughly divided into three different categories:

  • Content-focused: These are the most common types of multicultural educational programs. Their overall objective is to include subject matter in the curriculum about various cultural groups in order to cultivate students' knowledge about these groups. Content may include holiday celebrations, recognizing heroes from different racial and ethnic groups, and focusing on the achievements of women and minorities. It may also include single-group studies, for example, black, ethnic, or women's studies programs.
  • Student-focused: Many programs go beyond changes in the curriculum and specifically address the academic needs of defined groups of students, usually minorities. In this type of approach, the curriculum may not be changed significantly. Instead, the focus may be on aiding students in making the transition into the mainstream of education. Student-focused programs can take many forms, including efforts to draw on culturally-based learning styles and bilingual programs.
  • Socially focused: These programs seek to reduce bias and increase cultural and racial tolerance. Included here might be desegregation programs, programs designed to increase contact among different races and cultures. Also, having teachers who are themselves members of minorities would be encouraged.

In spite of the fact that there are a variety of approaches to multicultural education, supporters point to several shared ideals among those who practice this kind of education. Shared ideals include:

  • Each student must have equal opportunities to achieve his or her full potential.
  • Every student must be able to participate in an increasingly multicultural society.
  • Teachers must be able to facilitate learning for every student, no matter how similar or different each student is from the teacher.
  • Schools must actively work towards ending oppression of all types, by ending it within their own walls.
  • Education must include the voices and experiences of all students.

Common problems

There are many people who are either opposed to multicultural education or believe it has numerous problems. Some feel that the idea of multicultural education tends to divide cultures instead of building tolerance between them. They believe that American students should be taught to think of themselves as part of a whole rather than as people from different places who just happen to live in the same country.

Others believe multicultural education interferes with a child expressing his or her own individuality, by placing too much emphasis on ethnic or racial backgrounds. Even supporters recognize that someone's culture may be influenced as much by their sex or socioeconomic status as their race or ethnicity. Culture is itself complex and varies from community to community, family to family, or from person to person. The dynamic and variable nature of culture makes teaching about multiple cultural influences a daunting if not impossible task.

Critics also point out that educating students about the formation of U.S. democracy inevitably focuses on its European origins. If students are not informed that the dominant participants in the formation of the United States were white males, these critics say, students will not receive an accurate picture of U.S. history. In addition, there is the belief that if citizens are not willing to subordinate some parts of their heritage to the present set of dominant cultural values, then these citizens may find it even harder to integrate the mainstream.

Parental concerns

Parents should feel free to speak up about any concerns they have with the curriculum in their child's classroom. Multicultural education came about in part because parents expressed a need for the unique cultures of their children to be acknowledged and honored in school.


Eurocentric Centered or focused on Europe or European peoples, especially in relation to historical or cultural influence.

Multicultural education A social or educational theory that encourages interest in many cultures within a society rather than in only a mainstream culture.



Grant, Carl A., et al. Education Policy and Politics: Multicultural Education: Research, Theory, and Pedagogy. Florence, KY: Routledge, 2005.

. The Student in the Classroom: Multicultural Education: Research, Theory, and Pedagogy. Florence, KY: Routledge, 2005.

Peters-Davis, Norah, et al. Challenges of Multicultural Education: Teaching and Taking Diversity Courses. Taos, NM: Paradigm Publications, 2005.

Phillion, Jo Ann, et al. Narrative and Experience in Multicultural Education. Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage Publications, 2005.

Ramsey, Patricia G. Teaching and Learning in a Diverse World: Multicultural Education for Young Children. New York: Teachers College Press, 2004.


Aldridge, Jerry, Charles Calhoun, and Ricky Aman. "15 Misconceptions about Multicultural Education." Focus on Elementary 12 (Spring 2000): 3.


Center for Multicultural Education. 110 Miller Hall, Box 353600, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 981953600. Web site: <>.

National Association for Multicultural Education. 733 Fifteenth Street, NW, Suite 430, Washington, DC 20005. Web site: <>.


Gorski, Paul. "Defining Multicultural Education." Working Definition, 2000. Available online at <> (accessed January 13, 2005).

Hanley, Mary Stone. "The Scope of Multicultural Education." New Horizons for Learning, 2002. Available online at <> (accessed January 13, 2005).

Deanna M. Swartout-Corbeil, RN

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Multiculturalism is the notion that people in a given society should coexist with one another, without having to fear or resent that their cultural identity will be not be accepted if it does not fit in with the normative cultural climate of that society. Scholars have also defined multiculturalism as an attempt to preserve a cultural mosaic of separate ethnic groups. While the term multiculturalism originated in Sweden in 1957, Canada was the first country to recognize that multiculturalism was integral to its national identity and adopted it as its national policy in 1960. Originally the term made explicit reference to racial and ethnic groups living within a particular nation. Soon the term spread to most of the Western world, as democracies grappled with increasing competition along racial, ethnic, linguistic, and religious lines. With time, and increasing awareness of difference, gender and sexual orientation, age, and disability, issues of geographic origin and immigration were also folded into the general construct of multiculturalism. As such, multiculturalism came to be seen as an official policy to manage and ensure diversity.

Multiculturalism emphasizes diversity and social cohesiveness by recognizing that previous programs of assimilation or absorption not only distorted but also in many ways served to destroy individuality. Therefore diversity, rather then being perceived as problematical, is presented as the model. The notion of strength through diversity is in direct contrast to previous assimilation or absorption models that held sway in countries such as Canada, the United States, Australia, and England. Multiculturalism encourages all to fully participate in the social processes of a nation while being free to maintain and perpetuate individual group identities. Therefore multiculturalism fostered concerns for race relations, social justice, and civic participation. Multiculturalism as a social movement aims at minimizing conflict, encouraging inclusion, and celebrating the differences, which are represented by various identity groups that comprise a pluralist society. Multiculturalism, so defined, can be discussed in terms of historical (factual), ideology, policy, and critical discourse.


Ideologically, multiculturalism refers to a set of ideas, which attempt to explain, justify, or promote diversity, cultural awareness, and inclusiveness. As a consequence associated with multicultural ideology are values, attitudes, and perspectives that are intended to define interaction among diverse populations.

Within the United States, the growth and spread of multicultural ideology is associated with the increased agitation for civil rights of African Americans and the increased immigration of Asian and Hispanic Americans during the mid- to late 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s feminists provided the necessary critical mass to which the intellectual and educational elite responded. As magazine articles and books began exposing the multicultural ideology the media and political elite began discussing the issue as well. By the mid-1980s, the ideology of multiculturalism became the dominant expression of liberal values, and the target for conservative attacks.


Multicultural policy refers to the political apparatus established to institutionalize and normalize cultural diversity within a multicultural society. Such policy attempts to create environments that value cultural diversity, encourage tolerance for difference, promote cultural awareness, and create systems of inclusion. Within such a framework, cultural groups are encouraged to preserve their distinctiveness by asserting their right to be different. While multicultural policies vary across nations, several distinctive features seem universal to include: official acceptance of linguistic differences in the media, schools, and public conveyances; support of cultural festivals and holidays; support of religious and cultural differences in the military, schools, and other major institutions; support of alternative artistic expressions; and support of cultural diversity in political offices, business practices, and educational offerings.


Challenging a historical past dominated by dead white men in almost every avenue of education represents the critical discourse of multiculturalism. Prior to this discourse, few educators challenged the dominance of white males in classics, theory, music, art, literature, and politics. Beginning in the late twentieth century, the critical discourse of multiculturalism argued for a more inclusive academic canon that looks at history from a female and multicultural perspective. Educational institutions have witnessed the creation of academic departments in womens, gender, and queer studies, African American and black studies, Latin and Hispanic studies, and Jewish and Muslim studies, to name a few. Even with this proliferation and othering of the academic discourse many argue that rather than encouraging inclusion these academic programs have fostered divisiveness and balkanization.


Many on the Right, both in politics and education, perceived the advance of multiculturalism as a direct threat to Western values, history, and culture. Even before author Nathan Glazer declared we are all multiculturalists now in 1997, a full-scale assault was levied. Ignoring that this book represented Glazers personal misgivings regarding multiculturalism, there has been a constant assault upon multiculturalism. This assault, taking both scholarly presentations and political movements, has been vociferous and constant since the mid-twentieth century. Under the rubric of political correctness, attacks made in the early twenty-first century utilize the arguments of freedom and inclusiveness to attack multiculturalism. Accordingly, multiculturalism is described as a misguided policy and ideology, which victimizes cultural, gendered, racial, and ethnic groups while demonizing primarily white males. Thus, it is argued that rather than leading to greater individuality and freedom, multiculturalism has become another vicious form of bias. Critics of multiculturalism, citing such movements as black English, bilingualism, affirmative action, feminism, and gay marriages, point to what they perceive as the ethnic and racial balkanization of American society into identity groups, riots, and increased conflict, and the advancement of extreme liberal/homosexual/feminist agendas at odds with the core values of America.

The debate over multicultural education engenders such passion because it is about more than adding other voices to a reading list or determining whether waving a confederate flag is deemed hate speech. At the center of the issue of inclusiveness are questions of what constitutes knowledge and whose knowledge should be valued. Allan Blooms Closing of the American Mind (1987) eloquently speaks to these issues. Bloom blamed technology, the sexual revolution, and the introduction of cultural diversity into the curriculum at the expense of classics for producing students without wisdom, values, or morality. In an academic universe where multicultural perspectives are explored the question of whose voice is heard becomes more difficult to decide.

SEE ALSO Diversity; Ethnicity


Bloom, Allan. 1987. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Todays Students. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Duster, Troy. 1991. Myths about Multiculturalism. Mother Jones.

Fleras, Augie, and Jean Leonard Elliott. 2002. Engaging Diversity: Multiculturalism in Canada. Toronto: Nelson Thomson.

Glazer, Nathan. 1997. We Are All Multiculturalists Now. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rodney D. Coates

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MULTICULTURALISM. American multiculturalism long predated the widespread use of the term. A 1965 report by the Canadian Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism used "multiculturalism" to represent that nation's diverse peoples, and after 1971 Canada used the term as a policy to preserve its myriad cultures. The word appeared in the American press in the early 1970s, and multiculturalism became commonplace by the 1980s. It was a flashpoint for controversy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially in relation to educational curricula and government policies, and remained troublesome in 2001. Multiculturalism has been provocative because it represented intensely held, conflicting perceptions of American society, principles, and standards. Many viewed it as the fulfillment of America's quest for equality of racial and ethnic groups and women. Many others have seen it as the subversion of the nation's unifying values.

The movement for multiculturalism was the culmination of a number of defining events. Challenges to inequality following World War II sparked the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, initiating the institutionalization of the principle of equality of all Americans, men and women. The 1968 Bilingual Education Act, the related 1974 Lau v. Nichols decision, and the 1972 Ethnic Heritage Studies Program Act bolstered the multicultural movement, awakening many groups to seek their cultural roots, proclaim the value of their cultures, and call for the inclusion of group histories and cultures in educational programs. The goals have been to overcome historic invisibility and to nurture group pride, and some have believed schools have the obligation to help preserve such cultures.

But as some spokespersons became more strident in their insistence on such curricula reforms, repudiating the long-held American belief in assimilation, their demands generated equally intense opposition among those who already perceived threats to American core culture and values, especially in the emerging affirmative action policies. Multiculturalism became the focal point of the battles over group rights versus individual rights, ethnic cultures versus the common culture, pluralism versus assimilation, and particularly the diversity content in school curricula.

Placing diversity at the center of the American polity and educating all children about the richly varied components of the nation's heritage were viewed by advocates of multiculturalism as the fulfillment of America's promise of respect, opportunity, and equality. Others perceived a lack of a consistent definition of multiculturalism and felt that culture was being made synonymous with race. In addition, they argued, ethnic cultures were fading in the United States. They also maintained that proponents used curriculum changes for separatist political ends, retarding the education of non-English-speaking children and posing a threat to the common center that bound the nation together.

Some people have explored a middle ground. They accepted the multiplicity of heritages and cultures and have seen pluralism as a part of the core culture and values, but they deemphasized contemporary ethnicity and have viewed Americans as possessing flexible and fluid identities because they lived in multiple "worlds." That approach prompted an emphasis on cosmopolitanism and universalism over the particularism of ethnicity. The conflicting visions of the nation's mission ensured that the controversy did not end with the beginning of the twenty-first century.


Gordon, Avery F., and Christopher Newfield, eds. Mapping Multiculturalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Higham, John. Hanging Together: Unity and Diversity in American Culture. Edited by Carl J. Guarneri. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.

King, Desmond. Making Americans: Immigration, Race, and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Nash, Gary. "Multiculturalism and History: Historical Perspectives and Present Prospects." In Public Education in a Multicultural Society: Policy, Theory, Critique. Edited by Robert K. Fullinwinder. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 183–202.

Elliott R.Barkan

See alsoCivil Rights and Liberties ; Education, Bilingual ; Race Relations .

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1. Also cultural pluralism. Sociological terms for the co-occurrence of many cultures (including hybrid forms) in one area, as in the cities of Auckland, Bombay, London, New York, Singapore, Sydney, and Toronto.

2. A sociopolitical policy of encouraging the coexistence and growth of several cultures in one place. The term multicultural is sometimes used as a synonym of multiracial: ‘Although Britain has a multi-cultural society, where are the black faces among the television announcers, newscasters and sports commentators?’ (Daily Telegraph, 20 July 1973). In recent years, the terms multicultural, multiculturalism, multiculturalist, etc., have been used, both positively and negatively, to identify and discuss a movement that confronts certain perceived biases in Western and especially US society, particularly in education and on college campuses: ‘It is in its most intense and extreme form … that multiculturalism is on its way to being a major educational, social and eventually political problem. This version is propagated on our college campuses by a coalition of nationalist-racist blacks, radical feminists, “gays” and lesbians, and a handful of aspiring demagogues who claim to represent various ethnic minorities’ ( Irving Kristol, ‘The Tragedy of Multiculturalism’, Wall Street Journal, 31 July 1991). See, AUSTRALIAN ENGLISH, POLITICALLY CORRECT, SEXISM.

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mul·ti·cul·tur·al / ˌməltēˈkəlch(ə)rəl; ˌməlˌtī-/ • adj. of, relating to, or constituting several cultural or ethnic groups within a society: multicultural education. DERIVATIVES: mul·ti·cul·tur·al·ism n. mul·ti·cul·tur·al·ist n. & adj. mul·ti·cul·tur·al·ly adv.

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multiculturalism or cultural pluralism, a term describing the coexistence of many cultures in a locality, without any one culture dominating the region. By making the broadest range of human differences acceptable to the largest number of people, multiculturalism seeks to overcome racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination.

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