By Joy C. Dingle

Joy C. Dingle is an independent K–16 education consultant in the Washington, DC, area. She can be reached at [email protected]

Recently, a colleague and I had a fascinating conversation about education and exactly what a meaningful, well-balanced US education should include.  My adopted city of Washington, DC, and our nation are having this conversation also.  It is about time we did.  There is no surprise that a lot of people have diverse views about what our children should be learning.

Eventually our conversation led to the topic of “dead white men.”  Do they really matter?

Let’s be honest.  Many times terms such as “founding fathers” and “great thinkers” are used  as code.  For some people, these terms are a shorthand way of saying that only Caucasian men have shaped history, philosophy, and the “things that really matter” in our society.  In the past, neither historians nor curriculum writers saw a need to explore others’ lives and contributions. Some still believe that white men—particularly if they are affluent, Christian, and heterosexual—are ultimately superior in intellect to others.  Everyone else and their ideas, experiences, culture, and humanity are insignificant, optional, or superfluous.  Nothing could be further from the truth; as educators and citizens, we have a responsibility to speak out whenever such terms are used in untrue and demeaning ways.

For the past few decades, who and what historians should study and schools should teach has been a matter of debate. Unfortunately, the subject is often presented as a stark either/or of embracing or rejecting the canon and the roots of Western Civilization in ancient Greece and Rome.

Multicultural education and “dead white men” are not mutually exclusive ideas.  Really it’s a matter of background and context.  Christopher Columbus is one example.  Whether our children learn that he “discovered” America or that he symbolizes a larger system of imperialist oppression and exploitation—or both—they need to know who he was.  To exclude him from the curriculum is a mistake, just as it is a mistake to exclude women and people of color.  We need the background and context of Columbus to understand more about everything from the plight of our native peoples to why many are deeply offended by the words and images used to describe professional sports teams.

As soon as they can grasp the fundamental concepts of government, our young people should learn all about the Bill of Rights.  Today’s painful but necessary dialogue about gun control and police brutality is underpinned by the history and context of the Second Amendment.  We have left these public problems at our children’s feet.  At the very least, we should educate them, and be brave enough to start the story from the beginning.  Whether we interpret the constitution strictly or broadly, school kids need to know the events and sentiments that led to the “right to bear arms.”  This is the only way to have a productive dialogue about what that right means today.  We owe this dialogue to the memory of young people lost to gun violence, whether they lived in Columbine, Newtown, Sanford, or Ferguson.

Our literary canon need not be limited to William Shakespeare, Stephen Crane, and Joseph Conrad—and our curriculum need not exclude them.  When our young people read these authors, they can appreciate the works of Alice Walker, Amy Tan, and Junot Díaz as equals and realize that inclusion of these rich voices and perspectives is part of what makes literature so important to our society.   Comparing and contrasting the views of “dead white men” to others’ makes all of us think more critically about the world around us.

The protagonist of Lawrence Hill’s Someone Knows My Name is Aminita Diallo.  As a young child, she is kidnapped from her village (in modern day Nigeria) and enslaved.  Much of her survival and success is due to her insistence on keeping her birth name, her memories of her homeland, and her spirituality.  Captured and killed by the same slave traders, Aminita’s parents instilled a deep respect for education in their daughter.  She speaks her father’s native tongue of Fulfude, her mother’s’ native tongue of Bamanankan, and writes and speaks Arabic.  On board the ship that takes her to South Carolina, she learns English and eventually becomes fully fluent in the language once she reaches young adulthood—something commonly forbidden during that time.  Aminita’s mastery of multiple languages and understanding of multiple cultures facilitates her ability to free herself and eventually write her story in her own terms.  She never abandons her identity as she fights to acquire the knowledge critical to her survival.  The survival of America’s young people is equally dependent upon a broad, deep, and diverse education.

Book and film titles, news articles, and even television commercials allude to historical people, events, and texts all the time.  Imagine what our children miss when we do not take the time to teach them these events and texts.  To understand Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on a deeper level, our young people need to know the Declaration of Independence, the preamble of the US Constitution, passages from the Bible, and the words of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”  It would be foolish to leave these documents and their interpretations out of our children’s curriculum simply because they were constructed by those who do not reflect the current diversity of our nation.  Dr. King’s speech is about far more than a dream.  It is about correcting past mistakes and honoring our democratic principles.  Let’s not leave our young people without the tools to continue his vision and fight injustice.

Like it or not, the power structure of our nation is predominately white and male.  Many (including this post’s author) believe the power structure needs to change.   We can envision a nation that embraces all its citizens fully and grows stronger through the sharing of power and from the inclusion of multiple perspectives.  Yet we cannot fix our imbalanced system without understanding how and why it operates the way it does. Both not teaching dead white males and only teaching them amounts to under-educating our children—and that certainly won’t support this endeavor.  We don’t have to embrace “dead white men” and their ideas, but we better know who they are and what they represent. That way, we can take the best of what they have to offer, critically analyze the worst, and build new understandings by learning about others’ contributions.


Teaching broad knowledge, including multicultural and traditional knowledge, opens doors (image courtesy of Shutterstock). 
Teaching broad knowledge, including multicultural and traditional knowledge, opens doors (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

6 comments on “A Plea for Traditional and Multicultural Education—Our Children Deserve Both”

  1. 1
    Ramona Lowe on February 5, 2015

    I love the expression of ideas in this post. What I wonder about is the idea of two separate approaches–traditional and multicultural. Shouldn’t it be that the dominant culture recognize it has a place (not THE place) in a multicultural education? It’s one of many, and while dominant, not exclusive–but maybe that’s a hard pill to swallow.

  2. 2
    Jim on February 5, 2015

    In our school system all perspectives are supposedly seen as equal. My kids have spent more time in elementary and middle school studying native populations like the Inuit and Native Americans than they have European culture. When they do study European culture it is invariably from Howard Zinn’s perspective: Europeans as exploiters.

    Howard Zinn’s book (in adapted form) is read in our middle schools.

    Maybe there is more balance elsewhere, but they haven’t taught dead white males in this neck of the woods in decades (except as examples of exploitation). Teachers are 99% liberal progressives who see the schools as laboratories for social change. This is the real problem.
    I really doubt it is that different in most of the rest of the country. It’s the same in higher education. It is all about race, class and gender.

    You can advocate all you want for inclusion of a little civics or traditional history in the curricula, but it won’t change anything. Things are exponentially worse than when E.D Hirsch and Allan Bloom wrote their books many decades ago.

    And what does Ferguson have to do with the 2nd amendment or gun violence?

  3. 3
    Jim on February 5, 2015

    I just went through a graduate education program. The best thing for our schools would be to just start hiring teachers and administrators with advanced degrees in a particular subject matter.

    The entire education industry of ever-changing theories and philosophies has only led to our schools’ decline.

    We need to put away the swinging pendulum, break up the cartel of the tenured teaching/education industry and let parents decide what kind of education they want for their kids. My neighbors who don’t immunize their kids can have a Waldorf school to send them to. The overwhelming majority of liberal progressives in our community can send their kids to progressive schools that teach social justice and Howard Zinn’s view of history. Practical minded parents can send their kids to a science and technology focused school. Others should have the option to send their kids to a Great Books school that study the ideas of the great political philosophers..and on and on.

    The endless compromising and effort to strike some sort of elusive balance hasn’t nor will work. And the top-down enormous education bureaucracy will continue to flounder. I give Common Core a few years to fail and be abandoned, just like NCLB has been for the most part. Liberals and conservatives alike now seem to be against Commmon Core. The reality is that there is very little Common in our culture anymore.

    If we can break the giant cartel, maybe some good old American innovation will occur.

  4. 4
    Fred Strine on February 5, 2015

    Thinking people choose a curriculum on the merits of its content, not who wrote it—period. While I can appreciate the author’s call for balance between traditional vs. multicultural approaches, that debate represents a trendy but false dichotomy.

    There is not now, nor has there ever been a misogynistic, racist conspiracy behind teaching Shakespeare over Amy Tan. Nevertheless, the term “dead white men” has been adopted as a derisive rallying cry by advocates of new over old. That pernicious term should be just as intellectually offensive as the notion of excluding works by women and minorities.

    Unfortunately, debates over curricular issues will likely remain unresolved. Four decades in public school teaching taught me most curriculum decisions are not made by parents or even teachers based on any philosophical preference. What our children learn is most often determined by mass marketing and district finance. The operative policy appears to be: If it’s free from the state or the feds, we’ll teach it.

  5. 5
    Susan Toth on February 5, 2015

    It is surely iniquitous—grossly unfair and morally wrong—that for over a hundred years children have not been given an education such as that described here by Joy Dingle. I am retired and have no reputation to defend, so feel free to express my own point of view, reached through personal experience and through study.

    In my reading of the history of twentieth century education in the United States, what stands out is the notion that not all children need an academic education. As I understand it, “an academic education” meant an education for the elite, and John Dewey absolutely did not want this. However, he and reformers of his generation were, apparently, too much influenced by the biases of modernity and post-modernity. They drew conclusions leading to a dogma that rejected the content-based “traditional” philosophy teaching children things about the world they live in, an objective education: objective because not dependent on the feelings of the learners. They put in its place a subjective education: dependent on the feelings of the learners, what with the child-centered, individualized curriculum that begins with “where they are” and their own interests.

    This approach created, as Jim pointed out, an “education industry of ever-changing theories and philosophies” which meant that the children became guinea pigs in the permanent “scientific studies” carried out, trying to determine “how children learn.”

    The multicultural curriculum perhaps results from attempts to insert some content into schooling, and it also reflects the view that sees the schools “as laboratories for social change.” Our educational establishment resists a knowledge-based teaching but the multicultural view is very much a part of the contemporary mindset, so it makes sense to the establishment as the traditional program does not. However, we need to know the past, what it tells us about who we are, and what it offers to imitate and to avoid. The past needs to be studied from the various “multicultural” aspects, including “dead white men,” what they did that is good and what they did that is bad, because that explains a major part of our present culture. “Multiculturalism” has always been with us, although hidden by prejudice and fears for far too long.

    So I thank you, Joy Dingle, for expressing your vision. And I agree with you that we need to talk about educational theories, all of them! I live in the Washington, DC area and taught here (for a while). And I am not quite convinced that whatever conversation exists is vast enough.

  6. 6
    lindseylou on March 22, 2015

    well said

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