ERIC Identifier: ED273539
Publication Date: 1986-08-00
Author: Cohen, Cheryl Bernstein
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.

Teaching about Ethnic Diversity. ERIC Digest No. 32.

Immigration and ethnic diversity are central characteristics of the American experience. The United States has accepted more immigrants, from more places around the world, than any other nation. During this century, the ethnic mixture of the United States has become increasingly varied, a trend that continues today with waves of new immigration from Asia and Latin America.

Immigration and ethnic diversity have posed a paradox to American educators in the social studies: a paradox which is connoted in the national motto, E Pluribus Unum. How do educators depict accurately and fairly the rich ethnic diversity of the United States and also teach core values of a common American heritage? This digest examines (1) the meaning of education about ethnic diversity in the United States, (2) reasons for its importance, (3) the place of ethnic diversity in the curriculum, and (4) procedures for teaching about ethnic diversity in the United States.


Education about ethnic diversity treats cultural pluralism within a nation-state by examining variable traits of different groups (religious, linguistic, culinary, artistic, etc.) which distinguish one group from another. A major tenet of education in a free society is acceptance of cultural pluralism as a national strength rather than an obstacle. Individuals of various minority groups may maintain their ethnic identities while sharing a common culture with Americans from many different ethnic backgrounds.

Social studies education should build consensus on core civic values important to all Americans; these include the rule of law, representative and limited government, and civil liberties, including toleration of and respect for the rights of individuals and ethnic minority groups. Historian John Higham uses the term "pluralistic integration" to describe an educational approach that "will uphold the validity of a common culture to which all individuals have access while sustaining the efforts of minorities to preserve and enhance their own integrity...Both integration and ethnic cohesion are recognized as worthy goals, which different individuals will accept in different degrees" (1984, p. 244). Educators who recognize and respect their students' ethnic identities should also prepare them to assume common obligations and responsibilities of citizenship which involve shared civic values embodied in basic documents of the American heritage such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. Although students and teachers may participate variously within different microcultures, they also come together within the American mainstream culture, especially the civic culture (Banks, 1981).


Studies by Glock and others (Martin, 1985) have shown that the more children understand about stereotyping, the less negativism they will have toward other groups. By exposing students to knowledge about ethnic diversity and the contributions of various groups to our developing American civilization, educators in the social studies may change negative ethnic group stereotypes, reduce intolerance, and enhance cooperation for the common good.

An important core value in the American civic culture is protection of minority group rights, including the rights of ethnic minorities. Various studies have indicated that lessons about civil liberties issues and the constitutional rights of individuals can foster civic tolerance and acceptance of minority rights. By teaching all students about the constitutional rights and liberties of individuals of various ethnic identities, educators in the social studies can promote support for the American ideal of majority rule with protection of minority rights (Patrick, 1980).

Education about achievements of Americans of various ethnic groups can enhance the self-concepts of students who identify with these groups. When students feel that their ethnic identity is valued, they begin to view themselves as active and confident participants in a free society. They sense a purpose in developing civic competencies, realizing that perhaps their participation in public affairs may make a difference. Thus, education about the value of ethnic diversity in the American society can foster a sense of political efficacy among students of various ethnic backgrounds.


Education about ethnic diversity should permeate the social studies curriculum in every grade of elementary and secondary schools. Core subjects of the social studies, such as history, geography, government, and civics, should include lessons on ethnic diversity in the United States and elsewhere. Indeed, a course in American history cannot be presented accurately without ample treatment of immigration and the consequent ethnic diversity of the United States. Similarly, a valid course in government must include content about civic responsibilities, rights, and liberties of ethnic minorities and constitutional issues about application of these values in specific situations.

The National Council for the Social Studies curriculum guidelines stress that the total school environment should reflect commitment to education about ethnic diversity, including pervasive treatment of this subject matter in standard courses; unbiased curriculum materials; and teachers who are educated to understand and appreciate cultural pluralism.


1. Enrich courses in the social studies by including multiple perspectives on American culture and history, reflecting various viewpoints of different groups of Americans. Unbiased examination of alternative interpretations of events in history and contemporary society can help students to escape ethnic encapsulation or ethnocentrism.

2. Use comparisons in describing and analyzing traditions, events, and institutions to help students know and appreciate similarities and differences among various ethnic groups. Knowledge of characteristics and needs that all human beings share can foster a sense of community among individuals of diverse ethnic identities.

3. Communicate to students of various ethnic identities that they are valued members of the school community. Students are likely to learn more from classroom instruction when they feel accepted and valued by their teachers and peers.

4. Provide opportunities for students to have positive interpersonal relations with individuals of various ethnic groups. Emphasize learning through group activities in the classroom and the community in areas with diverse populations. In homogeneous communities, the teacher will need to bring visitors of various ethnic backgrounds into the school to interact with students.

5. Reach beyond the textbook to use community resources on ethnic diversity. By asking for cooperation from students, parents, and the local community, teachers can develop numerous educational resources. Oral and local histories, family records, and community studies can be useful. Field trips to museums, outdoor markets, and festivals can complement classroom activities.

6. Strive to expand students' knowledge of ethnic groups in American history and contemporary society through reading programs that expose students to books of fiction, biography, and history, and to magazine and newspaper articles about ethnic diversity. Teachers should also read extensively to acquire knowledge about ethnic diversity.

7. Stress values of ethnic diversity and national unity. Students of various backgrounds need to know and appreciate attitudes, institutions, and traditions they share as Americans. They need to appreciate the splendid diversity that characterizes the United States. Thus, teaching about ethnic diversity should involve lessons on core values that foster unity among Americans of various backgrounds and ethnic identities.


Banks, James A. TEACHING STRATEGIES FOR ETHNIC STUDIES. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1984.

Banks, James A. "The Nature of Multiethnic Education." EDUCATION IN THE 80S: MULTIETHNIC EDUCATION, edited by James A. Banks. Washington, DC: National Education Association, 1981. ED 204 192.

Glazer, Nathan and Reed, Ueda. ETHNIC GROUPS IN HISTORY TEXTBOOKS. Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1983. ED 232 941.

Higham, John. SEND THESE TO ME: IMMIGRANTS IN URBAN AMERICA. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Howard, Gary. "Multiethnic Education in Monocultural Schools." EDUCATION IN THE '80S: MULTIETHNIC EDUCATION, edited by James A. Banks. Washington, DC: National Education Association, 1981. ED 204 192.


Martin, David S. "Ethnocentrism Revisited: Another Look At A Persistent Problem." SOCIAL EDUCATION 49 (1985): 604-609.

NCSS Task Force On Ethnic Studies Curriculum Guidelines. CURRICULUM GUIDELINES FOR MULTIETHNIC EDUCATION. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1976. ED 130 931.

Patrick, John J. "Continuing Challenges in Citizenship Education." EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP 38 (1980): 36-37.

Patrick, John J. "Immigration in the Curriculum." SOCIAL EDUCATION 50 (1986): 172-176.

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