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.
WHAT IS EDUCATION ABOUT ETHNIC DIVERSITY IN A FREE SOCIETY?
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,
WHY IS EDUCATION ABOUT ETHNIC DIVERSITY IMPORTANT?
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.
WHERE DOES ETHNIC DIVERSITY BELONG IN THE CURRICULUM?
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.
WHAT ARE EFFECTIVE PROCEDURES IN TEACHING ABOUT ETHNIC DIVERSITY?
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
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
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.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
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.
King, Edith W. TEACHING ETHNIC AWARENESS: METHODS AND MATERIALS FOR THE
ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. Santa Monica, CA: Goodyear Publishing Company, Inc., 1980.
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):