Questioning multicultural education

The Jakarta Post ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 12/30/2006 2:20 PM  |  Opinion

Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta

Multicultural education has been a hot topic lately among Indonesian educators. It has been hailed as the most relevant kind of schooling in this multicultural and pluralistic society prone to conflicts along the lines of race, gender, ethnicity, class and religion.

Since this kind of education emphasizes cultural knowledge and the understanding of differences, it values equity in all walks of life. Students are made aware that, though they are from the same nation, they do not live in a monocultural society, but in one that combines many cultures. In essence, the goal is social change via education.

More important, students learn that no single culture is superior to others and that the dichotomy between dominant and subjugated cultures no longer prevails. They are encouraged to be sensitive and tolerant toward other cultures that might conflict with theirs. Cultural differences are seen as enriching, rather than threatening, society.

We can eradicate social ills only by nurturing sensitivity and minimizing prejudice. Yet, confusion still abounds as to how to adopt multicultural education and integrate it into the curriculum. There are difficulties here. On one hand, teaching multicultural education as a separate subject is not desirable because it would overload the curriculum. On the other hand, integrating it into other subjects requires a great deal of preparation on the part of teachers, textbook authors, and curriculum designers. This could eventually require a national curriculum overhaul, which is also not desirable.

Furthermore, it is no easy matter to determine the scope of multicultural education to be included in the curriculum. Multicultural education is a broad and elusive concept that allows room for multiple interpretations. What notion of culture is one supposed to teach? Is it culture in the sense of a set of collective norms, beliefs or practices shared within a certain community, or is it culture in the sense of the individual’s right to express his or her traditions in the way he or she chooses? Which of these interpretations will the curriculum be designed around?

There are also problems at the practical level. Teachers must be willing to diminish their own cultural pride to effectively teach multiculturally. They need to be inclusive by accommodating their students’ cultural differences. In certain communities, diminishing one’s cultural pride is easier said than done.

Similarly, teachers may also confront the problem of how to extend respect, empathy, and tolerance to other cultures if the students hail from a community where homogeneity is highly valued and ethnocentricity is deeply rooted. Instilling the idea of cultural inclusiveness is also likely to face a stumbling block if the students do not experience the impact of diversity in their daily lives.

Multiculturalism is a complex concept, requiring extensive cross-cultural research about the multiple perspectives of society in order to avoid misunderstandings. At the conceptual level, to help better understand the notion of multiculturalism, the following caveats are worth considering.

First, teaching multiculturally by no means promotes other cultures over the students’ own cultures. Students need not be asked to assimilate themselves into other cultures. Thus, by learning about and respecting other cultures students do not have to lose their identity.

Second, students’ pride in their own cultural heritage should not be seen as an impediment to learning about other cultural heritages. Instead, this pride should be highly valued.

Third, learning multiple perspectives from other cultures does not necessarily mean overemphasizing differences and underemphasizing similarities among cultures.

Attempts to incorporate multicultural education in school subjects are noble, but without a better understanding of its meaning, scope and goals, it is possible that teachers will only leave their students culturally disoriented.

The writer is lecturer at Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta. He can be reached at

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