A Defence of Multiculturalism: Why it still has some conceptual relevance for schools

As mentioned previously, my school is setting up a working group of pupils and teachers to explore whether our curriculum reflects their diversity in terms of ethnicity, culture and religious beliefs as well as gender, sexuality and disability. This has led to my first two blogs: one defending an inclusive and diverse curriculum and another briefly charting the historical toing and froing of arguments for and against inclusive/diverse curricula in the UK. This third blog will seek to defend the often unpopular notion of multiculturalism, but also suggest that it now has too many competing definitions and that the term “interculturalism” might be a better fit in relation to education. 

Whilst multiculturalism can have a negative impact on aspects society (for instance, see Collier, 2019), especially where policies have led to cultural separateness, I feel that the concept still has a place in schools as a conduit for learning about other cultures and faiths, fostering empathy and understanding and allowing pupils from different backgrounds to feel the curriculum includes them; in this sense it can aid the integration of “minority cultures” and groups into society as a whole and allow “host communities” to widen their knowledge of other people’s heritages, beliefs and experiences.

Defining Multiculturalism

According to Eagon (2021), multiculturalism is essentially the view that cultures and ethnicities, particularly those of minority groups, deserve special acknowledgment of their differences within a dominant political culture. Multiculturalism acknowledges that minority groups often have a history of exclusion within mainstream society and, therefore, need to be allowed to be understood by a wider “host” or dominant culture. 

However, Malik (2008) argues that the term multiculturalism has two different meanings, which are rarely distinguished. These meanings centre on a descriptive and a normative view of multiculturalism respectively. Firstly, the descriptive view refers to policy responses to immigration and social diversity with the aim of managing them. Secondly, the normative view recognises the reality of changes that have occurred over the last 70 years, which have resulted in more ethnic and cultural diversity. My own, perhaps naive, view of multiculturalism has come from this second perspective, which represents “…a feel-good celebration of ethnocultural diversity, encouraging citizens to acknowledge and embrace the panoply of customs, traditions… that exist in a multi-ethnic society” (Kymlicka, 2010, p. 33).

These descriptive and normative views on multiculturalism compete in an attempt to redefine citizenship and nationhood. Critics of multiculturalism say it divisively champions the “politics of recognition” and has connotations of “tribalism” and “groupism”, which in turn challenges national unity and common values (Taylor, 1994; Brubaker, 2002; cited in Kastoryano, 2018). These critics may opt for an assimilationist view of society or an integrationist view, which will both be explained in a blog I’ll post in two weeks time.

Others see multiculturalism as an extension of national citizenship, and suggest a “multicultural nationalism” as a way “to accommodate British Asian Muslims political assertiveness” (Madood, 2017, para. 5). Moreover, some writers have suggested that “interculturalism” should supersede multiculturalism in our thinking. Interculturalism is ” … essentially one basic idea: that the interaction among people from different diversity attributions matters, and that this has been overlooked by the multicultural citizenship paradigm, which has mainly concentrated on ensuring the cultural rights of diverse groups” (Zapata-Barrero, 2016, p. 54). I find this argument appealing, but as I will say at the end of the blog, that was my original take on multiculturalism anyway.

A defence of multiculturalism 

Multiculturalism has been attacked left, right and centre by the popular press as a form of cultural relativism that has led to segregation and – ironically – monocultural silos. However, this often ignores the reasoning behind the original conceptualisation of multiculturalism, especially the normative idea discussed above. Manning (2011, p. 1) argues that the values underpinning liberal democracies like ours are very appealing to people from various backgrounds. He goes on to suggest, “… immigrants from different cultures will come to adhere of their own volition to the values that matter for the smooth functioning of society, while perhaps choosing to keep their particular cultural practices relevant only in private.” Therefore, “… forcing immigrants to change their behaviour risks being counter-productive – better a society of volunteers than conscripts.” In this sense, multiculturalism is neither for the whole-sale assimilation of minority cultures nor the complete jettisoning of things that a liberal democratic host community holds dear, such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights.    

Of course, the charge against multiculturalism is that policy makers, civil servants, teachers etc. have a reluctance to claim that some values are superior to others and that it is wrong to insist on immigrants changing their values. For instance, the argument goes that prejudice such as sexism and homophobia, and even issues around child protection, are ignored in the name of cultural sensitivity. Trevor Phillips, former head of the Commission for Racial Equality, caused controversy in 2005 by suggesting that multiculturalism may now be outdated. Around that time he also warned that the UK could be “sleep-walking” towards US-style ethnic segregation because of a failure to address differences in common values (BBC, 2005). 

Whilst these criticisms have value and mistakes have been made by well-intentioned individuals, a number of recent studies have challenged past research showing that racial diversity has adversely affected trust and is a major cause of increased societal tension (Abascal & Baldassarri, 2015; Kustov & Pardelli, 2018). Many reports critical of multiculturalism have come from organisations with ideological agendas and some researchers have claimed that their research has been “twisted” and misrepresented by those attacking social diversity (Bartlet, 2012). 

Moreover, some have accused multiculturalism’s detractors of engaging in “common-sense racism”, which “positions asylum seekers, new migrants and Muslims as the enemies within and without our borders” (Redclift 2014, p. 579; Umut, Murji & Nahaboo , 2016). This is not to mention literature reviews that question the empirical base for labelling multiculturalism a failed social experiment (Lentin & Titley, 2011). Of course, many criticisms of multiculturalism, especially from more thoughtful thinkers, are not partaking in populist posturing, but quite a few are; I think this is especially true of some ill-informed journalists and policy-makers.

One of the perceived failures of multiculturalism is the idea, suggested above, that policies focused on multiculturalism have led to divided communities where cultural norms and values exist in islands of intolerance. However, and importantly, this arguably stems more from cultural relativism than multiculturalism. The latter is arguably the antithesis of the former as cultural relativism bypasses the communal consequences of diversity whereas multiculturalism acknowledges our differences, which, in turn can lead to dialogue, agreement and – eventually – an adoption of shared and common values as well as a protective rule of law. There have been various studies suggesting that short-term division can be overcome resulting in longer-term benefits (see, for example, Putnam, 2006 – a study often used, confusingly, to attack short-term issues surrounding multiculturalism). 

Multiculturalism, interaction and trust

After reviewing various studies on the impact of multiculturalism, Newton and Stolle (2002, p. 17) have concluded that, “… living in a mixed society in an isolated way seems to be quite different from participating in it by interacting with a range of social types. The first reinforces social stereotyping and distrust. The second seems more likely to encourage trust and cooperation that bridges social differences. And third, at first viewing there seems to be a substantial difference between societies that pursue a sustained and active policy of multicultural integration and those that favour mono-cultural assimilation of minority and migrant groups. The first seem to attain higher levels of trust and social integration, whereas the second seem to have more conflict and distrust.” What is important here is that if various cultures exist in society, they will be stronger if they interact with each other; this does not denote assimilation, but cohesion and cooperation amongst different social groups. 

Therefore, and in relation to education, Trotman (2002) argues that a multicultural approach to curriculum design allows us to “highlight neglected aspects of our social history, particularly the histories of women and minorities” (p. 9-10) Here, “by raising consciousness about the past, multiculturalism tries to restore a sense of wholeness in a postmodern era that fragments human life and thought.” In this sense, we forge new consensual understandings that allow us to function as a society in cohesion as opposed to a society in disarray. 

Is ‘interculturalism’ a better term?

According Cantle (2016, p. 133), “interculturalism is based upon an entirely different conceptual and policy framework and offers a new and progressive approach to how we learn to live with diversity”. Basically, interculturalism emphasizes the importance of cross-cultural dialogue, which challenges self-segregation tendencies within cultures. The idea is that we need to go further than passive acceptance of multiple cultures and encourage interaction between divergent groups in order to foster understanding, respect and common values (Penas & López, 2006). For Zapata-Barrero, there is “a new paradigm that is taking shape in this second decade of the twenty-first century: intercultural citizenship” (Zapata-Barrero, 2016, p. 53). 

In terms of education, especially where teachers proactively signpost cultural diversity, this both teaches pupils about each “other” as well as promoting mutual inclusivity. Of course, this intercultural experience will stretch beyond differences in ethnicity, identity and faith to include sexuality, gender and disability. Essentially, interculturalism aims to overcome the criticism that multiculturalism allows cultures to stagnate in groups of cultural separateness. Important here is the idea that differing groups build a mutual regard for one another and accept a common framework of social norms and values that facilitate community cohesion. Interculturalism, therefore, is perhaps a better concept in an educational context, as it seeks to bring children within school communities and wider society together as opposed to push them apart or alienate a few. 

Some scholars criticise interculturalism, and the similar theory of cultural fusion, in that it is really just a part of multiculturalism, which – like it or not – is the reality of modern life for many groups within the UK (see Madood, 2017, for an argument on this). Whilst I understand that, I would say my original understanding of multiculturalism was more in-line with interculturalism. The issue for some multiculturalists is that interculturalism, and especially cultural fusion theory, have integration as the aim and do not necessarily see faith, culture and tradition as static. 

Brief conclusion

Whilst I would acknowledge that multiculturalism has been poorly managed in parts of the UK and that multicultural policies have often been counterproductive for many communities, I would still defend the idea that schools need to reflect the cultures and social groups that make them up; in this sense, they need to teach multiple cultures (multiculturalism), or at least reference them where appropriate. In schools where one or two cultures dominate, then efforts should still be made to inform pupils that other parts of the country are not necessarily dominated by one culture or another; this applies to schools where minority cultures dominate as much as where pupils of White British heritage dominate. 

Accepting the need for the serious study of other faiths and cultures that are now part of life in the UK does not necessarily mean replacing key areas of the curriculum that focus on “our island story”, such as 1066, the Tudors or the World Wars; however, it would mean finding some time to teach about faiths other than Christianity, read literature not written within the British Isles and celebrate art and music from around the world.  

It is also worth briefly considering that multiculturalism in schools not only educates children about different cultures, but can also champion our fundamental values of democracy, rule of law, individual liberty, tolerance and respect. These “British Values” can be used as a framework to promote and celebrate the communal nature of multiculturalism whilst acting as a break on multiculturalism’s perceived excesses, such as the intolerance that results from cultural separateness, cultural infringements on an individual’s liberty or when certain cultural practices go against the rule of law or human rights. 

However, perhaps I have misunderstood all this. Multiculturalism provokes emotive responses from many and it looks like a poisoned chalice in terms of talking about integration and community cohesion. Too many people get hot under the collar about its nature without putting much thought into – ironically – its diversity of meanings and connotations – both positive and negative. In this sense, it might be worth exploring cultural fusion, which is feted by critics of multiculturalism like Collier (2013), as an alternative. If interested, I will post a blog on this soon. 


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Photo credit: Wikicommons (Used under a Creative Commons Licence)

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