LIKE "relevance" in the '60s, "multicultural education" has become this decade's all-purpose educational buzzword, applied to a jumble of good and bad educational principles and to a grab-bag of reforms. It can mean constructive and overdue measures such as the expansion of history books to include new information on the historical roles played by minority groups -- information that was often ignored or simply not known by the authors of outmoded textbooks. It can mean simply better attention to the special problems of individual minority or immigrant children. Or it can mean polemical and divisive curriculum revisions that falsify, pursuing blatantly political aims at the cost of historical accuracy -- such as one proposed last spring by the New York State Board of Regents and properly contested ever since.
Which of these approaches will be taken by the Prince George's County school system's new "multicultural education plan," which is to be put into effect over five years starting this fall? Louise Waynant, associate superintendent for instruction, says the "multicultural" campaign will have three tiers: first, an attempt, already in progress, to improve minority students' "access and achievement" by deemphasizing tracking and urging more students into higher-level courses; second, a program that targets black males; and, finally, the curriculum changes that are being referred to, in a classic dose of educratese, as "multicultural infusions." The infusions have yet to be designed, but officials say they will draw heavily on efforts underway in Pittsburgh, Portland (Ore.) and Indianapolis.
They should do so with great caution. "Infusions" of new content in the curriculum can be valuable if chosen along strictly pedagogical, not political, lines and if they do not force concepts of affirmative action and ethnicity into areas where they are irrelevant. This plan, for instance, calls for multicultural "infusions" into the math and science curriculum -- meaning, it turns out, that teachers should point out the achievements of African, Egyptian and other non-Western societies in these fields and their contributions to technology. And yet this kind of information, while illuminating, is not math or science; it is the history of math and science, and should not replace or overshadow the increasingly important and intrinsically nonethnic disciplines to which it is being artificially appended.
Similar pitfalls dot the humanities. Teaching minority children to "see themselves in" their textbooks may, in fact, excite and strengthen them, but it is at least as important that these and all children learn they can see themselves, more broadly, in history and literature as a whole. School is not the place to draw lines between cultures or to narrow the empathies of impressionable students, white or black. The Prince George's system, whose leaders have handled many sensitive projects intelligently, could benefit from the new "infusions." But they need to proceed skeptically, and under many alert eyes.