There are at least two ways of looking at culture and education in this country. One is to look at the cultural rivulets and tributaries that produce the ever-changing amalgam we recognize as American culture. The other is to focus on, celebrate and work at isolating the different streams.

The first finds expression in the idea of multiculturalism, the second in efforts to lift one culture above the rest, either as intrinsically superior or as peculiarly accessible to the ethnic descendants of that culture.

The first is as old -- and as imperfectly observed -- as the notion of America as a pluralistic society. At its best, it celebrates the contributions of outstanding members of all ethnic groups while teaching children that genius is independent of ethnicity. The second, which seeks to inspire children of minority groups by teaching them that the groups from which they are descended are somehow special, seems little more than a mirror image of white superiority.

Diane Ravitch, writing in the American Scholar magazine, has come up with an interesting look at the two approaches.

"The pluralists," she says, "seek a richer common culture; the particularists insist that no common culture is possible or desirable. Advocates of particularism propose an ethnocentric curriculum to raise the self-esteem and academic achievement of children from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds. Without any evidence, they claim that children from minority backgrounds will do well in school only if they are immersed in a positive, prideful version of their ancestral culture . . .

"The pluralists say, in effect, 'American culture belongs to us, all of us; the U.S. is us, and we remake it in every generation.' But the particularists have no interest in extending or revising American culture; indeed, they deny that a common culture exists."

The particularist argument is heard most frequently these days by advocates of new teaching approaches for African-American children. Their contention is not merely that children of African descent have different "learning styles" from those of European or Asian background but that black children cannot be properly taught if the schools employ (as they do) a "Eurocentric" framework.

Molefi Kete Asante of Temple University puts it bluntly: "It is difficult," he says, "to create freely when you use someone else's motifs, styles, images and perspectives."

His proposal: African Americans should choose African names (he did), embrace African dress and religion and, taught by black teachers, learn to love their own culture.

"Do not be captured by a sense of universality given you by the Eurocentric viewpoint," he warns. "Such a viewpoint is contradictory to your own ultimate reality."

There are a couple of problems with this notion. The first is the questionable assumption that black children, with only the vaguest notions of their African ancestry, can be inculcated with African culture more easily than the American culture to which they are daily exposed. The second is that even if they could, would it not make them less competent in the culture in which they have to compete?

Ravitch, an adjunct professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, puts the questions this way:

"Is there any evidence that the teaching of 'culturally relevant' science and mathematics will draw Mexican-American children {presumably inspired by being told that the Mayans made modern mathematics possible by inventing the concept of zero} to the study of these subjects? Are children who learn in this way prepared to study the science and mathematics that are taught in American colleges and universities and that are needed for advanced study in these fields? Will Mexican-American children lose interest or self-esteem if they discover that their ancestors were Aztecs or Spaniards, rather than Mayans?"

That last question is particularly important in that it demonstrates some of the misuses of the term "culture." Anyone who knows anything about Africa, for instance, understands that there is no single "African" culture from which black Americans are descended. While some Africans were establishing a university at Timbuktu, others were engaged in slavery or tribal warfare or cannibalism. Some Africans were monotheists, while others were animists. As with their European counterparts, some were promoting brilliant philosophies while others were savages.

The point is not that American students (not just black students) should be led to ignore cultures other than that derived principally from Europe. The point is that individuals from every ethnic background have contributed to the American culture, and it seems silly that we should be asked to give it up as somehow alien.

The need is not to reach back for some culture we never knew but to lay full claim to the culture in which we exist.