THE CIVIL RIGHTS battles of the '50s and '60s were fought in the courtroom, but in the '90s the struggle for cultural parity will take place in the classroom as blacks and other minorities seek to change what their children are taught. Like all attempts to right previous wrongs, the movement for multicultural education is appealing; in truth the contributions of black, Hispanic, Asian and other groups are too often omitted from school texts and lesson plans. But the sweeping call for "curricula of inclusion" is based on untested, unproven premises. Worse, because it intentionally exaggerates differences, it seems likely to exacerbate racial and ethnic tensions.

The movement toward multicultural education is a national one, with roots in the political and social upheaval of the '60s as well as changing demographics. While America has always been a nation of immigrants, the ideal has always been assimilation and commonality. Now we are becoming a nation of disparate cultures, each insisting on the validity of its history. In some areas, Latino activists claim that Spanish is such an integral part of their life and culture that they should not have to learn English; elsewhere other groups make similar demands. It is a dangerous step toward the tribalization of our society and the making of our schools into educational Bantustans.

Locally, parents and others in the District and Prince George's Country have called for adoption of "Afrocentric" curricula stressing the history and achievements of blacks from prehistoric Africa to the present. (See box.) Supporters say the change is necessary to increase black students' achievement and to raise the self-esteem of black children. These are laudable goals, but they are based on the naive assumption that fewer black girls will get pregnant and fewer black boys will drop out of school if they are taught that they are descended from the builders of the pyramids.

The debate over such programs has inflamed prejudice on both sides at the expense of common sense. For many blacks, support for Afrocentric programs becomes a test of racial and ideological purity. On the other hand, many whites who oppose such forms of culturally specific education seem threatened by the notion that African ideas may have provided the philosophical underpinnings for Greece and Rome, and thus the modern world; they seem to think the black contribution to America and the world is limited to jazz and basketball. In the end, the saddest and most hypocritical thing is that, like so much else concerning the public schools, what is at stake is not the welfare of the children, but power. Who will run things? And what will be taught?

"The real issue that exists," said Molefi Kete Asante, chairman of the department of African American studies at Temple University, "is simply whether or not you support an educational system where you have a white hegemony in control of the educational system, or whether or not you support a pluralistic educational system where you have white cultural information taught alongside other cultural information."

For Asa G. Hilliard III, a professor of educational psychology at Georgia State University who "specializes in the history of ancient Egypt," the usefulness and appropriateness of the Afrocentric curriculum is unquestionable. "I can't even imagine that that's a rational question," said Hilliard, who -- like Asante -- is one of the foremost proponents of Afrocentric education and has acted as a consultant to school systems seeking to diversify their curricula. "It's just that there is a vast amount of information that is non-trivial about African people that is important for African people and other people to know about. If you have an education that proceeds in the absence of this information, then that would be a distorted or a false education."

When Hilliard uses the words "African people," he is talking about anyone of African descent anywhere in the world. For him, infusing school curricula with African content (an expression he prefers to the term "Afrocentric") means teaching that Africa is the birthplace of mankind, and thus of the arts, science and mathematics and that African ideas influenced the development of Greek philosophy. It means also teaching that Egypt was a black civilization whose achievements included not only the pyramids, but electrical engineering, aeronautics and magic.

Magic aside, these are exciting and intriguing ideas. But there are reasons for caution. For one thing, there is only anecdotal evidence to support the theory that adding this new material to the curriculum will improve students' performance. For another, coming from the mouths of supporters of the Afrocentric idea, these revisions of history sound like nothing so much as a new ideology.

The fact of the matter is that while there is substantial scholarship to support these ideas, there is also substantial controversy. Some scholars believe that the ancient Egyptians were white; others argue that the society was racially mixed and that the ancient Egyptians did not view race or color in the same way that we do. But this is of no matter to Hilliard or to Asante; for them all opposition is the result of white racism.

"Egypt is in Africa," said Asante. "It always has been in Africa. Those Egyptologists {who deny it} were taking an Aryan position because they could not figure out how a civilization so monumental and so majestic as ancient Egypt . . . could be on the African continent. It threatens the whole European historiography because here is a civilization more majestic than Rome and Greece combined." Hilliard said, "Part of what we have seen is the assertion of white superiority and white supremacy using many vehicles, including the curriculum."

All of this has people like Jeanne Allen, an educational policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, more than a little upset. Multicultural education, she said, seeks not to acknowledge the real contributions of blacks and other minorities, but "to portray them as victims of white males" and "to replace the current curriculum with stuff that makes people feel good." In effect, she says, "they want to teach people that the contributions of Western culture are not valid."

Allen cites a report, released by the New York State Commissioner of Education's Task Force on Minorities in July 1989 that begins with the statement that "African Americans, Asian Americans, Puerto Ricans/Latinos, and Native Americans have all been the victims of an intellectual and educational oppression that has characterized the culture and institutions of the United States and the European American world for centuries." The New York educational system, the report went on, is guilty of "systematic bias toward European culture and its derivatives," while the curriculum shows evidence of "deep-seated pathologies of racial hatred." And one task force member, writing about the U.S. Constitution, said "there is something vulgar and revolting in glorifying a process that heaped undeserved rewards on a segment of the population while oppressing the majority."

Although the rhetoric was toned down in the final version of the report, that kind of extremism provokes the worst from both sides.

Teaching about America's "founding fathers" is a case in point. Hilliard says that black Americans would "have to be a little weird" to use the term "forefathers" when it refers to whites. Allen, ironically, agrees: Members of the New York task force "complain that blacks and Hispanics were not involved in the founding of this country. That is absurd -- of course blacks and Hispanics were not involved. There were so few of them -- most began to come to this country in the 1800s."

If Hilliard and Allen would go back to their history books, they would find out how wrong they are. Of course, blacks and others were conspicuous by their absence in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But from Estavanico, who roamed the Southwest with a party of Spanish explorers in the 1530s, to Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, who set up the trading post from which the city of Chicago evolved; from Crispus Attucks, killed in the Boston Massacre, to Peter Salem, who was one of the 5,000 blacks to fight in the Revolutionary War; from James Forten, the sailmaker and abolitionist who served on an American warship as a boy and was taken prisoner by the British, to Benjamin Banneker, who helped survey this city, blacks and Hispanics have been involved in the founding of this country. Moreover, given what we know of the dalliance of some slave masters with some slave women, contrary to what Hilliard has to say, it is more than a little likely that the blood of some of the founding fathers flows in some of our veins.

That most readers will be ignorant of the names above is clear evidence of the need to change what children learn in school. But because the most vocal proponents of change have an investment in the politics of race and the politics of difference, their proposals threaten to destroy the American common school.

The point that they have forgotten, or seem determined to ignore, is that America has always been a multicultural society. And, from the beginning cultural exchange has been the rule -- when the first Europeans began to make the first Africans into Americans, the Africans were also making the Europeans into Americans. The pattern is one that has held until recently: All of us who make up this nation of immigrants come with different languages, different cultural and ethnic traits, but sooner or later we give up some of what makes us different to become part of the larger society. On balance, what we gain outweighs what we lose.

Understandably, many parents view the Afrocentric curriculum as a cure-all for the dire ailments of urban school districts. They hope for increased self-esteem and better academic performance under an Afrocentric curriculum. But self-esteem is not something that can be "taught" in the same way as, say, English or math. In addition, even proponents admit that there is only anecdotal evidence to suggest that changing the curriculum will improve the academic performance of minority children. "I don't know that anyone has done the research to be able to say, other than by impression and opinion, what's going to happen," Hilliard said.

In fact, the call for the Afrocentric curriculum is based on several nasty little assumptions that may, in the end, backfire on those who want change. One that is particularly troubling is that black children can learn only if they study themselves and their culture. No less invidious is the notion that black children "process information differently" or that there is something intrinsically different about them. Material given to teachers by the Multicultural/Multiethnic Education Office of the Portland, Ore., Public Schools, for example, quotes psychologist Na'im Akbar that the black child "uses language requiring a wide use of many coined interjections (sometimes profanity)" -- an observation that probably would be roundly condemned if made by a white.

In addition, such thinking prolongs the illusion that the complex problems facing our schools can be solved with a quick ethnic fix. As Diane Ravitch points out in a recent essay in The American Scholar, black and minority children "would fare better in school if they had well-educated and well-paid teachers, small classes, good materials, encouragment at home and school, summer academic programs, protection from the drugs and crime that ravage their neighborhoods and higher expectations of satisfying careers upon graduation." But "these are expensive and time-consuming remedies." Instead, what she calls "particularistic multiculturalism" offers "a less complicated anodyne, one in which the children's academic deficiencies may be addressed -- or set aside -- by inflating their racial pride."

That last is a key point. While Afrocentrism is an offspring of the separatist black nationalist and black power movements of the 1960s and '70s, it is also a result of the tremendous disappointment many blacks feel in the post-civil-rights era. For the most part, school and social integration have not worked. And yet there is little to return to because integration has meant the death of many of the institutions -- shopping districts, theaters and nightclubs, banks, newspapers and sports teams -- that once thrived in the black community.

At bottom, however, the Afrocentric idea is a defensive mechanism that attempts to compensate for a hard truth: Most blacks are descended from slaves who, unlike other immigrants, were brought to the Americas against their will. There was a presumption of inferiority then; many of us believe that presumption still exists today. Only this need to prove one's worth really explains the vehemence with which proponents of the Afrocentric curriculum argue that, say, the ancient Egyptians really were black.

However, that does not alter the fact that what is taught in America's schools must be changed -- for the sake of all our children. Sensible people of both races understand. In February a woman I know who lives in North Carolina called to ask if I could recommend books about blacks for her two sons to read. "They came home from school yesterday," she said, "and I asked them what they had done for Black History Month. They said the teacher had put on a Michael Jackson record and they had danced." Another woman, also white, told me that her children routinely come home in February complaining that they wish their teachers would talk about someone besides the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. All of this is inexcusable when the stories of people like Phillis Wheatley, David Walker, Toussaint L'Overture, James Chavis, George Washington Carver, James Beckworth, Bill Pickett and Oscar Micheaux are waiting to be told.

The question, though, is not whether the curriculum needs to be changed, but whose vision will prevail -- that of the nationalists and the zealots, or that of more reasonable people who still believe in a common American culture and shared national values. In a recent profane Village Voice interview, a rap singer called Ice Cube says he learned more about black history from rap records than from school. Perhaps those who oppose any form of multiculturalism ought to be asking themselves whether they would rather have their children learn from rappers like Ice Cube, who believe history is bunk, or teachers.

David Nicholson is a writer and editor for The Washington Post's Book World.