The University Record, September 26, 1994

Asante says campuses need to rethink entire curriculum

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

Trying to infuse multiculturalism into the curricula of American colleges and universities simply by adding courses on minority groups or requiring students to study the works of minority scholars does not work.

That was the message delivered by Molefi Asante, chair of Temple University’s Department of African-American Studies, at last week’s conference on “Campus Climate in Michigan: A Call to Action,” sponsored by the Michigan Department of Education’s Office of Equity.

“Fundamentally, we cannot fix it by simply wishing that diversity would happen,” he said. “At some point, we’re going to have to have on each campus in this country a rethinking of our entire curriculum. It’s going to be a long-term project, almost like going back to the drawing board.”

Asante said that the foundation of American education, based on the notion of “Eurocentric imposition,” minimizes the contributions and experiences of people of color.

That philosophy is grounded primarily in Greek thought and the classical music category includes only European concert music are good examples of “the imposition of a particular experience as if it’s universal,” he said.

“All of our disciplines of knowledge, our construction in higher education, everything we have is based on that. There’s no place for Africans or Chinese or Native Americans. This is the dogma that sits at the door of every discipline in the Western academy.”

University of Colorado historian Evelyn Hu-DeHart, who also spoke at the conference, believes that multicultural curricular transformation can only be achieved by creating autonomous ethnic studies departments with their own faculty and resources.

“Ethnic studies focus on marginalized and largely powerless groups, which have been racially constructed as non-whites, and socially constructed as minorities,” she said. “The mission of ethnic studies is to broaden the knowledge base that we have, to include experiences and contributions of groups historically excluded from the national dialogue.”

Hu-DeHart said that the current voluntary system of multicultural curricular integration in American colleges and universities is inadequate.

Unless faculty undergo an extensive personal and professional transformation, the degree of change in their courses and research will be minimal, she said.

“You keep the same syllabus. You don’t change a thing about it, except you might add a book here or a lecture there. You’re not really rethinking American history or American politics; nothing of that sort happens in most cases. While some might be willing to make significant changes in teaching, are they really willing to redirect their own research to new know-ledge-production in multicultural fields?”

She added that many faculty are reluctant to redefine the way they work and oppose policies that may curtail their hegemony.

English Prof. Robert A. Weisbuch who, as chair of his department for the past seven years, oversaw significant multicultural curricular reforms, told conference participants that many of his colleagues at first resisted change.

Two months after becoming department chair, a proposal requiring English majors to take a “New Traditions” course on women, minority or gay authors was presented and eventually passed.

“In my field of literature, you’re supposed to stretch, so you at least half understand what it’s like to be living in 1400 or 1600,” Weisbuch said. “And if you have to stretch to do that, then you ought to stretch to find out what it’s like to have an African-American minority experience or what it’s like to be someone other than yourself.”

He said that although many faculty were leery of the new requirement, the English department has been transformed because of it. Many new courses have been developed, but more importantly, new materials have been introduced into all existing courses, he added.

“Basically, we changed the curriculum,” Weisbuch said. “New texts are being used, new questions are being asked. You don’t always have to make the changes in the names or the numbers of the courses or the requirements, if you change the minds of the people who are organizing those courses with their students.”

He said that over the past seven years the English department has increased its minority faculty from two to 14 and its women faculty from eight to 26. In addition, minority students majoring in English have nearly tripled to more than 250.

Weisbuch believes that faculty in general must rethink the way they teach, redefine their standards of excellence, and dismantle the “invisible unwelcome signs” in the classroom in order to bring about greater integration of multiculturalism into the curriculum.

“My colleagues might say ‘I feel funny teaching Toni Morrison,’” he said. “You know what? So do I. I feel clumsy as a white guy teaching a novel by a Black woman writer. I think what you’re supposed to do is say you feel awkward and then go on and do it. You share your unease, and maybe you have a student or two who even decides that faculty can be human.

“Hopefully, as we come to recognize all of ourselves as members of ethnic groups, we can unsettle the settled, read the book that hasn’t been sufficiently read, or raise the question over an issue in a text that may be invisible to me but that is all looming for, say, a Native American student.”

Lester P. Monts, vice provost for academic and multicultural affairs, sees the integration of multiculturalism in the curriculum as a uniting feature in higher education today.

“We need to embark on a strategic plan for educational reform that incorporates multiculturalism by introducing students and faculty to the complexities and richness of knowledge that expands our understanding of ourselves and the world,” he said.

The campus climate conference at the U-M, which also featured speaker Darlene Clark Hine, a Michigan State University history professor, was the last in a series of three held at Michigan colleges and universities. Started by Rep. Morris Hood of Detroit, and Sen. John J.H. Schwarz of Battle Creek, the conferences also addressed other issues of campus diversity in regards to student demographics, faculty composition, policing and housing.

“The purpose of the conferences was to try to bring attention to some of the key boiling points that have been in place when student demonstrations have taken place on our several campuses,” said Earl Nelson, director of the Office of Equity, Michigan Department of Education. “To make sure that we’re doing what we’re supposed to do to help students find the success they are seeking.”