diversity & multiculturalism

U.K. Chief Rabbi Johnathan Sacks talks about the threat to democracy from multiculturalism in his new book, "The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society":

Multiculturalism promotes segregation, stifles free speech and threatens liberal democracy, Britain's top Jewish official warned in extracts from his book published Saturday.

Jonathan Sacks, Britain's chief rabbi, defined multiculturalism as an attempt to affirm Britain's diverse communities and make ethnic and religious minorities more appreciated and respected. But in his book, "The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society," he said the movement had run its course.

"Multiculturalism has led not to integration but to segregation," Sacks wrote in his book, an extract of which was published in the Times of London.

"Liberal democracy is in danger," Sacks said, adding later: "The politics of freedom risks descending into the politics of fear."

Sacks said Britain's politics had been poisoned by the rise of identity politics, as minorities and aggrieved groups jockeyed first for rights, then for special treatment.

The process, he said, began with Jews, before being taken up by blacks, women and gays. He said the effect had been inexorably divisive.

"A culture of victimhood sets group against group, each claiming that its pain, injury, oppression, humiliation is greater than that of others," he said.

From the back cover of the book:

"Multiculturalism has run its course and it is time to move on." So begins Jonathan Sacks' new book on the future of British society and the dangers facing liberal democracy.

Arguing that global communications have fragmented national cultures and that multiculturalism, intended to reduce social frictions, is today reinforcing them, Sacks argues for a new approach to national identity. We cannot stay with current policies that are producing a society of conflicting ghettoes and non-intersecting lives, turning religious bodies into pressure groups rather than society-building forces.

Sacks maintains that we will have to construct a national narrative as a basis for identity, reinvigorate the concept of the common good, and identify shared interests among currently conflicting groups. It must restore a culture of civility, protect "neutral spaces" from politicization, and find ways of moving beyond an adversarial culture in which the loudest voice wins. He proposes a responsibility-based, rather than rights-based, model of citizenship that connects the ideas of giving and belonging.

Offering a new paradigm to replace previous models of assimilation on the one hand, multiculturalism on the other, he argues that we should see society as "the home we build together," bringing the distinctive gifts of different goups to society as a whole, and not only to our particular subsection of it.

Sacks warns of the hazards free and open societies face in the twenty-first century, and offers an unusual religious defense of liberal democracy and the nation state. A counterweight to his earlier The Dignity of Difference, Sacks makes the case for "integrated diversity" within a framework of shared political views.

The notion of "integrated diversity" reminds me of Maria Rosa Menocal's book "The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain" in which she writes about the "authentic multiculturalism" in medieval Spain that occurred through processes of tolerance, dialogue, and acceptance of "contraries."

Her notion of authentic multiculturalism ties in well with a "responsibility-based, rather than rights-based, model of citizenship." We hear all too often people clamoring for rights without regard to any responsibility they might have. It's more of a "gimme, gimme" attitude instead of a "giving and belonging" attitude. Not that rights must not be protected in a democracy, but rather they must be balanced by a sense of responsibility for a liberal democracy to exist.

Related posts:
The Downside of Diversity
Multiculturalism and Prejudice

Most of us are aware that diversity of ideas can lead to innovative solutions to problems in work environments and learning in educational environments. But diversity apparently has negative effects. Based on interviews with almost 30,000 people in the U.S., Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard, has found that diversity in a community has its downsides (via EdNews.org).

Diversity is proportional to

  • less voting,
  • less volunteering,
  • less giving to charity,
  • less working on community projects,
  • less trusting of one's neighbors, and
  • less civic well-being.

How much less? "In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings." Although we might expect trust to lessen between different groups, Putnam found that trust lessened "even among members of the same group."

These are serious findings. Diversity is important for creativitiy and learning. At the same time, it creates friction and distrust. As noted in the post Multiculturalism and Prejudice, promoting multiculturalism has a side effect of increasing prejudice for some people. Somehow, while maintaining respect for all cultures, we, our schools, and our communities need to emphasize and teach what we have in common instead of our differences.

Related posts:
Multiculturalism and Prejudice
Authentic Multiculturalism in Medieval Spain
Economic Diversity Raises Test Scores
Collective Intelligence vs. Crowd Dumbness

The Guardian has an interesting article, "Paul Sniderman: Identity Crisis" (via EdNews.org". Sniderman is the Fairleigh Dickinson Professor of Public Policy at Stanford University. According to Sniderman,

"While any society will always have its fair share of bigots, we also found that governmental multiculturalism made the problem worse. By arguing that all groups in society should be allowed to live according to their own beliefs and customs, they were encouraging people to see themselves as different from one another. And not just a little bit different, but fundamentally different. So it fostered a them-and-us attitude to politics." ...

what also emerges from this study is the thinness of the line between difference and prejudice. "We found that views typically held by otherwise tolerant Dutch people - that Muslims treated women badly and were too authoritarian with their children - were counterbalanced by Muslim attitudes towards the Dutch," says Sniderman. "Muslims believed the Dutch were disrespectful towards women and failed to discipline their children properly. So this wasn't about prejudices held by religious fanatics on both sides; it was a genuine conflict of values between two communities. It was the focus on these differences, through the pursuit of multiculturalism, that tipped the balance towards prejudice in some cases." ...

The biggest predictor of integration and social mobility in the Netherlands is the ability to speak Dutch ...

"[western governments] should legislate less for how they want people to feel, and more on the things that really matter, such as educational opportunity."

So, although multiculturalism's intent is to promote respect for diverse cultures, its results can be that of prejudicing people against those who are different.

Much hype is given to social networks on the internet and collaboration in the classroom. But, as Kathy Sierra comments on the differences between "Collective Intelligence and Dumbness of Crowds":

"Collective intelligence" is a pile of people writing Amazon book reviews.

"Dumbness of Crowds" is a pile of people collaborating on a wiki to collectively author a book. ...

"Collective Intelligence" is about getting input and ideas from many different people and perspectives.

"Dumbness of Crowds" is blindly averaging the input of many different people, and expecting a breakthrough.

(It's not always the averaging that's the problem it's the blindly part) ...

It's the sharp edges, gaps, and differences in individual knowledge that make the wisdom of crowds work, yet the trendy (and misinterpreted) vision of Web 2.0 is just the opposite--get us all collborating and communicating and conversing all together as one big happy collborating, communicating, conversing thing until our individual differences become superficial.

"It's the sharp edges, gaps, and differences in individual knowledge that make the wisdom of crowds work" (Kathy Sierra).

Sierra's post brings me back to a series of posts by Konrad Glogowski (see in Related Posts below) on disliking group work with young students. In his last post, he sums up his position:

In addition, Eric MacKnight e-mailed me some time ago to tell me that he had discussed my entry on group work with his students and encouraged them to respond. I read all their entries and was impressed by how well they articulated their thoughts. Their responses show a wide range of opinions. Some argue that group work has a very positive impact on all group members. Others contend that working in groups is alienating and ineffective.

All of these texts once again led me to a realization that I prefer communities where everyone can contribute while retaining their own sense of individuality and independence. In such communities or networks, individual learners can still link up if they choose to and can achieve the goal of what Gordon Wells and Mari Haneda (.pdf) call “purposefully knowing together.”

For me, both Sierra and Glogowski have pointed out that "differences" need to be valued. We don't learn from those who think like us or who know only what we know. Rather, we learn from those who think and know differently because it is differences that clarify, challenge, and expand our thinking. Groups, or crowds, can stifle thinking and creativity, while collective networks can facilitate learning.

Practically, this perspective means we need to give careful consideration to building structures into our classes that promote a networking community as opposed to collaborating groups. Wikis, for instance, can become a classopedia to which students contribute and see who else has the same interests. If students are blogging, they should be subscribed to their classmates. And so on. None of these practices are new, of course. What's important in using them is to avoid the dumbing down effects of group work. That is, have students share, discuss, and bump ideas off each other but create their own individual works. In this way, the class can expand both its collective intelligence and individual learning.

Related Posts:
» Authentic Multiculturalism in Medieval Spain
» Learning: A State of Dissatisfaction
» On Commenting and Readerly Voice (Konrad Glogowski)
» To Ungroup a Class (Konrad Glogowski)
» They Begin to Build Bridges (Konrad Glogowski)
» Students Reflect on Group Work (Konrad Glogowski)
» Groups vs. Networks: The Class Struggle Continues (Stephen Downes)

Mixing the traditional with the modern can yield fascinating products. Lynn Arditi, in the Providence Journal (via EdNews.org), writes about a Muslim woman pursuing her dream to become a doctor in Educating Rula, an interesting story that shows the diversity of perspectives within the Islamic world, the diversity of life in the U.S., and the commonality of human beings seeking to better themselves. Doing a medical intership,

Rula is exhausted. She attends classes three days a week; the other two days, she does her training on the radiology ward of Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence. In her kitchen, she stands at the granite counter and grinds Starbucks coffee beans, scooping the grounds into a Krups coffee maker.

Rula's story is one worth reading.

The Ornament

When you think of tolerance and multiculturalism, does Medieval Europe come to mind? Probably not. Yet, Maria Rosa Menocal's (professor of Spanish and Director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University) book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain makes precisely that claim. Weaving together tales from medieval Spain, Menocal illustrates how three different religions built a "first-rate" culture of tolerance that influenced Europe for centuries to come.

Menocal intertwines "culture of tolerance" with F. Scott Fitzgerald's notion of a "first-rate" mind, writing,

the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time ...

[that] contradictions--within oneself, as well as within one's culture--could be positive and productive. (pp. 10-11)

Contradictions, Menocal asserts, were responsible for the flowering of art, intellect, and tolerance towards others in Medieval Spain: Muslims, Christians, and Jews interacted openly and freely, keeping a strong sense of identity, yet assimilating features of other cultures that they admired. In Medieval Spain, tolerating contraries led to great philosphers like ibn Rusd and Maimonides, who wrestled with the contraries of faith and reason. Maimonides, with his Second Law, or Mishneh Torah, would be called a "second Moses." Moses of Leon struggled with the traditional Halakah and came up with his Sefer ha-zohar, The Book of Splendor, a systematic compilation of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. The study of the living language of Arabic generated once again a Hebrew that was "the language of a vibrant, living poetry" (p. 109).

Such "first-rate" contraries resulted in "authentic multiculturalism." Jews, such as Hasdai ibn Shaprut and Samuel the Nagid, were viziers in an Islamic government. Alongside Arabic--a language of state, love, and religion--existed other religious and vernacular languages. This multicultural environment preferred freedom of religious expression to political correctness; "incongruity in the shaping of individuals" (p. 11) to a "strict harmony of ... cultural identities" (p. 277); "to pose difficult questions rather than to propose easy answers or facile morals" (p. 274); and so on. All of these contraries and others touch upon so many issues in education and modern life, such as assimilation vs. heritage maintenance, multiculturalism vs. traditional canons, political correctness vs. freedom of expression and of religion, bilingual education vs. immersion, and so on.

The authentic multiculturalism of Medieval Spain arose from tolerance of and dialogue with others. Yet, tolerance and dialogue are not givens, as this culture of tolerance eventually fell.

WHAT HAPPENED? HOW AND WHY DOES A CULTURE OF tolerance fall apart? How did a people come to abandon a culture rooted in an ethic of yes and no, so readily able to love and embrace the architecture or the poetry of political enemies or religious rivals, so willing to read good books regardless of the library they came from? All the answers are themselves bundles of contradictions.... Perhaps all that can be said with any conviction is that in the combination of spectacular successes and failures presented by this history lie tales of both warning and encouragement. (p. 266)

The notion of contradictions being essential for tolerance and creativity, and also for learning (see Learning: A State of Dissatisfaction) underscores the need to inject uncertainty and novelty into the classroom, not so much as to be overwhelming but enough to promote the flow of learning.

At the end of the book, Menocal writes, "Every reader will take away different lessons from the tales in this book." Indeed.

Below are some reviews that offer other readings of and lessons from The Ornament of the World

Alan Finder (The NY Times) reports on the jump in reading and math test scores in Wake County, NC, a jump that is attributed to economic diversity accomplished by busing.

"Low-income students who have an opportunity to go to middle-class schools are surrounded by peers who have bigger dreams and who are more academically engaged," said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has written about economic integration in schools. "They are surrounded by parents who are more likely to be active in the school. And they are taught by teachers who more likely are highly qualified than the teachers in low-income schools."

Reading through the article, we can see people's values at play: white vs. black, choice vs. quality education, choice vs. busing, success measured by property values and corporate support, economic diversity as a proxy for racial diversity, and so on. We can also wonder whether those with bigger dreams are being influenced by those with "smaller" dreams. We might ask where the teachers in previously low-income schools went? Did they quit to make room for the "highly qualified"? Or, like the students, did they become influenced by the "highly qualified" to raise their "teaching" scores?

However, it's more interesting from a complexity theory perspective of clustering and diversity. Clustering often leads to segregation: people feel more comfortable with what's familiar, and that includes ethnic and racial familiarity. Diversity can lead to creativity and innovation, and as seen here, increased test scores. (It should be remembered that the top scores likely aren't increasing, but the overall scores are due to lower performers achieving more.) In some sense, the fitness of the school ecology is improving through rearranging the system's structure.

Somewhat paradoxically, a central tenet of complexity theory is self-organization with no central control. And yet in this case a central, top-down order has improved the system's fitness. Of course, we don't know how that order came about: whether initiated from the school superintendent or deriving from the input of many stakeholders. Even so, along the lines of Juarrero's enabling constraints, greater complexity results from structure. Thus, on a smaller scale, we might consider how to structure diversity and interaction among different groups in our classrooms.