I felt myself straighten in my chair. I quickly shook off the tiredness of a long day of teaching when our professor explained most of us found it difficult to understand multicultural education “because our viewpoint was that of the white, upper middle class.”
The assumption irritated me. I had not grown up in upper middle-class suburbia as my professor had systematically asserted. Maybe it was my well-planned work clothes and an absentee dialect that led him to the erroneous conclusion. I grew up on the banks of the Ohio River in the foothills of Appalachia, in an economy driven by coal and steel. When I pressed the issue, I was met with a reply that what he meant by the opening remark was “we would have trouble identifying with those who were not Caucasian.”
My frustration grew as I realized that while we were being educated under the guise of multiculturalism, the same monocultural identity was assigned to the white students sitting before the professor, regardless of their culture.
While my identity provides a singular anecdote, the misconception that if you are white you are not a stakeholder in cultural diversity, is far from an anomaly. However, what this broad generalization fails to take into account is the immense diversity and subcultures of some of the most seemingly homogenous places, particularly those in rural America.
Scholars are finding this assumption is a reason multicultural education is not permeating rural classrooms. Multicultural education is often an unsuccessful venture in rural schools because multicultural texts repeatedly fail to acknowledge rural people and places. This has led many rural educators to distrust the multicultural field of study.
As she examined the most highly recommended texts meant to encourage pre-service and practicing teachers to integrate multicultural curriculum into their classrooms, Kristine Reed, researcher and professor, found most of them contained virtually no information on rural people. In order to understand why this is problematic, consider the following myths:
- Rural means white. Last fall Tim Lockette examined this myth in Teaching Tolerance magazine and found approximately one-fourth of rural students are of nonwhite races.
- Rural is monocultural. Rural areas are home to many subcultures including Amish, American Indian tribes, Appalachian people, African-Americans and migrant workers.
- Rural is only a small amount of students. In his research Lockette also found rural students make up 19 percent of the youth educated in America. It is also important to note rural areas encompass approximately 80 percent of the landmass in the United States.
In 2004 after conducting numerous case studies of diversity education, Sonia Nieto found that for students to become concerned about other cultures they first had to understand their own. Here are some examples of rural educators following Nieto’s advice:
- West Virginia educator Karen Morgan developed a class devoted to Appalachian studies, which worked with students’ perceptions of self and included a study of the history of their dialect and family genealogy, relying heavily on oral storytelling.
- The Rural School and Community Trust suggests place-based learning to help students connect and empathize with the struggles of other cultures once they have an opportunity to help solve problems in their own culture.
- The 2010 Teaching Tolerance article “Three From the Country” focuses on educators in rural places and how they handle diversity in their places of learning.
Multicultural education calls for all educators to critically examine the voices being heard, and find ways to engage the voices being left out. In order to connect rural students to the stories of other cultures, we must give rural students a spot in the anthology of global culture.
Yahn is a middle school language arts teacher in Ohio.