Debate Continues Over Citizenship Education

Published April 1, 2007

Review of
Diversity and Citizenship Education: Global Perspectives
Edited by James A. Banks
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007
485 pages, paperback, ISBN: 0787987654, $28

A book of essays running to almost 500 pages, penned by 19 academics from around the world, has to be a more reliable cure for insomnia than all the sleep aids currently being peddled on television.

Nevertheless, a reader who fights off the urge to nap can find within this thick volume the tinder to spark fiery debates. By prescribing citizenship education, does the modern nation-state practice forcible assimilation that tramples the rights of culturally diverse minorities? Or is citizenship education a reasonable way for a nation to ensure its citizens share knowledge and ideals to a degree sufficient to preserve national unity?

Citizenship is rarely a separate course in any curriculum. Many of the essayists in this compendium don’t even try to define it, even though the dedicated multiculturalists among them repeatedly declare it to be problematic.

According to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, states typically mandate courses in U.S. history and government, with some also requiring study of economics, geography, world history, and world civilizations.

Strong Laws

South Carolina requires by statute that its high schools, colleges, and universities teach the basics of the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Federalist Papers, and that candidates for graduation not only be tested on the tenets of those founding documents but also be able to satisfy the examining authority of their “loyalty thereto.”

The multiculturalist contributors to this volume clearly have a problem with citizenship education being used to rally students in fealty to original principles or to assimilate immigrants into a common culture. For one thing, they note African-Americans long were excluded from reaping the benefits of constitutional government.

Editor James A. Banks, a University of Washington-Seattle professor who is considered a founding father of multiculturalism, argues worldwide migration of people and globalization are placing strains on the nation-state and traditional citizenship. Banks calls for a new kind of citizenship education that will enable students to “maintain their cultural attachments and identifications” and take action as “citizens of a global community” against “poverty, global warming, AIDS, racism, and conflicts and wars.”

Pluralistic Society

Such an approach could ensure national unity by fostering a “just and inclusive,” pluralistic nation-state “that all students and groups will perceive as legitimate,” Banks contends.

Most of the essayists write in that kind of idealistic vein. However, within chapters on diversity issues in a dozen countries, readers can find specifics helpful in clarifying the debate.

Japanese Experience

One of the most cogent is Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu’s essay on Japan’s ethnic diversity, which many Japanese leaders deny or downplay.

Writing from personal experience, Murphy-Shigematsu challenges what he regards as the myth of Japanese homogeneity. Born to a Japanese mother and an Irish-American father in occupied Japan, he grew up in the United States but married a Japanese woman, then became a professor at a Japanese national university.

He was denied Japanese nationality, however, because the pre-1985 law required that his registration be executed by a Japanese father. Rules have been eased since then, but authorities still show preference for Japan staying as ethnically pure as possible. Murphy-Shigematsu contends Japan (which accepts many foreign workers because of its low birth rate and need for labor) is undergoing “irreversible globalization” that will increase pressures on it to become more inclusive in its citizenship.

Balkanizing Pressures

The particulars will differ from one nation to another, but there is a tension common to all. Banks expresses it rather well: “Unity without diversity results in hegemony and oppression; diversity without unity leads to Balkanization and the fracturing of the nation-state.”

Unfortunately, multiculturalists seem to err on the side of disunity. They object, for example, to teaching students a common language that they may use in the marketplace or in the exercise of their citizenship regardless of what language the family may choose to use at home.

Nevertheless, this book, written mainly from the multiculturalist perspective, does provoke thought. It could be a useful resource for scholars.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.