Multicultural education and curriculum transformation

Multicultural education and curriculum transformation

Banks, James A

In this, the text of the 1995 Charles H. Thompson Lecture, the author describes five dimensions of multicultural education, focusing on the knowledge construction process. This dimension is emphasized to show how the cultural assumptions, frames of reference, and perspectives of mainstream scholars and researchers influence the ways in which they construct academic knowledge to legitimize institutionalized inequality. The process by which transformative scholars create oppositional knowledge and liberatory curricula that challenge the status quo and sanction action and reform is also described. This process is endorsed as a means of helping students become effective citizens in a pluralistic, democratic society.

The racial crisis in America, the large number of immigrants that are entering the nation each year, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the changing characteristics of the nation’s student population make it imperative that schools be reformed in ways that will help students and teachers to re-envision, rethink, and reconceptualize America. Fundamental changes in our educational system are essential so that we can, in the words of Rodney King, “all get along.” The nation’s student population is changing dramatically. By 2020, nearly half (about 48%) of the nation’s students will be students of color. Today, about 31% of the youth in the United States under 18 are of color and about one out of every five students is living below the official poverty level (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993).

Multicultural education, a school reform movement that arose out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, if implemented in thoughtful, creative, and effective ways, has the potential to transform schools and other educational institutions in ways that will enable them to prepare students to live and function effectively in the coming century (Banks & Banks, 1995a). I will describe the major goals and dimensions of multicultural education, discuss knowledge construction and curriculum transformation, and describe how transformative academic knowledge can be used to re-invent and re-imagine the curriculum in the nation’s schools, colleges, and universities.


There is a great deal of confusion about multicultural education in both the popular mind and among teachers and other educational practitioners. Much of this confusion is created by critics of multicultural education such as Schlesinger (1991), D’Souza (1995), and Sacks and Theil (1995). The critics create confusion by stating and repeating claims about multiculturalism and diversity that are documented with isolated incidents, anecdotes, and examples of poorly conceptualized and implemented educational practices. The research and theory that have been developed by the leading theorists in multicultural education are rarely cited by the field’s critics (Sleeter, 1995).

The critics of multicultural education often direct their criticism toward what they call multiculturalism. This term is rarely used by theorists and researchers in multicultural education. Consequently, it is important to distinguish what the critics call multiculturalism from what multicultural education theorists call multicultural education. Multiculturalism is a term often used by the critics of diversity to describe a set of educational practices they oppose. They use this term to describe educational practices they consider antithetical to the Western canon, to the democratic tradition, and to a universalized and free society.

Multiculturalism and multicultural education have different meanings. I have conceptualized multicultural education in a way that consists of three major components: an idea or concept, an educational reform movement, and a process (Banks, 1993a). As an idea or concept, multicultural education maintains that all students should have equal opportunities to learn regardless of the racial, ethnic, social-class, or gender group to which they belong. Additionally, multicultural education describes ways in which some students are denied equal educational opportunities because of their racial, ethnic, socialclass, or gender characteristics (Lee & Slaughter-Defoe, 1995; Nieto, 1995). Multicultural education is an educational reform movement that tries to reform schools in ways that will give all students an equal opportunity to learn. It describes teaching strategies that empower all students and give them voice.

Multicultural education is a continuing process. One of its major goals is to create within schools and society the democratic ideals that Myrdal (1944) called “American Creed” values-values such as justice, equality, and freedom. These ideals are stated in the nation’s founding documents-in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. They can never be totally achieved, but citizens within a democratic society must constantly work toward attaining them. Yet, when we approach the realization of these ideals for particular groups, other groups become victimized by racism, sexism, and discrimination. Consequently, within a democratic, pluralistic society, multicultural education is a continuing process that never ends.


To effectively conceptualize and implement multicultural education curricula, programs, and practices, it is necessary not only to define the concept in general terms but to describe it programmatically. To facilitate this process, I have developed a typology called the dimensions of multicultural education (Banks, 1993b, 1995a). This dimensions typology can help practitioners identify and formulate reforms that implement multicultural education in thoughtful, creative, and effective ways. It is also designed to help theorists and researchers delineate the scope of the field and identify related research and theories. The dimensions typology is an ideal-type construct in the Weberian sense. The dimensions are highly interrelated, and the boundaries between and within them overlap. However, they are conceptually distinct.

A description of the conceptual scope of each dimension facilitates conceptual clarity and the development of sound educational practices. As Gay (1995) has pointed out, there is a wide gap between theory, research, and practice in multicultural education. The practices within schools that violate sound principles in multicultural education theory and research are cannon fodder for the field’s critics, who often cite questionable practices that masquerade as multicultural education to support the validity of their claims. Although there is a significant gap between theory and practice within all fields in education, the consequences of such a gap are especially serious within new fields that are marginal and trying to obtain legitimacy within schools, colleges, and universities. Thus, the dimensions of multicultural education can serve as benchmark criteria for conceptualizing, developing, and assessing theory, research, and practice.

In my research, I have identified five dimensions of multicultural education (Banks, 1995a). They are: (a) content integration, (b) the knowledge construction process, (c) prejudice reduction, (d) an equity pedagogy; and an (e) empowering school culture and social structure. I will briefly describe each of these dimensions.

Content integration describes the ways in which teachers use examples and content from a variety of cultures and groups to illustrate key concepts, principles, generalizations, and theories in their subject area or discipline. The knowledge construction process consists of the methods, activities, and questions used by teachers to help students understand, investigate, and determine how implicit cultural assumptions, frames of reference, perspectives, and biases within a discipline influence the ways in which knowledge is constructed. When the knowledge construction process is implemented, teachers help students to understand how knowledge is created and how it is influenced by the racial, ethnic, and social-class positions of individuals and groups (Code, 1991; Collins, 1990).

The prejudice reduction dimension of multicultural education relates to the characteristics of students’ racial attitudes and strategies that teachers can use to help them develop more democratic values and attitudes. Since the late 1930s, researchers have been studying racial awareness, racial identification, and racial preference in young children (Clark & Clark,1939; Cross,1991; Spencer,1982). This research is too vast and complex to summarize here; however, studies indicate, for example, that both children of color and White children develop a “White bias” by the time they enter kindergarten (Phinney & Rotheram, 1987; Spencer, 1982). This research suggests that teachers in all subject areas need to take action to help students develop more democratic racial attitudes and values. It also suggests that interventions work best when children are young. As children grow older, it becomes increasingly difficult to modify their racial attitudes and beliefs (Banks, 1995b).

An equity pedagogy exists when teachers modify their teaching in ways that will facilitate the academic achievement of students from diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender groups (Banks & Banks,1995b). A number of researchers such as Au (1980), Boykin (1982), Delpit (1995), Kleinfeld (1975), Ladson-Billings (1995), and Shade and New (1993) have described culturally sensitive (sometimes called culturally congruent) teaching strategies whose purpose is to enhance the academic achievement of students from diverse cultural and ethnic groups and the characteristics of effective teachers of these students. This research indicates that the academic achievement of students of color and low-income students can be increased when teaching strategies and activities build upon the cultural and linguistic strengths of students, and when teachers have cultural competency in the cultures of their students. Kleinfeld, for example, found that teachers who were “warm demanders” were the most effective teachers of Indian and Eskimo youths. Other researchers maintain that teachers also need to have high academic expectations for these students, to explicitly teach them the rules of power governing classroom interactions, and to create equal-status situations in the classroom (Cohen & Lotan, 1995).

An empowering school culture and social structure conceptualizes the school as a complex social system, whereas the other dimensions deal with particular aspects of a school or educational setting. This dimension conceptualizes the school as a social system that is larger than any of its constituent parts such as the curriculum, teaching materials, and teacher attitudes and perceptions. The systemic view of schools requires that in order to effectively reform schools, the entire system must be restructured, not just some of its parts. Although reform may begin with any one of the parts of a system (such as with the curriculum or with staff development), the other parts of the system (such as textbooks and the assessment program) must also be restructured in order to effectively implement school reform related to diversity.

A systemic view of educational reform is especially important when reform is related to issues as complex and emotionally laden as race, class, and gender. Educational practitioners-because of the intractable challenges they face, their scarce resources, and the perceived limited time they have to solve problems due to the high expectations of an impatient public-often want quick fixes to complex educational problems. The search for quick solutions to problems related to race and ethnicity partially explains some of the practices, often called multicultural education, that violate theory and research. These include marginalizing content about ethnic groups by limiting them to specific days and holidays such as Black History month and Cinco de Mayo. A systemic view of educational reform is essential for the implementation of thoughtful, creative, and meaningful educational reform.


I will focus on only one of the dimensions of multicultural education: knowledge construction. In my latest book, Multicultural Education, Transformative Knowledge, and Action (1996), I describe a typology of knowledge that consists of five types: (a) personal/ cultural, (b) popular, (c) mainstream academic, (d) transformative academic, and (e) school knowledge. I will discuss only two of these knowledge types: mainstream academic and transformative academic.

Mainstream Academic Knowledge

Mainstream academic knowledge consists ot the concepts, paradigms, theories, and explanations that constitute traditional and established knowledge in the behavioral and social sciences. An important tenet within mainstream academic knowledge is that there is a set of objective truths that can be verified through rigorous and objective research procedures that are uninfluenced by human interests, values, and perspectives. Most of the knowledge that constitutes the established canon in the nation’s schools, colleges, and universities is mainstream academic knowledge.

The traditional conceptualization of the settlement of the West is a powerful example of the way in which mainstream academic knowledge has shaped the paradigms, canons, and perspectives that become institutionalized within the college, university, and school curriculum. In an influential paper presented at a meeting of the American Historical Association in 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner (1894/1989) argued that the frontier, which he regarded as a sparsely populated wilderness and as lacking in civilization, was the main source of American democracy and freedom. Although Turner’s thesis is now being criticized by revisionist historians, his paper established a conception of the West that has been highly influential in American scholarship, popular culture, and school books. His ideas, however, are closely related to other European conceptions of the Americas, of “the other” (Todorov, 1982), and of the native peoples who lived in the land that the European conceptualized as “the West.” Turner’s paradigm, and the interpretations that derive from it, largely ignore the large number of indigenous peoples who were living in the Americas when the Europeans arrived (Thornton [1995] estimates seven million). It also fails to acknowledge the rich cultures and civilizations that existed in the Americas, and the fact that the freedom the Europeans found in the West meant destruction and genocide for the various groups of Native Americans. By the beginning of the 20th century, most American Indian groups had been defeated by U.S. military force (Hyatt & Nettleford, 1995). Their collective will, however, was not broken, as evidenced by the renewed quest for Indian rights that emerged during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Today, the West paradigm in American history and culture is powerful, cogent, and deeply entrenched in the curriculum of the nation’s institutions of learning. As such, it often prevents students at all levels of education from gaining a sophisticated, complex, and compassionate understanding of American history, society, and culture. The West paradigm must therefore be seriously examined and deconstructed in order for students to acquire such an understanding. Students must be taught, for example, that the concept of the West is a Eurocentric idea, and they must be helped to understand how different groups in American society conceptualized and viewed the West differently.

For example, the Mexicans who became a part of the United States after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 did not view or conceptualize the Southwest as the West. Rather, they viewed the territory that Mexico lost to the United States after the war as Mexico’s “North.” The Indian groups living in the western territories did not view their homelands as the West but as the center of the universe. To the various immigrants to the U.S. from Asia such as those from Japan and China, the land to which they immigrated was “the East” or the “land of the Golden Mountain.” By helping students view Eurocentric concepts such as the West, “the Discovery of America,” and “the New World” from different perspectives and points of view, we can increase their ability to conceptualize, to determine the implicit perspectives embedded in curriculum materials, and to become more thoughtful and reflective citizens.

Transformative Academic Knowledge

Teachers can help students acquire new perspectives on the development of American history and society by reforming the curriculum with the use of paradigms, perspectives, and points of view from transformative academic knowledge. Transformative academic knowledge consists of the concepts, paradigms, themes, and explanations that challenge mainstream academic knowledge and that expand the historical and literary canon (Banks, 1996). It thus challenges some of the key assumptions that mainstream scholars make about the nature of knowledge as well as some of their major paradigms, findings, theories, and interpretations. While mainstream academic scholars claim that their findings and interpretations are universalistic and unrelated to human interests, transformative scholars view knowledge as related to the cultural experiences of individuals and groups (Collins, 1990). Transformative scholars also believe that a major goal of knowledge is to improve society (Clark,1965).


Within the last two decades, there has been a rich proliferation of transformative scholarship developed by scholars on the margins of society (Banks & Banks, 1995a). This scholarship challenges many of the paradigms, concepts, and interpretations that are institutionalized within the nation’s schools, colleges, and universities. Much, but not all, of this scholarship has been developed by scholars of color and feminist scholars. For example, in his book, Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture, Gary Okhiro (1994) argues that groups on the margins of society have played significant roles in maintaining democratic values in American society by challenging practices that violated democracy and human rights. Okhiro notes that America’s minorities were among the first to challenge institutionalized racist practices such as slavery, the forced removal of American Indians from native lands, segregation, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. By so doing, they helped to keep democracy alive in the United States.

As point out in my most recent book, transformative scholars and transformative scholarship have long histories in the United States (Banks, 1996). Transformative scholars and their work have helped to maintain democracy in the academic community by challenging racist scholarship and ideologies that provided the ideological and scholarly justification for institutionalized racist practices and policies. This lecture honors Charles H. Thompson, a transformative scholar and educator who was founding editor of the Journal of Negro Education. The Journal was established to provide a forum for transformative scholars and researchers to publish their findings and interpretations related to the education of Black people throughout the world. Much of their research challenged mainstream research and contributed to the education and liberation of African Americans. In his editorial comment in the first issue of the Journal, entitled “Why a Journal of Negro Education?” Thompson (1932) advocated Black self-determination. He believed that the Journal would provide African Americans with a vehicle for assuming a greater role in their own education. As Thompson stated:

. . leadership in the investigation of the education of Negroes should be assumed to a greater extent by Negro educators . .[yet there is] no ready and empathetic outlet for the publication of the results of [the Negro’s] investigations ….Thus, it is believed that the launching of this project will stimulate Negroes to take a greater part in the solutions of the problems that arise in connection with their own education. (p. 2)

Black self-determination is as important today as when Thompson penned these words. The first issue of the Journal of Negro Education was published in April 1932. The Journal has continued its transformative tradition for 63 years. Other transformative journals founded by African American scholars include the Journal of Negro History, founded by Carter G. Woodson in 1916, and Phylon, founded by W. E. B. DuBois at Atlanta University in 1940. Prior to the founding of these journals, transformative scholars had few outlets for the publication of their works. The mainstream academic community and its journal editors had little interest in research and work on communities of color prior to the 1960s, especially work that presented positive descriptions of minority communities and that was oppositional to mainstream racist scholarship. When we examine the history of scholarship in the United States, it is striking how both racist scholarship and transformative scholarship have been consistent through time. Near the turn of the century, research and theories that described innate distinctions among racial groups was institutionalized within American social science (Tucker, 1994). A group of transformative scholars including thinkers as DuBois, Kelly Miller, and Franz Boas seriously challenged these conceptions (Banks, 1996).

The relationship between transformative and mainstream social science is interactive; each influences the other. Over time, transformative knowledge influences mainstream knowledge, and elements of transformative knowledge become incorporated into mainstream knowledge. For example, the conceptions about race that were constructed by transformative scholars near the turn of the century became the accepted concepts and theories in mainstream social science during the 1940s and 1950s. Nevertheless, a group of scholars continued to invent research and construct ideas about the inferiority of particular racial groups.

The history of research about race in America indicates that theories about the racial inferiority of certain groups-and challenges to them from transformative scholarsnever disappear (Tucker, 1994). What varies is the extent to which theories of racial inferiority and other theories that support inequality attain public legitimacy and respectability. Since the beginning of the 20th century, every decade has witnessed the development of such theories. The extent to which these theories, and the individuals who purported them, experienced public respectability, awards, and recognitions has varied considerably. The amount of recognition that transformative scholars who challenged these theories have received from the public and academic communities has also varied considerably through time.

Prior to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the White mainstream academic community ignored most of the scholarship created by African American scholars. Most African American scholars had to take jobs in historically Black colleges. Most of these colleges were teaching institutions that had few resources with which to support and encourage research. Professors at these institutions had demanding teaching loads. Nevertheless, important research was done by African American and by a few White transformative scholars prior to the 1960s. Yet, because this research was largely ignored by the mainstream academic community, it had little influence on the knowledge about racial and ethnic groups that became institutionalized within the popular culture and the mainstream academic community. Consequently, it had little influence on the curriculum and the textbooks used in most of the nation’s schools, colleges, and universities.

Although it was largely ignored by the mainstream community, a rich body of transformative scholarship was created in the years from the turn of the century to the 1950s. Much of this research was incorporated into popular textbooks that were used in Black schools and colleges. For example, Carter G. Woodson’s The Negro in Our History, first published in 1930, was published in a lOth edition in 1962. John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom, first published in 1947, is still a popular history textbook in its seventh edition. Scholarly works published during this period included The Philadelphia Negro by W. E. B. DuBois (1899/1975), American Negro Slave Revolts by Herbert Aptheker (1943), The Negro in the Civil War by Benjamin Quarles (1953), The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860, by John Hope Franklin (1943), and Woodson’s The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 (1919/1968).


Prior to the 1960s, African American scholars and their White colleagues who did research on the African American community remained primarily at the margins of the mainstream academic community. Most of the paradigms and explanations related to racial and ethnic groups that became institutionalized within the mainstream academic community were created by scholars outside these groups. Most of the paradigms, concepts, and theories created by mainstream scholars reinforced the status quo and provided intellectual justifications for institutionalized stereotypes and misconceptions about groups of color. An important example of this kind of scholarship is American Negro Slavery by Ulrich B. Phillips, published in 1918. Phillips described slaves as happy, inferior, and as benefiting from Western civilization. His interpretation of slavery became the institutionalized one within American colleges and universities, and he became one of the nation’s most respected historians.

Phillips’s view of slavery was not seriously challenged within the mainstream scholarly community until historians such as Stanley M. Elkins (1959), Kenneth M. Stampp (1956), John Blassingame (1972), and Eugene D. Genovese (1972) published new interpretations of slavery during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Transformative scholarship that presented other interpretations of slavery had been published as early as 1943, when Aptheker published American Negro Slave Revolts. However, this work was largely ignored and marginalized by the mainstream community partly because it was inconsistent with established views of slaves and slavery.

More recent research on the cognitive and intellectual abilities of African Americans indicates the extent to which antiegalitarian research is still influential in the mainstream academic community. In 1969, for example, the prestigious Harvard Educational Review devoted 123 pages of its first issue that year to Arthur Jensen’s article on the differential intellectual abilities of Whites and African Americans. Papers by transformative scholars who embraced paradigms different from Jensen’s were not published in this influential issue, although comments on the article by other scholars were published in the next issue of the Review (Kagan et al., 1969). Even though Jensen’s article occupied most of the pages in an issue of a well-known scholarly journal, he experienced much public scorn and rejection when he appeared in public lectures and forums on university campuses.

Published nearly a quarter century after Jensen s article, The Bell Curve by Herrnstein and Murray (1994) received an enthusiastic and warm reception in both the academic and public communities. It was widely discussed in the public media and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for many weeks. Although it evoked much discussion and controversy (Jacoby & Glauberman, 1995), it attained a high degree of legitimacy within both the academic and public communities.

The publication of The Bell Curve, its warm and enthusiastic public reception, and the social and political context out of which it emerged provide an excellent case study for discussion and analysis by students who are studying knowledge construction. They can examine the arguments made by the authors, their major assumptions, and find out how these arguments and assumptions relate to the social and political context. Students can discuss these questions: Why, at this time in our history, was The Bell Curve written and published? Why was it so widely disseminated and well-received by the educated public? Who benefits from the arguments in The Bell Curve? Who loses? Why do arguments and theories about the genetic inferiority of African Americans keep re-emerging? How do such arguments relate to the social and political climate?

Stephen Jay Gould (1994) responded to the last question in a New Yorker article by noting the following:

The Bell Curve, with its claim and supposed documentation that race and class difterences are largely caused by genetic factors and are therefore essentially immutable, contains no new arguments and presents no compelling data to support its anachronistic social Darwinism, so I can only conclude that its success in winning attention must reflect the depressing temper of our time-a historical moment of unprecedented ungenerosity, when a mood for slashing social programs can be powerfully abetted by an argument that beneficiaries cannot be helped, owing to inborn cognitive limits expressed as low IQ scores. (p. 139) The publication and public reception of The Bell Curve is a cogent example of the extent to which much institutionalized knowledge within our society still supports inequality, dominant group hegemony, and the disempowerment of marginalized groups. The Bell Curve, its reception, and its legitimacy also underscore the need to educate students to become critical consumers of knowledge, to become knowledge producers themselves, and to be able to take thoughtful and decisive action that will help to create and maintain a democratic and just society. Works such as The Bell Curve, and the public response to them, remind us that democracies are fragile and that the threats to them are serious. Fortunately, the work of transformative scholars indicates that the quest for human freedom is irrepressible.

*Presented November 1, 1995, at Howard University. The speech has been slightly modified for publication.

James A. Banks is a professor of education at the University of Washington-Seattle and director of its Center for Multicultural Education. A past president of the National Council for the Social Studies, Banks has over 20 years of experience in the multicultural education field, serving as a professor and consultant to school districts, professional organizations, and universities throughout the United States and internationally. He has written over 100 articles and authored or edited 18 books, the most recent being Multicultural Education, Transformative Knowledge, and Action (1996), and the landmark Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education (1995). His other publications include Curriculum Guidelines for Multicultural Education, Teaching Strategies for Ethnic Studies, Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives (with Cherry A. McGee Banks), Multiethnic Education: Theory and Practice, Teaching Strategies for the Social Studies, and An Introduction to Multicultural Education. His achievements have earned him considerable recognition, including the 1986 Distinguished Scholar/Researcher on Minority Education and 1994 Research Review awards of the American Educational Research Association, and an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the Bank Street College of Education in 1993.


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Woodson, C. G. (1930). The Negro in our history. Washington, DC: The Associated Publishers. Woodson, C. G. (1968). The education of the Negro prior to 1861. New York: Arno Press. (Original work published in 1919)

James A. Banks, Center for Multicultural Education, University of Washington-Seattle*

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