The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society

Arthur M. Schlesinger
New York: W.W. Norton, 1992; 160 pp.

Diversity, Conformity, and Democracy: A Critique of Arthur M. Schlesinger's The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society

Bruce A. Goebel
Copyright © 1992

In 1916, John Dewey identified the essential dilemma of public education in a democratic society--How do we balance our diverse society's need for national unity with the democratic principles of individualism, tolerance, and free choice? In pedagogical terms, he suggested that we must identify curricula and methods that will simultaneously inculcate the ideals of democracy in America's youth while respecting and utilizing their many differences. He insisted that: "A progressive society counts individual variations as precious since it finds in them the means of its own growth. Hence a democratic society must, in consistency with its ideal, allow for intellectual freedom and the play of diverse gifts and interests in its educational measures."

Nearly eighty years later, teachers and scholars are still debating how such a task can be accomplished. As ethnic groups gain more power, their voices--artistic, scholarly, and political--are increasingly heard. As a result, the pressure on public schools to seriously respect cultural differences is growing. Many people welcome the invigorating influence of diversity. Others see it as a threat to the common bonds found in America's European heritage.

Unavoidably, contact with beliefs and values foreign to one's own brings with it the possibility of loss as well as gain. For this reason, America struggles to balance itself between a desire for unity which, without opposition, threatens to become a totalitarian orthodoxy and a valuing of differences which, without unifying belief, may lapse into anarchy. The future is never secure.

Such is the focus of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s new book The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. A respected historian and political advisor, Schlesinger passionately voices his concern for the future of the United States. Specifically, he fears that the "cult of ethnicity" manifested in ethnic awareness, Afro-centric curricula, and the continuing attack on the historical and literary canons will lead to increasing racial hostility, a loss of common values, and national disintegration. He wonders, "When does the obsession with difference begin to threaten the idea of an overarching American nationality?"

To illustrate his point, he briefly traces the evolution of the term "race" from the 18th century to the present. He notes that J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur used race in 1782 to signify an identity consciously chosen by an immigrant who, "leaving behind all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, the new rank he holds. The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles.... Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men." Thus, "race" in America meant and, according to Schlesinger, should continue to mean a common identity open to anyone willing to assimilate. He is careful to warn that "Twentieth-century readers must overlook 18th-century obliviousness to the existence of women." For him, such an exclusion is an aberration that should not tarnish an otherwise valid concept.

Through the paradigm of this unified American race, Schlesinger evaluates the growing awareness of ethnic heritages that extend beyond the Euro-American history, literature, and traditions of the United States. For him this represents the evolution of race from a unifying concept to one that is diverse. The advocates of this cult of ethnicity want a "nation of groups, differentiated in their ancestries, inviolable in their diverse identities." He believes the "self-appointed" leaders of this cult have lost confidence in the American future and hope to radically change it. In short, this cult "threatens to become a counter-revolution against the original common culture, a single nation."

In particular, Schlesinger is concerned with the way various groups of ethnics, feminists, and others influence public school curricula. Like many others, he perceives a crisis in cultural literacy illustrated by students who do not know the significant persons, events, documents, and literature of their own country. In the face of such a crisis, he views recent attempts to make history relevant to "minority" groups a mistake. Particularly offensive is the recently revised New York state history curriculum which would emphasize how "African-Americans, Asian Americans, Puerto Rican/Latinos, and Native Americans have all been victims of an intellectual and educational oppression that has characterized the culture and institutions of the United States and the European American world for centuries."

He views this curriculum as reductive in its focus and suspect in the way it would present "happy" histories of certain groups while disparaging Euro-American culture. No doubt Schlesinger is right to question the proposal of a task force whose consultant on African-American culture, Leonard Jeffries, believes in the biologically determined racial superiority of blacks. The world has seen enough examples of where such malignant thinking leads.

Setting aside all claims to historical objectivity in an attempt to raise students' self-esteem, as the New York curriculum task force did, is misguided. However, it does not differ significantly from the continuing perpetuation of many cherished American myths or the tendency of some scholars in Germany and Japan to whitewash their Twentieth-century history. When people speak of their heroes, the boundaries between history, ideology, and fiction are rarely clear.

Nevertheless, the growing use of shoddily researched African-American Baseline Essays in public school social studies classes is not limited to New York and raises serious concerns. These essays, written by such Afro-centric scholars as Asa Hilliard and John Henrik Clarke, portray Africa as the "'mother of Western civilization'--an argument turning on the contention that Egypt was a black African country and the real source of the science and philosophy Western historians attribute to Greece." Schlesinger argues that there is simply no documentation for such claims. Thus, they constitute fiction rather than history.

He believes that to consciously use history to uplift one group by disparaging another is to use history as a weapon. Rather, the "purpose of history is to promote not group self-esteem, but understanding of the world and the past, dispassionate analysis, judgment, and perspective, respect for divergent cultures and traditions, and unflinching protection for those unifying ideas of tolerance, democracy, and human rights that make free historical inquiry possible."

Thus he feels that these Afro-centric curricula threaten America's common bond. They only exacerbate the public schools' failure to inculcate American youths with the basic knowledge of their country's heritage. Instead of reading the works of John Winthrop, Thomas Paine, and James Madison or exploring the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, some students are reading the African-American Baseline series of essays which, according to Schlesinger, are not only digressive from the "real" American heritage but are historically inaccurate as well.

If he had focused his book on these gross transgressions of historical integrity, Schlesinger's argument would have been more cogent. However, his focus moves beyond these specific instances of misguided curricular influence to a nostalgic call for ethnic assimilation to traditional American values and an implicit assault on anyone who might disagree with him as to what those values are. Ironically, The Disuniting of America is a fine example of the divisive, antidemocratic rhetoric of which Schlesinger accuses the leaders of the so-called cult of ethnicity. Within his book, there is no sense of a serious respect for a plurality of views in American society. Rather, through the use of circular logic, the distorting and trivializing of his opponents, and a poor understanding of the connection between oral tradition and culture, he manufactures an emotional argument that fails to come to grips with the problems of race and ethnicity in America.

Schlesinger's desire for a silent unity often blinds him to his own confusion. At one point he claims that Native Americans "have every reason to seek redressment" but lack the "unity, the visibility." He fails to elaborate on how they might gain such unity and visibility without reference to ethnicity. How would such claims be judged in terms of his insistence that "when a vocal and visible minority pledges primary allegiance to their groups, whether ethnic, sexual, religious, or, in rare cases (communist, fascist), political, it presents a threat to the brittle bonds of national identity that hold this diverse and fractious society together." On the one hand he claims to understand the necessity for redressment, while on the other he would deny traditionally oppressed groups the political unity and voice necessary to affect change.

He never comes to grips with how one might distinguish between valuable differences and destructive ones nor how they might best be negotiated. In his call for complete assimilation, would he suggest that the traditional Jewish and Asian valuing of education be left behind in favor of American anti-intellectualism? Of course not. But he fails to explain how we determine which "foreign" values and attitudes are beneficial and which are not. The question of whose values and beliefs are seriously considered in America's cultural debate is central to the argument about ethnic and racial differences, but his appeal for assimilation would deny most of the diverse voices that would constructively contribute to that discussion.

On a curricular level, he unquestioningly advocates the dominance of a traditional canon, smugly claiming, "that's the way it is." Like his compatriots William Bennett and Chester Finn, he continues to define literacy in terms of Great Books. Listing what he calls the "present-day literary canon: Emerson, Jefferson, Melville, Whitman, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Lincoln, Twain, Dickinson, William and Henry James, Henry Adams, Holmes, Dreiser, Faulkner, O'Neil," he responds to its critics by stating that these authors are not exactly "apologists for the privileged and the powerful" or "agents of American imperialism" and suggests that it is time to "adjourn the chat about hegemony."

While there has been and continues to be a lot of overzealous application of neo-Marxist and feminist theory to individual literary texts, Schlesinger misses the larger point. He fails to acknowledge that these voices neither constitute diverse American experience nor offer a foundation upon which to argue many of the issues so central to a multicultural society. How does this list support his claim that America's cultural "base has been modified, enriched, and reconstituted by transfusions from other continents and civilizations"? When Langston Hughes felt compelled to write an epilogue to Whitman's "Song of Myself," saying "I too sing America," he was addressing a fact that Schlesinger continues to miss--an enforced cultural heritage that is not representative of a diverse society is, in fact, a form of oppression.

Despite, frequent, general references to the cultural contributions of various ethnic groups in the United States, he reveals a strong bias in his presentation of history. When he claims that few African-Americans have felt any cultural tie to Africa, he ignores the 500,000 imported slaves who lived out their lives in this country. Does he seriously believe that all connection to their African culture died out before they could pass it on to their children? In his efforts to justify cultural assimilation on the grounds of chosen immigration, he fails to acknowledge that Native Americans and many Hispanics did not immigrate to the United States. They neither sought Anglo-America nor desired assimilation. Rather, the United States moved to them, demanding conformity.

He claims that these groups were unaware of their ethnic heritage because there are few literary records documenting such a connection. A vast number of folk-tales, stories, and songs testify otherwise. His apparent ignorance of this oral tradition and his assumption that any people without a written record somehow lack a valuable culture reveal a glaring lack of historical objectivity on his part. He might also consider that in a country where non-white, non-male voices have traditionally been silenced, often under that threat of violence, there have been few opportunities for the expression of such ethnic awareness on a national scale. Only in recent decades have ethnic groups and women gained enough personal and institutional power to mount a widespread campaign of cultural exploration.

If Schlesinger perceived literacy as the ability to engage in meaningful dialogue about those questions central to our culture, he would recognize how inadequate his canonical list is. If we want to seriously explore the problems of race and ethnicity in relation to, say, African-Americans, will his list of authors lead to fruitful ground? Wouldn't such a discussion be better served if we included Linda Brent Jacobs, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Ishmael Reed as well as the Constitution and its amendments? Such a juxtaposition of texts would create a dialogue and force a negotiation of differing views and experiences. Schlesinger is right that the "debate about the curriculum is a debate about what it means to be American." But he does not understand, as Langston Hughes did, what it means to be excluded from that debate.

As seems to be the trend among many scholars and politicians in the last decade, Schlesinger's desire to be "race-blind" merely leaves him blind to the persistent fact of racism in American society. He reveals as much when he attempts to undermine the significance of African heritage by offering an incomplete summary of Ishmael Reed's comments in an article titled "Is Ethnicity Obsolete?" Early in the article, Reed points out that if Alex Haley had explored his father's heritage instead of his mother's, he would have found his roots in Ireland. True enough. Yet, while this point runs counter to Reed's central argument, it is the only one that Schlesinger sees fit to cite.

Though Reed might be sympathetic to the idea of a society in which ethnicity is not of crucial importance, he goes on to say, with his usual bitter irony, that "By blaming all of its problems on blacks, the political and cultural leadership are able to present the United States as a veritable utopia for those who aren't afraid of 'hard work.' A place where any goal is possible, for the 'strong-hearted' and 'the brave,' and other cheerleading myths. And, so, instead of being condemned as a 'problem,' the traditional view of 'black presence,' the presence of 'blacks' should be viewed as a blessing. Without blacks taking the brunt of the system's failures, where would our great republic be?" Reed sees through the "race-blind" rhetoric that would blame the oppressed for their condition and suggests that white America simply acknowledge the political usefulness of having a scapegoat. He emphatically insists: "As long as such public attitudes about 'Black America' are maintained, ethnicity will never become obsolete."

To Schlesinger's claim that "America increasingly sees itself as preservative of old identities," Reed might insist that it has never stopped. Such writers as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Reed are almost always referred to in mainstream magazines and on network television as black authors, as though their work needs some special dispensation. Where is the attack on this cult of ethnicity? Clearly, some Americans do not have the option to refuse identification with an ethnic group. Just ask 60% of the white voters in Louisiana if they would like to preserve old identities.

Suffering from the symptoms of this peculiar race-blindness, Schlesinger apparently believes that he can speak for all Americans and fails to realize the presumption of such an act. In claiming that American values "work for us; and for that reason, we live and die by them," he overlooks the fact that the economic and social values of America are failing millions. Of course, many white leaders will blame this problem on the mere presence of blacks in the work force, as Jesse Helms and others have done in their attacks on affirmative action. This argument appeals to whites who are exploited by the same economic system but are, as yet, unwilling to address the growing problem of disparate economic class in America. Despite the anti-affirmative action smoke screen, the fact is that a disproportionate number of African-Americans are suffering. Since the early 1970s, blacks have experienced a persistent erosion of per capita and family income, black men have seen drops in annual earnings and relative employment, and the college-going chances of black high school graduates have declined.

As most of white America continues to ignore this problem, is it surprising that many African-Americans are uniting in a concerted effort to draw attention to it? Could the current backlash against "minority" groups, the growing economic disparity between rich and poor, the dismantling of affirmative action and civil right laws have something to do with the increasing ethnic awareness?

It is hard to fathom Schlesinger's crisis mentality given the relative powerlessness of the ethnic groups that he seems to fear. Daphne Patai suggests that this kind of response to marginalized voices is due to a phenomenon she calls surplus visibility. When people who have been traditionally silent suddenly speak up, our sense of their presence is exaggerated. "When 'one of them' is visible, 'all of them' are seen to be taking over."

Schlesinger offers no real evidence that the brittle bonds of fractious society are straining at the hands of ethnic groups. Certainly the almost unanimously approval, by whites and blacks, of the destruction of Iraq demonstrates a strong, if dubious, unity. The Republican domination of the presidency for nineteen of the past twenty-three years hardly indicates a seriously divided society. The fact that Schlesinger and his friend, Diane Ravitch, long-standing Democrats both, find themselves as spokespeople for the Republican party seems to indicate a decrease in the diversity of ideas rather than the reverse.

Perhaps the real crisis lies in the paucity of voices to challenge the assumptions and the so-called objectivity of a nearly monolithic public mind. In an age of conflation when history, ideology, and the desires of corporate America are hard to separate, how many readers will see the irony of Schlesinger's claim to objectivity and distance from hegemonic influence in a book which contains 18 pages of full color advertisements. Even the least conspiracy minded might question the integrity of a text with the implied credit: "This message brought to you by Federal Express."

Schlesinger's failure to offer any constructive advice about negotiating difference is, in the end, the most disappointing aspect of The Disuniting of America. He does not seek dialogue. As he says, "white guilt can be pushed too far." Having reached his level of tolerance, he offers a polemic. He is not interested in negotiating difference in a search for pragmatic truths. As a result, he implicitly denies the democratic ideals which he would uphold.

When he suggests that there is a counter-revolution against the original theory of America as "one people," he is right in a limited way. However, this counter-revolution does not seek to disunite America, rather the opposite. In their efforts to undermine the original notion of the United States as a nation governed by and for a certain class of white men, multicultural scholars, feminists, and others are trying to heal the wounds that truly disunite America. In comparison, Schlesinger's "just say no to ethnicity" campaign is less than useful in the difficult task of balancing our simultaneous need for a common bond and the thriving diversity necessary for the continuing growth of our nation.

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