The Problem with Multiculturalism

Michael H Clifton is presently completing a master’s degree in Philosophy at University of Waterloo. Michael, his wife and another couple, operate Quality School & Tutoring – a tutoring and extra-curricular educational activities business in K-W and Guelph

The Problem with Multiculturalism

Vol 2 # 3
June / July 1993

In speaking at a conference on Confucian value systems and political orders, Peter Bol once suggested that there are two dangers a society may face in regard to their outlook on culture: one is that a society may hold a belief that “there can be a single culture which fully represents” the values which unify the members of the society. “This” he warned, “can lead to a very rigid culture that is not capable of flexibility or change.” The converse, or other dangerous possibility is the view that “unifying values are abstractions that cannot be reduced to fixed cultural forms.” Thus, diversity is defended to the point that “the appreciation of cultural diversity will obscure the idea of unity” *

It is this second dilemma which is most prevalent in the issue of defining, understanding, and educating Canadian culture.

Cultural diversity, pluralism, or multi-culturalism, is really at the core of the present Canadian situation, and is especially relevant for education and educators. Education is enculturation; it is the passing down from one generation in time to the next, values and interests, so that the projects, purposes and perceptions of the first generation continue in and through the experiences of the second. We call this depth or extension of a culture through time, “heritage”, and the process of preserving it, “cultural transmission”.

But culture is also possessed of a breadth, an extension through space, by which we mean that culture is immanently dynamic, engaging all of its members – the participants in the milieu or setting of the culture – in a conversation, by which ideals, values and interests are transmitted across within one generation, as well as down from one generation to the next. This conversation constitutes the transition (or development) of the culture that was handed down from the previous generation, according to the experience of the new generation. They dictate its refinements and its denigrations, as well as what will remain the same. There is no particular term to express the breadth of culture, but we may call it the “contemporary scene”, or “current dialogue”, although the term “dialogue” is not fully expressive of what it is.

These processes become more complex in a culturally pluralistic society. Cultures are usually defined, in part, according to the political and/or geographic limits of the people who are both the transmitters (down) and the transformers (across) of those cultures. While they remain settled in their original places, the culture is generally self-sufficient. It is only when the members of one cultural group begin to interact with members of another or other group or groups, through trade or travel, for example, that they may become impressed by one another’s differing practices or concepts. In some cases the impressions made will be negative – producing fear or prejudice -while in others they will be positive – producing peaceful co-existence, harmony, or friendly alliances. Cross-cultural transmission is not a new concept, however and does not warrant any further special detailing here.

What is most challenging to the self-sufficiency of a culture, however, is immigration. Members of one culture may decide, or whatever reasons, to migrate to a land which is encompassed by some other culture. The respective groups here have but two options in this situation: war, or cooperation. War itself offers only two directions, or objectives, where the protection of a culture is involved: the genocide of one of the groups, or the beating into submission of one by the other. In the history of North America, both objectives have been chosen by different groups of European immigrants in regard to the native peoples. It is an interesting, but for the moment separate, question to consider whether the destruction or utter sublimation of a people’s culture is not in some effective sense a form of genocide. The other, and more positively fruitful option facing two cultures vying for the presence in the same land is cooperation.

Modern Canada has had an implicit (albeit not consistently practised) tradition of cultural cooperation. Based on a view that remembers that all of us are, or are descendants of, immigrant peoples, modern Canada has welcomed refugees and immigrants from almost every land and nation. The multiplicity of cultures in our nation is tremendous, and possibly unparalleled, except by our neighbours to the south. We have, however, stoically avoided their practice of cultural assimilation – the American “melting-pot”. Our contrary view, which we call “multi-culturalism”, has been to honour the depth of each culture and its heritage, but the cost has been a stoic denial of cultural breadth, which is really its power to change and grow.

In earlier years we romantically labelled our condition as a “cultural mosaic”. Our problems are, in part, made clearer by a brief look at this imagery. A mosaic is a collection if tiles, each of different colours, arranged on a board, wall or table in such a way that, from a distance, they collectively appear to form a picture of some kind. Mosaics are often beautiful and intriguing. Up close we are interested to see the multiplicity of individual tiles, but it is really only from a distance that one can fully appreciate the work of art. This is not unlike our multi-cultural practice, which gives Canada an inviting attractiveness to disparate peoples, but within our society – up close – we are beginning to experience tensions as our differences, rather than our similarities, are made the focal issues by the enforcement of a multi-cultural ethic.

“Multi-culturalism” is not succeeding across the board – our nation is still rife with prejudice and ethically oriented discrimination – precisely because we have been embracing only half of the equation expressing positive cultural growth and dynamism. We have protected heritage and diversity only to lose sight of the development dialogue by which a culture in any generation is made coherent and stable. Thus, we have fallen into one of the two traps Peter Bol described, of championing diversity so much that we fail to obtain unity. If we are to alter this trend, it can only (or, at least, most effectively) be done by means of an educational objective that focuses on cultural transition as well as cultural transmission.

In the space of this short article, I will not even attempt to brooch the issue of implementation. My intention is rather to strike a chord to sound against the movement of current influences on our current educational system that focus on cultural transmission to the total exclusion, almost, of development and transition, and to invite local dialogue about the same.

* In Tu Weiming, Milan Hejtmanek, and Alan Wachman, Eds. The Confucian World Observed (Institute of Culture and Communication, The East-West Centre: Honolulu, Hawaii, 1992) pp. 18-19

continuing . . .
Vol 2 # 4 1993

A Critique of Multiculturalism as Commonly Understood

Generally, people both comprehend and accept that every child differs at least minimally from his or her parents. A child’s ideas, values, and desires may even go contrary to those espoused by the parents and yet be right. Self-fulfilment is the achievement of a life in which one has sought to understand all of one’s private, or personal, values and to realize them through implementation in concrete, daily experiences. If we comprehend that this is the natural norm for individuals, then why not for cultures which are the products of the activities of individuals seeking to realize themselves? Why do we, instead, insist that culture consists solely of heritage, of pre-determined values that, we say, must not be altered to suit the changing contexts (and their concomitant needs) in which each new generation finds itself?

In my previous article (“The Problem With Multi-Culturalism: An Introduction”) I expressed concern that the present trend in multi-culturalism in Canada is for the preservation of heritage at the expense of what it is that makes a culture dynamic and alive (something so foreign to our concern that there is not even a term in our language readily available to name it). I wrote that the key to resolving this problem is in our educational system – the very system of our society most heavily and dangerously influenced by the current, more narrowly focused, multi-cultural ethic. In education, where heritage is passed on (transmitted) to a new generation, we need also to encourage what I called cultural transition, which is respect for the dynamic pliability of culture, to be shaped or re-shaped, according to the ensuing dialogue, or conversation, between individuals and interests which engage the culture’s living members. It is not entirely unlikely that this may be accomplished using the same educational focuses that expert instructors in personal and corporate fulfilment have been using with substantial success in recent years.

Chris Marshall, president of Redesign Systems, instructs various corporations about the most effective management systems and policies for values – and success-oriented business practices. A key element in his instruction is the suggestion that businesses develop management philosophies, sets of guiding values or principles that will determine practical activities toward desired objectives. A part of his training involves teaching managers that they are not the sole determinants of corporate success. Although they form a core, directing element of the business, they and their subordinates (including only temporary workers) actually operate as partners in the production of corporate well-being and fulfilment.

A similar organization, Franklin’s (including Franklin Quest, and The Franklin Institute) teaches individuals about establishing codes of values in their lives that are personal philosophies directed at engaging in the accomplishing activities that actuate personal fulfilment. Although many values come to people from parents and other social influences, the program encourages personal evaluation of one’s needs, drives, goals, and behaviours, in order to re-evaluate and revise those values and move toward the pattern of living that is more likely to produce personal happiness.

Stephen R. Covey, another expert instructor in personal and corporate fulfilment, and author of the highly acclaimed books Principle-Centred Leadership and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, advises his students not to fail in their endeavour to take account of every aspect of their beings. Therefore, while they set their goals and establish their personal philosophies (personal “mission statements”), they recognize not only the difference between what satisfies others (the focus Franklin’s teaches), but also the differences between what satisfies us physically, intellectually, socially and emotionally.

What each of these experts says about fulfilment, corporate or personal, is that it begins with an understanding of one’s guiding values and objectives, which they characterize as the development and concrete application of a personal philosophy – mission or values – statement, based on the real needs affecting the whole being of the person (or corporate body) involved. In terms of my original concern, however, how can this knowledge help us in dealing with the current problem with multi-cultural aims? It will help us if we understand what philosophy is.

Professor Tushar Sarkar of Calcutta, presently a visiting Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo department of philosophy, presented a paper entitled “Philosophy in the 21st Century” (unpublished). In it, he examined the nature and future of the philosophical enterprise from both European and Indian perspectives. He also reflected somewhat on the relationship between culture and philosophy.

Professor Sarkar said that philosophy – whomever’s and wherever’s – is “culture determinant,” but not “culturally-determined.” Philosophies (value systems, ideas, etc.) all have their original settings, but the aim of every philosophy is to create or develop a new and effective view of the world; the nature of philosophy is that it does this by engaging in what Sarkar calls “radical questioning” * What professor Sarkar says in this regard reflects exactly what I have contended previously is vital for a culture’s healthy continuance, and it does the work for me, really, in relating the concept of personal and corporate philosophy statements and fulfilment to cultural development; In fact, Sarkar’s point in the following quotation is that possession of a healthy philosophical attitude is a core element in cultural well-being as well:

“This involves a two-fold process of (a) unification and (b) overcoming the naivety of acceptance of one’s own culture. Such “overcoming” requires self-criticism as well as dialogical interaction with other cultures. Ability to perpetually re-interpret its own inherited framework in the light of such dialogical interaction, is the mark of a living culture”

Given the clarity, as I perceive it, of professor Sarkar’s statements, I shall again allow myself to be brief on conclusions. Clearly we are typically inconsistent in that most of us would readily agree that individuals and corporations should be encouraged to develop in dynamic ways, not wasting talent and creativity by holding firmly (and foolishly) just to the values of their predecessors and derived from previous contexts, but that cultures (produced by those self-same individuals and preserved or upheld by those identical corporations and other institutions) should rely just on heritage and ignore the breadth of expression and development inherently possible when culture is open to critique and dialogical development. Rather than focus on cultural development, we have become fixated on cultural remembrance, a pernicious case (at best) of living in the past. Using professor Sarkar’s comments as a foundation, I argue that we ought to establish in our educational system not merely a curriculum of heritage-focused classes (taught by members of a specific heritage, most often only to descendants from the same background), but a policy of continual broad-ranging intercultural dialogue, focused not on who or what we each were, but who or what, together, we can or ought to be.

* These quotations are from an outline of the draft paper which professor Sarkar distributed when he read the paper at the University of Waterloo, May 29,1993.

Note: a typographical error in the previous article – the second last paragraph should read:
“Multiculturalism is not succeeding across the board – our nation is still rife with prejudice and ethnically oriented discrimination …”

continuing . . .
A Critique of Multiculturalism as Commonly Understood
Vol 2 # 5 1993


In two previous articles I have tried to express the view that the contemporary Canadian concept of multi-culturalism is intrinsically, and dangerously, flawed. In the first article, I complained that our basic problem seems to be in our definition of culture itself. In that definition- defined by our practices and proposed public policies – we have failed to acknowledge what I called the breadth (spatial dimension) as well as depth (temporal dimension) of culture. We have faithfully promoted heritage, cultural history or depth, but we have ignored culture’s dynamic (and broad) aspect – for which we do not even have an adequate term in English: its changeability through contemporary dialogue that makes it alive rather than dead. In the second article I added emphasis to that claim by referring to the ideas of a few popular contemporary teachers of values-based living, and quoting professor Tushar Sarkar of Calcutta, whose ideas on this subject are virtually identical with my own. In each article I suggested that our education system is key to both the problem I identified and its solution.

The source of the problem of Canadian multi-culturalism, however, lies deeper than our ignorance of cultural breadth. In Vera Golini’s article, “Inscribing ourselves into multi-culturalism,” (Cross Cultures, September 1993,pp.10-11), she quotes her friend, Nanette (whether fictional or not, I don’t know), who poignantly identifies this more fundamental concern:

“Today we like to think of ourselves as very broad minded, but really, I think that we regard the world with a narrow approach of exclusion rather than inclusion. This brings to ourselves and our cultures a lot of frustration and sadness”

The condition professor Golini’s Nanette describes, I call the Exclusivist Paradigm, and I think she is right about it on at least two important points: one is that this paradigm is the source of cultural frustration – the cultural death that professor Sarkar and I have written about; and two, it is true that most of us are self-deceived, believing this condition does not exist.

Yet there is evidence of the Exclusivist Paradigm all around us. It is this paradigm, for example, that commits us to classes in heritage that exclude dialogue, that teach heritage as history that is beyond reproach, and outside of private interpretability, and which are taught by teachers of culture x especially for students of culture x. The same paradigm promotes the social role of “special interest groups”, in political lobbying for example, and teaches us that we cannot share another’s concerns as our own (e.g. the popular slogan, “It’s a black thang (sic.), you wouldn’t understand,” and the classic exclusion of men from, for example, the annual “Take Back the Night” marches, and similar occasions).

Our self-delusion that we are not embroiled in such a negative mode of thinking is expressed, for example, by such events as “cultural caravans”, popular in most large cities and at major campuses nationwide. Under the guise of being events that unify us, they instead become occasions when we may taste without touching, see without feeling, and appreciate without becoming involved. Rather than making us one, such entertaining occasions only serve to make us more aware of being Different, Distinct, and Disjunctive. The same is largely true of the cultural education we receive in our schools and learn through the popular media.

The education system, as I mentioned above, is itself embroiled in the Exclusivist Paradigm, though not all its employees are. But it is through this same system that we may most readily resolve the problem, and release Canadian culture from the deadlock of contemporary multi-culturalism.

At the core of any resolution is recognition of the problem. I think that the Exclusivist Paradigm is it. There is danger, however, in broaching the problem any further than this. Real resolution requires action rather than words, and the action this resolution requires is to open ourselves up to the dialogue that enlivens culture, but puts tradition at mortal risk. Darryl Bryant, in another Cross Cultures article,

“Learning through interfaith dialogue” (Sept.1993, p 8), represents the core of this dilemma very well:

“As Srivasta Goswami regularly reminds me: dialogue is dangerous. He is right. Because (through) genuine dialogue, where we are truly open to one another, we will be changed. What will change is both our perception of the other and our own .. self- understanding”

It is our fear of being changed, or of not being able to accept others as they are without letting that compromise our sense of ourselves, that drives us into exclusivism.* It is precisely this exclusivist mentality, however, that can reduce our culture to proverbial ashes, and presently threatens to do so as it engenders division rather than unity, and antagonism rather than peace.

What we need is for cultural education to take on a new approach, to replace the Exclusivist Paradigm with one that is inclusivist, and to put aside multi-culturalism for the sake of what would be better off called multi-enculturation, and would be the key to the re-awakening of Canadian culture

* This fear is strengthened by alternative, and equally false, views: one, a version of multi-culturalism that tries to favour some groups over others, and suggests that public policies must include the forcible dis-inclusion of the so-called controlling culture (in Canada, that of DWM’s and WASP’s); the other, anti-multi-culturalism, which involves the exclusion of any culture but that which thinks it is in control. Both of these are radical, and clearly dismissable from the point of view of the importance of culture’s dynamism

Editor’s Note:
The Heritage Language Programs offered by both School Boards are open to everyone in the community who wishes to learn an extra language. Mr Clifton here discussed the concept that any heritage should be taught by one of its own, to get the correct perspective

continuing . . .
A Critique of Multiculturalism as Commonly Understood
Vol 3 # 1 1994

Multi – Enculturation

In my previous articles, I have endeavoured to clarify and support a point of view about contemporary Canadian multi-culturalism. A central assumption has been that we tend to define Canadian culture as multi-culture, which is not in itself a bad thing to do, except that our view of multi-culturalism makes that definition intrinsically dangerous to Canadian culture.

My central contention has been that culture consists of both spatial breadth and temporal depth: that is, it extends through both time and space, involving quantities of people, and durations in history. For the latter, we have a name: heritage – and we attach some importance to it. For the former, there is no name, and we are virtually ignorant of its relevance. Cultural breadth, however, is key to the life of a culture; if it is denied, the culture shall die. Most of the space in my previous three articles was given to explaining what that means, so I will be brief in repeating it this time: cultural breadth is the involvement of various people, or peoples, within the culture; it is their individual aspirations, interpretations, and expressions in regard to the culture which, when intermixed through what Tushar Sarkar called “dialogical interaction” *, breath life and dynamism into the culture, allowing it to grow and change with those who participate in it.

Canadian multi-culturalism denies cultural breadth to the detriment of Canadian culture generally, yet this denial, which, in the previous article was characterized as the Exclusive Paradigm, is itself denied, as we claim that through our typical “celebration” of our differences we have somehow become united. Yet the racism does not stop – institutional and private – and the belligerence and fear of true encounter has not yet been diminished.

In closing, last time, I began to suggest what I think is a solution to this problem. It begins with acknowledging the problem – that is, as the Japanese say: atarimae “just common sense”. I continued by suggesting that what I called multi-enculturation should be implemented as a guiding concept, or principle, in Canadian education about culture.

The Random House dictionary (1979) gives a simple, yet accurate, definition of enculturation:

“The process by which a person adapts to a culture and assimilates its values”

This process is not limited, of course, to the classroom, but then, no competent teacher ever suggested that any aspect of our education should be. In Canada, however, the classroom should become an even more important component in defining and developing Canadian culture.

At home, children learn values. The values they assimilate are those of their parents, most commonly, although the infiltration of television, books, radio, and other media enlarges the range of influences within the home. Even those additional influences, however, are to some extent determined by parental rule (even a totally liberal parent is, by that liberality or license, teaching certain values).

The values, traditions, ideas, and expressions a child learns first at home, compromise his/her first culture. It is this culture that the child carries with him/her into the schoolroom, the park, and the playground. Inevitably, the child must meet other children, each of whom also carries his or her separate culture. If they have not been taught already to despise differences, these encounters may become the best examples we have of genuine dialogue, as children will question, probe, imitate, and thereby learn in ways that adult analysis never can.

Once at home again, the child may chance to introduce his/her new ideas, or explore his/her parents’ feelings about his/her new experiences. Their reaction will, to a great extent, determine the degree of dialogue that will occur at the next out-of-the-home intercultural encounter. Sadly, for many children in our society, parental influence is but an imposition of arbitrary limits, not so much for the safety of the child (and certainly not for his/her education’s sake), but because the parents are gripped by fear that somehow these encounters will destroy the traditions they and their parents before them have carried with pride through the centuries.

Where this trend may be broken is ideally in the home, with parents who are unafraid of exploration, and of change. To reach the point where such parents are common, though, those parents must be taught, and where this might be done best is in the classroom where future parents are learning now: at school.

An education system that embraces the ideal of multi-enculturation would be one that encourages intercultural dialogue, not by displays and fairs, but by real participation. The same program would have students openly questioning their own culture in terms of other cultures, or in terms of their own concerns and considerations. Ideally, it would be undirected, mediated, fun and discovery. Eventually, it would develop an attitude of honest, open questioning, and answer finding. Children would be challenged to learn how to choose their values, and to learn how to change them, without hypocrisy, without guile, but with integrity. No one would be condemned for their choices, but each would be expected to be able to explain them, even if that explanation involves mere recourse to a sentiment in the heart. That, of course, is where truly open dialogue really begins.

The radical difference in this approach from the current trends in multi-cultural education, is that multi-enculturation teaches not that we are defined by our cultures, but that our culture/s is/are defined by us.

Culture, as I have written numerous times in these articles, has both a breadth and a depth: the depth we learn at home, and from history books, by practising traditions and celebrating the heroes and epics of our ethnic pasts; breadth cannot be learned, it must be done. That is, the breadth -dynamism and life – of culture comes about only when people feel free to quesion and to change, to experience something other than what their heritage defines. Schools, as community centres, would be ideal locations for the encounters necessary to have such a process in Canadian culture. All that multi-enculturation could, or should, accomplish is to open minds and offer possibilities. It would not teach values, it would give place for them to grow, creating the heritage of tomorrow.

* See “Continuing: a critique of multiculturalism as commonly understood” Cross Cultures Vol 2 # 41993, p.16