Does multiculturalism need to be taught in either planning theory or a class on social justice?

Getting ready for the school year, I am reading Charles Taylor’s and Jurgen Habermas’s Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, and I’m finding it both boring and slow-going. Now Habermas usually is slow-going. But I can usually whip up some interest for most topics. This? I am not feeling it.

There’s part of me that feels like multiculturalism is much like the communitarian-libertarian divide–i.e., that it’s an academic industry at this point, largely unreconcilable. In practice, culture takes precedence in small matters (food) and power resolves the big questions (what and whose rights are observed and protected in a given context.)

There’s part of me that believes most of my students have grown up in a cosmopolitan, global world, and they hardly need this material. The other part of me sees a social backlash, listens to the blather about “special rights” and worries that we need to teach the material in order to arm our students with the proper vocabulary in order to engage in the debate in an intelligent manner.

One of my political philosopher friends noted that his advisor told him the field of multiculturalism was played out 1995. It’s clear that not all that much is written about the issue any more, with the field split: those who think recognition is paramount writing from that position, and those of us (myself included) who are liberals (with a small l) willing to dispense culture in the name of universal, basic rights, even if (like me) that position is held in fear and trembling.

What do you think?

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One response to “Does multiculturalism need to be taught in either planning theory or a class on social justice?

  1. There are a lot of fields, typically with 1960s-1970s origins, that have also played out since: environmental justice, citizen participation, post-modernism, political ecology, New Urbanism, smart growth, most feminism, a lot of racial-ethnic and women’s studies, any social-science field that creates new words that end in -ity (reflexivity, intentionality), neoliberaism as a pejorative, etc. No one has solved their policy issues, but intellectuals don’t seem to have much more to contribute to them.

    Been reading Alan Metcalf’s interesting 2002 book “Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success.” He offers simple criteria for foreseeing which words, phrases or by implication ideas catch on and last. Not many coinages endure, and most of the ideas above score quite low on his measures.He also says that for a word or idea to show staying power, it has to last forty years, about two generations. Again, the ideas above lack legs.

    Susan Strong, a former Berkeley rhetoric professor, runs the Metaphor Project in Orinda, California. She too has standards for creating good metaphors. (The Buffalo Commons is one of prime examples. Her criteria aren’t the same as Metcalf’s and there are more of them, mainly emphasizing hot-button qualities, but the two lists still overlap. The phrases above wouldn’t impress her either.

    Goran Kjellmer has an article on this in “Word,” a 2000 issue. Haven’t read it yet and it sounds more linguistic-technical than Metcalf or Strong. Still, the 1960s-1990s ideas fail not just intellectually or observationally, but also emotionally, as intriguing conveyers of ideas. That’s a good explanation too of why you find reading about multikulti boring.

    Some ideas–in fact the vast majority–just aren’t fated to last. One often encounters them as a young student, when one has a relatively weak grasp of what time does to most of them. As one matures, one sees how few endure. Intellectual entrepreneurialism–the desires to invent something new, shock one’s elders, have an impact or leave a legacy–plays a role here too. But just as most economic entrepreneurs fail, so do most intellectual ones. The bulk of seemingly bright ideas eventually get revealed as unworkable. That’s why we reward people whose ideas do work. That’s why we sympathize with people whose workable ideas don’t much credit or reward. All best wishes,