Racism, Education and Thoughts on Arthur M. Schlesinger’s “The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society”[1]

 June 13, 2010

 Famed Pulitzer Prize[2] winning historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007) was perhaps best known for his work as the historian for the Kennedy administration penned the long essay in 1991 that is the subject of this article. Schlesinger does an admirable job explaining the history of the United States in the terms of how we educate our children in grade school and in colleges. Long known as part of the liberal establishment Schlesinger takes us on a journey in his essay that may surprise many of us in its views on multiculturalism, ethnicity and the importance of forging an American identity for the future. 

Schlesinger shows us how the United States has been built, and has thrived due to its inherent multi-ethnicity – in fact America is by and away the greatest success story ever in this area. Other nations have struggled with retaining their national identity while allowing immigration from other areas. This is not to say that the United States is perfect – we also have a long history of racism, hatred and intolerance that is not so easy to dismiss. The country was built on the idea of freedom and acceptance and over time this idea has become more inclusive. Schlesinger argues that the debates of what to teach on our history classrooms can have a lot to do with how our nation succeeds in the classroom, and that the Left idea of bashing all that is Eurocentric is in fact denying history and our legacy. Teaching multiculturalism is important, but to deny the role of Europe in the development of our collective nations thought is in wrong.

 His argument attacks the idea that all ethnic groups wish to destroy the European traditions of our history in the American classroom. Schlesinger argues that so many universities force students to take classes on culture and history from the Third World while taking no classes on the history and legacy of Europe that has brought our country together and moved it forward. Schlesinger is not denying the existence and importance of diversity and multiculturalism but is questioning how important it is in light of learning about the dominant history and culture that has shaped our nation. In his book he points that right or wrong African-Americans have more connectivity to their history in the United States than they do to their ancient history in Africa. Many who emigrate here, including my own family wanted to assimilate into American life and culture as quickly as possible – in the 1940s many Italian-American families made a point of not speaking Italian in the home and not teaching their children to speak Italian. Statistics used by Schlesinger point to similar trends with Hispanic immigrants in more recent years – the goal is often to assimilate into American society and opportunity as quickly as possible – and learning English is a key component.

So – where are we now – nearly 20 years after the original publication and 12 years after the updated edition of The Disuniting of America? In certain circles there are certainly major improvements – the United States has its first black President in Barack Obama[3] and race is less of an issue to no issue for many Americans. This is a far cry from utopia though as racism is rooted deep in our collective thought and culture. We see racism daily in the methods many are calling for in immigration reform and enforcement. Arizona’s recent law, SB 1070 that was signed by Governor Jan Brewer is giving Arizona law enforcement to arrest and detain illegal immigrants, even though this is an area of law reserved for federal jurisdiction. The very nature of this law forces racism when enforced – police will naturally go after people who look Latino and in effect will be profiling and harassing the millions of legal Arizona citizens who are of Latino or Native American heritage. Well know Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio[4] is breaking the law, abusing his power and using his staff as his own personal vigilante force for his twisted view of what America should be. Daily Arpaio avoids his departments work in investigating real crime and he is using his force to unlawfully detain citizens who disagree with him. Americans should always take the high road – we need reform and solid policy – racial profiling is inherently un-American, the low road and poor policy. 

Schlesinger’s view that all of our varied pasts and cultures are part of what makes this country special and great are valid. Equally valid is his desire for all of us to learn American history and the importance that western values and culture have upon our collected history. Schlesinger points out an interesting idea; the Western nations and cultures are the only ones that have adapted, grown and evolved quickly from their past wrongs. Western culture embraced slavery and ended slavery – he notes that slavery pre-dated the west’s arrival in Africa and survived long after the slave trade to the America’s ended. Western culture bred religious intolerance and also ended it many times – although I fear we may be moving back towards it. Schlesinger sees inclusion and tolerance of groups and education of the citizenry as the keys to a successful America in the future – we need to learn and understand our past if we are to have a collective American identity as we move towards the future.

[1] Schlesinger, Arthur M. The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society – Revised and Enlarged edition.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.

[2] Schlesinger was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for 1946’s book “The Age of Jackson” about former President Andrew Jackson.

[3] The author of this article is a supporter of President Obama and wants to point out that by “improvement” I mean that the nation is improved by the fact that we elected a minority from a diverse background to our highest office, as opposed to his individual policies, which I generally agree with.

[4] At risk of derailing the original intent of this essay, please read here for further detail of the madness that is occurring daily in Arizona: http://crooksandliars.com/david-neiwert/next-arizona-how-about-governor-joe


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2 Responses to “Racism, Education and Thoughts on Arthur M. Schlesinger’s “The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society”[1]”

  1. Kate Says:

    Excellent read Mike, easy, simple and right to the point… Thanks!

  2. Arizona Immigration Reform 60 Days Later « Symptom of the Universe Says:

    […] https://sapblatt.wordpress.com/2010/06/13/racism-education-and-thoughts-on-arthur-m-schlesinger%e2%80… […]

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