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  • Multicultural Books and Interdisciplinary Inquiries
  • Donnarae MacCann (bio)

One of many approaches to equality in education is the use of interdisciplinary methods in our studies of the book Establishment. Multicultural literature in particular connects with such fields as social history, pluralistic aesthetics, and antiracist librarianship. As these pursuits reveal the interplay between diversity and equality, they also highlight the way conservative backlashes develop in the wake of social change. By way of this interdisciplinary mix, we can glimpse evolving social, artistic, and institutional problems in the children's book field. Multicultural literature can be seen as inside the social sphere that influences all literature, but extending beyond mere ethnic self-involvement. It can be recognized as a necessary aspect of cultural relativism.

Social History

The question at the heart of historiography seems simple enough: How do matters of time and space condition thought in a particular era (Becker 73)? But social historians and their interest in the makeup of a "good society" are not consistently welcomed into the historians' club. For Gene Wise, the wide-ranging concerns of the social historian are legitimate. He writes: "Historical reality as experienced by people is multiple, with many faces on a variety of different planes . . . ," and he adds, "we must assume . . . a plurality of angles on our materials" (36, 37). But taking a narrow view, Jacques Barzun disparages the various "new histories," including contemporary studies in cultural history. According to Barzun, "institutional problems, cultural types, or the 'anatomy' of comparable conditions, such as revolutions, decadence, slavery, or the status of women"—these are all outside the historians' proper range of activity (93). He draws a fine line between "events in continuous time" and "studies of situations" and excludes the latter. His authority for narrow, polarized definitions of "events" and "situations" is not explained.

Despite the protests of Barzun and others, scholars dubbed "new historians" have moved into the foreground at various moments in this [End Page 43] century: in 1910, in the 1930s, and 1960s. They are still engaged in countering Eurocentric perspectives, broadening subject matter to include non-Western societies, making room for contemporary studies, and focusing on institutions and other more localized fields of history. Their work, like the work of researchers in American Studies, often illumines the interplay of culture, individual works of culture, and materials in the public record. Rather than leading to a stultifying "political correctness," the interests of the "new historians" or "revisionist historians" lead to new ways of searching out alternative explanations—ways that extend beyond Euro-American boundaries.

In the field of education, the new historian asks unconventional questions that are often relevant to problems of social equality—Who is being served by the educational system? Whose culture is being disseminated? How can one's unique potential be fulfilled if the school's role is to prepare a workforce for an unequal economic system (Apple 16)? Who is shaping the cuirriculum, including the parameters of the literary canon? Can canon-shapers be sensitive to a work's text and subtext if they have little background in the culture of groups being depicted? Where is the line between artistic independence and social responsibility?

Without taking a deterministic approach, we still need to be clear that such questions are linked to concrete problems. For example, actions within the publishing industry impact upon who is being served and whose culture is being treated as the norm. At a New York Public Library symposium in 1984, publishers' representatives explained that the market for multicultural children's literature was too small, the profit margin inadequate ("Young People" 601). Were these publishing executives seeing people of color as a small population or, perhaps, an impoverished one? In a state such as California, the "minority" population will be close to 50 percent by the year 2000, but children's literature cannot be expected to reflect that reality. Children's books are not the playthings of the poor, and poverty is increasing. (The number of homeless in the U.S. doubled in the last decade, and the number of hungry children is estimated at 5½ million.)1 Are publishers' problems linked to such larger issues?

A related difficulty is the shift from an...


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