New Arguments for Diversifying the Curriculum: Advancing Students' Cognitive Development
Multicultural Education and Social Cognition
Many colleges and universities have begun to significantly transform their curricula. Those of us who support these efforts and teach these new courses have argued for diversifying the curriculum by using a series of mostly normative arguments. Based on our experiences, we believe that diversifying the curriculum is having a positive impact on students, institutions, and the society at large. Many argue that colleges and universities should include a more equitable cultural and moral recognition of minorities in the curriculum to reflect changing demographics of students. Others argue that our increasingly diverse society requires from college graduates the greater social awareness about gender, class, race, and other forms of diversity that these transformed courses produce.
Critics of diversity education, on the other hand, have tended to emphasize the need for "quality" and "truth." They position themselves as a defense against a dangerous "political" attack on education which, in their view, should be "disinterested." Many supporters of diversity education have countered these critics with arguments about the need for a reassessment of what exactly we define as "quality" and "truth." I would like to suggest another argument in favor of diversifying the curriculum that emphasizes the cognitive benefits of these kinds of courses.
To make this case, I bring together two different fields: the pedagogy and practice of multicultural education on the one hand, and recent developments and insights in cognitive science and philosophy of mind on the other. I have recently co-edited a volume that applies new research in cognitive philosophy to methodologies of the social sciences (See Hans Herbert Kögler and Karsten Stueber, eds., Empathy and Agency: The Problem of Understanding in the Human Sciences, Westview 1999). I have also developed a new honors course on the "Theory and Politics of Multiculturalism." My engagement with both these activities has convinced me that multicultural education advances cognitive capabilities that enable students to understand different cultural perspectives, to develop a reflexive understanding of themselves, and to represent structures shared by individuals in different experiential contexts. In order to provide the highest quality education for today's students, we need to understand especially the ways in which multicultural courses support cognitive, and not just moral or social, development in students. I suggest that the actual thought practices provoked and unleashed by multicultural teaching can be seen as instantiations of deeper cognitive mechanisms.
New Philosophy of Mind: The Empathy Thesis
Recent shifts in the fields of cognitive science and philosophy of mind reject a traditional "theoretical" paradigm of social understanding. According to this paradigm, individuals understand other individuals by applying, explicitly or implicitly, a "theory" of mind. In other words, when we make sense of others, we are supposed to draw on some general conceptual assumptions that interpret others according to certain logical or rational standards. Understanding other individuals, however, often involves making sense of quite irrational actions. To do so, one draws on emotional and practical experiences. Accordingly, in search of alternative models, scholars have redeployed the concept of "empathy"--or, as it is recently called more technically, "simulation." The basic idea behind this new approach is that we understand others by putting ourselves in their shoes--that we "simulate" how we would feel, what we would do, how we would react to certain experiences and situations. There are three aspects of this new research that deserve special attention in this context.
The important function of perspective-taking has been foregrounded especially with regard to the development of social understanding. Instead of conceiving of the human mind as a logical machine, higher levels of cognitive understanding and the possibility of understanding someone else's mental states are actually grounded in the capacity to imaginatively take someone else's position, that is, to leave one's own perspective behind and to switch toward the point of view of another. While initial discussions conceived "simulation" mainly as a "psychological" process, the current debate about its relevance for social science underscores the necessity to take into account cultural, social, and historical differences during the process of empathetic identification from the very beginning.
These cognitive processes also seem intrinsically tied to the acquisition of language. The capacity for basic role-taking enables children to grow into dialogical language use, which in turn develops the capacity to project oneself into the perspective of another. There have been two kinds of evidence from cognitive psychology that support this idea. First, developmental psychologists have found that children acquire the capacity to understand and predict the behavior of others who have different (and false) conceptions of a commonly shared situation only at the age when they are also becoming competent language users. This suggests that the capacity to "take the perspective of another" goes hand in hand with developing linguistic skills. Second, autistic children who are unable to enter into communicative relations with others also lack the basic capacity for empathetic identification. Since these children show no apparent deficiency regarding other cognitive functions, the capacity to understand others through communication and to take the perspective of another are taken to be intertwined.
Finally, this dialogical model of social cognition defies the use of more formalistic theories. Instead of the application of a theory or formula, social cognition is seen as a process within which the interpreter employs his or her own intuitions and beliefs in order to make the other intelligible. In other words, understanding others is oriented toward the other's first-person experiences and beliefs, and cannot be captured in a third-person theoretical framework. This situated and "non-logical" projection into the other again implies that every interpretation remains embedded in a specific cultural, historical, and social context, and that the projection into the other has to take into account cultural, social, and historical differences. In fact, the interpreter draws on his or her own background only in order to profile the similarities and differences between his or her own and the other's background.
The Cognitive Dimension of Teaching Multiculturalism
These findings can help us to better understand the impact of multicultural education on cognitive development. To begin with, well-conceived multicultural courses do not simply teach that there "are" cultural, historical, or ethnic differences. They actually enable students to experience and see things from an other's perspective. Whatever their own backgrounds, these courses help students switch positions and roles and teach them to be competent speakers in a variety of worlds. Such perspective-taking is an essential cognitive mechanism needed to understand others.
The close connection between language and the understanding of other perspectives is equally important because it allows us to grasp the productive paradox that we are both similar and different from others in different cultural, social, or ethnic contexts. In the medium of language, we are able to articulate what constitutes the other's view, and while stating what is different, we are at the same time united in the medium of common linguistic comprehension. This also enables students to move beyond an understanding of the other in terms of some alien, strange, or unapproachable otherness. Rather, students learn to understand others as different voices in a shared dialogue. In addition, language allows us to make the whole process reflexive. We can come to understand ourselves from the perspective of the other. Indeed, for many students--especially majority white students--the most gratifying, if sometimes shocking, experience of multicultural education is that they learn to see themselves as culturally, socially, and historically situated selves--or as "having (an) ethnicity."
Finally, the experience of situated rationality can help students to overcome a naive model of reason and truth. Students often conceive of logic as a culturally neutral mechanism, applicable in all and every context. "Reality," in turn, is conceived as objectively given in perception and objectively described by Western science. One does not have to support simplistic forms of relativism by teaching students that scientific processes are embedded in cultural practices and that logic alone is insufficient to account for human agency. Education in reflexive perspective-taking helps students come to a more pluralistic and open-minded worldview. As recent cognitive science has shown, when it comes to social cognition, the culturally embedded processes of perspective-taking and reflexive interpretation are the best tools we have.
In sum, recent cognitive science suggests that multicultural education teaches students some essential cognitive mechanisms and therefore is a very important dimension of developing our children's and students' intelligence--assuming we are willing to accept the complexity and richness that human social intelligence entails.
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