Volume: 9, Issue: 2


Multiethnic Literature in the Progressive Classroom: A Descendant and Improvement on John Dewey’s Ideas
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KEYWORDS: curriculum, John Dewey, multiculturalism, multiethnic literature, progressive education, teaching

ABSTRACT: The introduction of multiethnic literature into a classroom is an appropriate category of progressive education. Many elements of John Dewey’s brand of progressive education coincide with the expansion of the use of multiethnic literature. Dewey’s lack of attention to racial issues in education can be rectified through this expansion. The type of literature used should stem from the students’ interests. This allows students to better reflect on the value of the literature.

In many ways, the progressive era of education in the United States never ended. While the idea of child-centered schooling never took hold on a large basis in America, education in the 21st century has been centered around children and their needs. As schools become more of an agent of socialization for their students, they, especially teachers, have grown more knowledgeable about the lives of those students (Webb and Metha, 2017). Efforts to learn about students are not made in a vacuum; when given the flexibility to adapt curriculum and teaching methods to students’ needs, good teachers will do so. One way teachers of English-language arts can do this is to use readings that mirror the lives of their students. In multicultural classrooms, the literature students read should mirror the cultures they belong to. It should be child-centered, a critical component of the progressivism promoted by John Dewey in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Dewey, however, intended his child-centered pedagogy for European-Americans, not African-Americans (Margonis, 2009). If the students in Dewey’s class were European-Americans (white), then they may be less likely to read multicultural literature, even if the literature was child-centered. Today’s American society cannot afford to be mono-cultural. The need to learn about and understand other cultures is paramount if we are to live together in peace. The quest to include more multiethnic literature in American classrooms is a direct descendant and an improvement on the early 20th century progressive education advocated by John Dewey.

Progressivism under Dewey

John Dewey’s brand of progressivism began with his work at the University of Michigan in the 1880s and 1890s (Urban and Wagoner, 2014). He had previously served as a high school teacher and studied philosophy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and he became interested in psychology and social problems while at Michigan. At the University of Chicago, Dewey’s ideas came to fruition with a child-centered curriculum that aligned school experiences with “real-life occupational and democratic experiences of the surrounding society” (Urban and Wagoner, 2014, p. 198). Dewey saw a definite connection between education and a child’s social situations (Dewey, 1897). Through these interactions the child learns empathy in a social context and how to act and behave within that society.

Dewey’s philosophy also called for the school to represent life, “life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the play-ground” (Dewey, 1897, p. 7). For Dewey that meant education should grow out of those experiences outside of the school, because those experiences are the only way of giving background to the new ideas learned in school. The teacher’s role is not to force certain ideas on the student, but rather to “select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him [and her] in properly responding to these influences” (Dewey, 1897, p. 9). This element of Dewey’s philosophy is critical in connecting the idea of promoting multiethnic literature to progressive education. If a teacher forces an idea on a student, the student may rebel against that idea and entrench in the idea of the opposite. But if a teacher provides literature introducing certain ideas, such as the promotion of multicultural understanding, and encourages an open discussion about those ideas, then that can assist a student in making an appropriate response.

Dewey’s influence on education was mixed. Urban and Wagoner (2014) argue that he had a stronger influence on the study of education than he did on the practice in schools. They describe his writing style as obtuse and his ideas as complex, and these led to a fogging of his major ideas, which in turn led educational reformers on both sides to invoke Dewey to support their claims. Dewey felt the social aspect of education was critical to a child’s growth, and he felt that the teacher’s role was to “link the interests of children to the subjects they were studying” (Urban and Wagoner, 2014, p. 200). He fell between the traditionalists, who focused on subject matter, and progressives, who were unencumbered by subject matter.

Progressivism without a social element

Progressivism faded away from the American political and social scene after World War I, and education was no different. The conservative administrative progressivism that had led to the centralization of schools became the dominant force, while the pedagogical progressivism of Dewey and Ella Flagg Young lost the little influence it had (Urban and Wagoner, 2014). The creation of the Progressive Education Association in 1919 coincided with a change in the nature of pedagogical progressivism that took out the connection with the social and political environment students lived and learned in.

For African-Americans, this did not matter as progressive education had not affected them at all. Dewey talked little about race issues, and neither did other progressive reformers in the 1920s (Urban and Wagoner, 2014). Margonis (2009) argues that Dewey and his daughter Evelyn wrote favorably about a segregated vocational program for blacks in Indianapolis in their book Schools for To-Morrow. Margonis claims that Dewey compromised his principles promoting democratic education by supporting the Indianapolis school. Fallace and Fantozzi (2015), however, see Dewey’s views on race as dynamic and complicated. He was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and while he believed in the social inferiority of non-white races, he did not believe in their biological inferiority. He also felt schools served to assimilate other cultures into the American culture, although his writings do not make clear whether he is talking about white immigrant groups or non-white groups. According to Fallace and Fantozzi (2015), “immigrant cultures were to be appreciated as prior steps toward the more advanced civilized, democratic culture of the United States, but not as culturally unique perspectives to be celebrated, valued, and maintained” (p. 146).

Today’s multiculturalist perspective disagrees with Dewey’s viewpoint here. Multicultural education’s inclusive nature validates culturally unique perspectives, promotes self-esteem, and gives children an opportunity to reach their full potential (Carpenter, 2000). The inclusion of multiethnic literature in a classroom celebrates, values, and maintains those perspectives.

Progressivism’s death and attempts at revival

Progressivism died in the 1950s; the Progressive Education Association disbanded and its journal folded in that decade (Urban and Wagoner, 2014). Educators seemed to like the idea of child-centered pedagogy, but those who wrote curriculum were less impressed, and the launch of Sputnik in 1957 stimulated the federal government to make a larger investment in education that focused more on winning a cold war than a sociological battle. There were fits of life, however, for progressive educators. Charles Silberman in 1970 promoted a child-centered pedagogy in response to the quality of education in American schools. Theodore Sizer in the 1970s founded the Coalition of Essential Schools, which advocated interdisciplinary studies in subdivided high school units called houses. Reform at Central Park East elementary school in the 1980s and 1990s focused on a curriculum more of interest to students. This child-centered approach yielded measurable results, and, in keeping with Dewey’s social element, had significant impacts on the local community. The principal of Central Park East, Deborah Meier, did not see low standards as the problem, but “rather a situation in which the idea of democratic schools has become lost” (Urban and Wagoner, 2014, p. 335).

Diane Ravitch, a critic of progressive education in the 1980s and 1990s, came to turn against the market forces that had promoted reform in the name of school choice and vouchers (Urban and Wagoner, 2014). She argued that education according to the market undermines traditional values, and that children need to be raised around their community values. This flies in the face of many philanthropic reformers, who have pumped billions of dollars into systems of accountability, testing, and choice.

Progressivism and multiculturalism

The definition of progressive education has broadened since Dewey’s time, but generally it includes significant student input. For example, Read (2013) outlines the stories of three 21st century educators who identify as progressives, and their definitions of progressive education include elements of looking forward, having students create their own education, and learning experientially. Read goes further to note that these common themes “may be true of the experiences of many educators, not just those who identify as progressive” (p. 122).

The practicality of including student input in curriculum decisions may be debatable, but the necessity of including material relevant to the students’ lives should not be. With classrooms becoming more diverse, the ability to negotiate and understand different cultures becomes more critical. One educator identified and studied by Read (2013) identifies a high cultural IQ as necessary for students receiving a progressive education. Schools are well-established to promote that cultural intelligence, and multiethnic literature plays an important role.

Carpenter (2000) identifies several attributes of multiethnic literature as being necessary. One, multiethnic literature must be culturally conscious in that it presents a complex perspective from that culture’s point of view. Two, multiethnic literature must develop the literacy of students with diverse backgrounds. Three, multiethnic literature must help build a student’s cultural identity, which is the student’s sense of belonging to its own culture. This type of literature blends nicely with a progressive point of view, and it can fulfill the requirements of a traditional education. For example, replacing the study of any play by William Shakespeare with Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, a drama about the impact of racial discrimination on a black family in the 1950s, has little impact on the teaching of dramatic elements, the use of language, or the development of plot. These elements can universally be taught through almost any drama. Raisin in the Sun’s advantage comes through confirming the experiences of black students, and introducing white students to the reality of racial discrimination.

Hansberry’s play, however, is often the first choice when schools seek multiethnic literature. Carpenter (2000) identifies Hansberry and Richard Wright (Black Boy, Native Son) as the only authors with diverse backgrounds on a list of 50 most-selected authors for texts in secondary schools. While both authors are excellent choices for a curriculum, teachers must go beyond these two and find texts that represent the wider range of their student body. Asian, Hispanic, Jewish, and African cultures are among the many that should be included. Going beyond racial or geographical classifications, literature should also emphasize the point of view of women and different gender identities, groups with which students identify.

Dewey felt teachers should “select the influences” (Dewey, 1897, p. 9), yet those influences needed to be determined from the child’s own interests. Children’s natural interest in their own society allows teachers to choose literature that mirrors the world around them. The selection of multiethnic literature thus fits appropriately into Dewey’s model of a progressive education. While Dewey’s record on race relations may be mixed, the inclusion of multiethnic literature improves on his blueprint for an improved educational society.


I teach an Advanced Placement English Language & Composition course at a suburban high school in the Pacific Northwest. My school’s population has approximately 47 percent of the students representing non-white races (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, 2017). In my course I have the freedom to choose my own curriculum and texts, so long as that curriculum aligns with the objectives the College Board has for the course. With that in mind, I feel I have a tremendous responsibility to introduce my students to the wider world around them, and I use my educational freedom to choose a variety of literature that reflects that wider world.

As an example, I open the school year with a unit on memoirs. The summative assessment for this unit is to have students write their own short memoir, and to prepare for this I have students read five short memoirs: “The Guardian Angel” by Mexican-American poet Gary Soto, “Black Men in Public Spaces” by African-American author Brent Staples, “The Myth of the Latin Woman” by Puerto Rican-American writer Judith Cofer, “War Memoir” by Zimbabwean soldier Marevasei Kachere, and “Remembering My Childhood on the Continent of Africa” by white American humorist David Sedaris. The primary objective of the unit is to have students learn to analyze writing for rhetorical elements, but a secondary objective is to have students discuss and consider the experiences of people of different cultures. My goal in choosing this literature was to have selections that reflected elements of my students’ lives. My black students likely understand Staples’ point about women crossing the street before they pass a young black man (Staples, 1986). My Hispanic and female students will recognize the stereotypes outlined by Cofer (1993). Students who have not had these experiences, however, will get to see them and through classroom discussions, will have an opportunity to see the impact stereotypes and discrimination have had on their classmates. Through this experience they can reflect on their own experiences and place them into a larger context that creates new learning.


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