Cultural Pluralism Essay

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Cultural pluralism is a widely used term that has application to and relevance for education. Culture can be defined as a common set of values, beliefs, and social practices, as well as the group of people who share that similar identity. The word usually applies to ethnicity and race—for example, African American culture or German culture—but more contentiously, it may apply to groups of individuals who share traits or similar beliefs, for example, the gay culture or the Christian culture. Pluralism describes a situation in which the diversity among the cultures of different groups is an accepted part of a civil society. This entry examines what is involved in cultural pluralism and looks at its application in education.

Defining Culture

How a cultural group is formed and identified varies significantly. Some cultures are identified by an obvious trait or characteristic: skin color, ethnicity, race, gender, and the like. Other cultures involve people who have a consciously shared aim. Whether or not the individual wishes to be associated with the first kind of culture is of little consequence; for example, people who are born Chinese are part of that culture whether or not they wish to actively partake in the group’s beliefs and practices.

In a more substantial conception of culture, an individual actively participates in and wishes to be recognized as a member of a particular cultural group. Mutual identification by its members is a key element in these groups. Members identify with people who share a common interest or aim and with other people who feel a reciprocal commitment and attachment. Some individuals not only may wish to participate in the group, but also may believe that being part of the group is a constitutive aspect of their identity: The individual cannot separate personal identity from the cultural identity of the group. This position suggests that when individuals are born, they are born into a particular culture, experience, and language, all of which form an essential part of their identity.

Culture And Education

How cultural pluralism should be applied in educational contexts is unclear. Some argue that schools should create a common identity, even if students represent a diverse range of cultures, whereas others insist that this cultural pluralism should be acknowledged and promoted actively in schools.

France has taken a firm stance: All conspicuous religious symbols are banned in schools. The rationale for this decision is twofold. France wishes to uphold the civic republican tradition through the concept of laïque—the separation of church and state—and to actively promote the national civic republican traditions of the political public sphere. Further, through the concept of laïque, the aim is that students will be more able to shed their family’s identity at the door and to explore alternative beliefs and traditions within the safe confines of the school. There is a concept of “equal exclusion”: All individual cultures are excluded within the school setting.

In stark contrast is the U.S. interpretation of the separation of church and state. While religion is not explicitly (at least officially) taught in public schools in the United States, students may wear religious symbols into schools as an aspect of “equal inclusion”: All individual cultures are equally welcome. In some cases, the rights of parents to raise their children within a particular culture come into tension with the obligations of a state to protect the future autonomy of children. A frequently cited case in this area is that of the Old Order Amish community in the United States. The 1972 Wisconsin v. Yoder case considered whether compulsory school attendance infringes on the religious freedom of parents to raise their children in the Amish way of life.

The Amish faith seeks to return to a simpler life, de-emphasising material success, renouncing competitiveness, and insulating members from the outside modern world. In its legal case, the community argued that integrating Amish children with other children in the mainstream culture and having them learn a curriculum that emphasizes science and technology would seriously threaten their accepted way of existence. To the Amish, survival of their way of life is important enough to limit children’s attendance at public schools. Parents therefore asked the court to allow them to remove their children from schooling following the eighth grade.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to exempt Amish children from compulsory attendance laws after completion of the eighth grade. The justices decided that having their children attend state schooling would substantially compromise the cultural integrity of the

Amish community. The Court further thought that state interference to force Amish children to go to public schools was not warranted. It should be noted that the verdict might have been considerably different if the Amish families had asked that their children be completely exempt from attending public schools. As it was, the Amish agreed that children would attend primary education through the eighth grade. They further guaranteed to continue the children’s education within the Amish community, in ways that reflect the skills and training needed for their agricultural way of life. Those skills developed in the Amish community could be transferable to the mainstream world; in this way, should the teenagers wish to leave the Amish community, they could find suitable alternative forms of work within the modern world.

Defining what is deemed reasonable under the parameters of cultural pluralism in education is a difficult and often contested process. The Amish example makes explicit the tension that schools face in trying to balance respect for cultural ideals with the autonomous interests of the child. A pluralist society assumes that schools will foster respect for diversity. Schools, however, are also charged with protecting the interests of each and every child and with cultivating certain skills and dispositions to help students become fully functioning members of society. Trying to balance these two competing aims can be challenging.


  1. Feinberg, W. (1998). Common schools/uncommon identities: National unity and cultural difference. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  2. Gereluk, D. (2006). Education and community. London: Continuum Press.
  3. Gutmann, A. (2003). Identity in democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  4. Reich, R. (2002). Bridging liberalism and multiculturalism in American education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  5. Reich, R. (2002). Yoder, Mozert, and the autonomy of children. Educational Theory, 52(4), 445–462.
  6. Rosenblum, N. (1998). Membership and morals: The personal uses of pluralism in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  7. Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972).
  8. Young, I. M. (2000). Inclusion and democracy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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