Whether in an urban, suburban, or rural setting, the cultural and ethnic fabric of the United States is changing.

We are increasingly becoming a more racially, religiously and ethnically diverse nation, full of people from the entire world who have brought with them unique backgrounds, perspectives and life stories.

Simply looking at the demographic hearts of any major American city, for example, we see that our country is vastly different than in the days of our founding fathers.

Our schools, communities, churches, businesses and general social landscape represent a cross-section of every segment of the globe. However, on closer examination, U.S. citizens remain isolated from one another — physically, economically and culturally.

Because of this, ethnic divisions are more intense, as exhibited by the intense controversy over immigration issues, to name one example. It can be reasonably argued that the primary reason for these conflicts lies in our lack of understanding and appreciation of heritages other than our own. Xenophobia is alive and well in this melting pot of ours.

How much of the lives of others do we really know about? To what extent does our educational system teach us the true stories of American and foreign history? Do our schools do a good job of educating us about the varied histories that make up our nation?

“An unfortunate fact of our history has been that, for so long, certain parts of our collective have been overlooked or excluded,” writes Sally Kohn in her recent article, “Why Ethnic Studies Are Good for America”, published on AlterNet.org.

“Most American children know about Lewis and Clark, but not about Sacajawea. They know about Thomas Jefferson, but not about Sally Hemmings.”

With regard to world history, one might add that many people throughout the country didn’t know where Iraq was before wars were first started there, for example.

Kohn, a community organizer, writer and political commentator, believes that certain perspectives in American history have been more amplified than others, She and many others contend that our history and social studies classes too often make excuses for atrocities such as slavery and the oppression of women, for the sake of keeping our history neat, tidy and unoffensive.

Even, today, there exists a prevailing notion that to bring up the horrors that exist in our nation’s past is the equivalent of being unpatriotic. Somehow, one can’t be both proud of our country and ashamed of its less-than-perfect past

Our current president, for example, has been criticized for acknowledging our country’s past wrongdoings. Much of this attitude is refected and reinforced in our textbooks and lesson plans.

Some opponents of ethnic studies being included in the U.S. educational curricula assert that it will teach young people to resent our government and America, even more than they might already.

They believe that ethnic studies are ineffective because conditions such as racism, elitism, a low tolerance of different cultures and competitiveness are so ingrained in our society that no amount of knowledge will change it.

Nonetheless, it is clear to me that exposure to a variety of backgrounds at an early age on a daily-life basis is one of the best teachers. When kids and adults discover the many things everyone has in common before they are challenged by differences, they won’t be as easily distracted by the differences. Making ethnic studies an education in and of itself is not the answer, of course.

But, by exposing the fullest narrative of our history that also reveals America’s exploitation of others doesn’t do harm to the average citizen; it rankles the power elite, many of whom have been the benefactors of a lopsided history and its later interpretation for too long.

Our teaching of history must not only include Native Americans, early colonists, Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants, but also the more complete shared history of us all.

As Kohn writes: “Learning what we have in common, the 360-degree history we ultimately share, can only bring us closer together as a nation and help us better understand the real problems and injustices that still plague us all as a people.”

What we need, particularly for our younger generation, is to create more opportunities to engage us as a group outside of the classroom.

Perhaps we need to get rid of the term “tolerate,” which implies superiority on the part of the tolerator, and replace it with “mutual respect” that has a way of equally distributing better understanding among us all.

As a free and independent thinking country, we can only become more respected worldwide by being more knowledgeable and appeciative of the lives and history of others around the globe.


Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer and a New York Times Fellow at the International Longevity Center USA. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]