New American Pluralism Anthology Locates The Unity In Centuries of Civic Debate

Release Date: March 4, 1997 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Four professors at the University at Buffalo have produced an anthology that explores 200 years of public discussion and controversy over the complex issues of cultural diversity and social pluralism.

Unlike many books of this genre, this collaborative effort illustrates that while America is a pluralistic society, its members have historically shared many values and attitudes that constitute our shared identity as Americans, despite our many differences.

"Identity, Community and Pluralism in American Life" (Oxford University Press) was edited by William Fischer, vice provost and professor of English; David Gerber, professor of history; Jorge M. Guitart, professor of modern languages and literatures, and Maxine S. Seller, professor of educational administration, organization and policy in the UB Graduate School of Education.

Their purpose in editing the book, the authors said, is to illustrate that many of today's civic debates involving issues such as racism, immigration, communal identity and government control are not new. These issues had their origins in the founding of the republic and have continued in one form or other for centuries.

The book developed out of the authors' experience as instructors of a course titled "American Pluralism and the Search for Equality," which was introduced into UB's undergraduate curriculum in 1989, after several years of development. After four more years as a pilot program, it became a mandatory undergraduate course in 1993, one typically taught by senior faculty members from many departments.

"When we were developing the course in the late 1980s," Fischer said, "our experience was that available anthologies were too narrow in the range of multi-ethnic and pluralistic cultures that they covered. Also, some were more particularly politicized than was helpful for an introductory college course.

"UB instructors then collaborated to compile their own anthology of materials that many of us used," he said. "The present project is an outgrowth of that first attempt. It is, however, far more extensive in its coverage of cultural and historical materials and has a better focus on the consequent social and political debates that have defined the discussion of our complicated national identity."

The authors said they hope the anthology will engage readers in the ongoing conversation on a number of themes that recur throughout American history. These include debates over the formation of group and communal identities, the position of various groups in the American social system and the interrelationships of the people of the United States within the framework of a common public life.

The readings include material from usually marginalized or excluded groups -- immigrants, labor unionists, prisoners, women, Chicanas and Chicanos, Native Americans. Selections were culled from the academic disciplines, fiction, poetry, oral histories, journalism, biography and memoirs -- all in historical and conceptual context.

Gerber said, "I think the singular contribution of our anthology is that it concentrates considerably on ordinary people and daily life and that it emphasizes sources of unity, as well as diversity among Americans."

Fischer added, "What we find here is that to be an American, is to share certain values, certain assumptions about what is important. Sometimes, in crediting and honoring our differences, we lose sight of these similarities."

Gerber agreed. "Too often," he said, "books about American pluralism leave students with the impression that Americans have nothing in common but the tendency to get in each other's way. What we've tried to do here is include a great deal of material on the common public life and the framework of public institutions that speak to the many experiences and perspectives that Americans share."

Each of the book's 11 chapters opens with an introduction that sets the context for the readings that follow. Each reading selection in the chapter also is explained in terms of its significance and relationship to other selections, some of which are from different historical periods. Suggestions for further readings also are included in each chapter.

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