The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society


Setting the American experience against a global backdrop in which one nation after another is tearing itself apart, Schlesinger emphasizes the question: What is it that holds nations together? The classic American image was of the "melting pot," in which differences of race, religion, and nationality were reduced, however unevenly, by common adherence to unifying civic principles. Today that image is challenged by an identity politics that magnifies differences and abandons goals of integration and assimilation....
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The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (Revised and Enlarged Edition)

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Setting the American experience against a global backdrop in which one nation after another is tearing itself apart, Schlesinger emphasizes the question: What is it that holds nations together? The classic American image was of the "melting pot," in which differences of race, religion, and nationality were reduced, however unevenly, by common adherence to unifying civic principles. Today that image is challenged by an identity politics that magnifies differences and abandons goals of integration and assimilation. Must we surrender national identity to ethnic lobbies? Is hypersensitivity on the question of language handicapping minority children? Is the purpose of teaching history to make minorities feel good about themselves? Or is it rather to teach an accurate understanding of the world and to protect unifying ideals of tolerance, democracy, and human rights? Strident multiculturalism, Schlesinger contends, is an ill-judged and wrong-headed response to the real problem: the persistence, despite many gains, of racism in the white majority. In a world scarred by ethnic conflict, he writes, it is all the more urgent that the United States set an example of how a highly differentiated society holds itself together. In this new and enlarged edition, more timely than ever, Schlesinger updates the discussion, assesses recent developments, points to factors that promise to defeat the disuniting of America, points also to the dangers of strident monoculturalism on the right, and adds "Schlesinger's syllabus" - an annotated list of a baker's dozen of book essential for understanding the American experience.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a courageous, important, forcefully argued essay, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Schlesinger contends that America as melting pot has given way to an "eruption of ethnicity'' that threatens to replace assimilation with fragmentation, and integration with separatism. As a case in point, he critiques Afrocentric curricula in schools and colleges which, in his view, glorify a mythic past and make such highly dubious claims as the notion that black Africa is the birthplace of science, philosophy, religion and technology, and the trendy but totally unsubstantiated theory that ancient Egypt was essentially a black African country. Those who attempt to use the schools for "social and psychological therapy'' to promote minority self-esteem are doomed to failure, asserts Schlesinger, because "feel-good history'' is factually flawed and does not equip students to grapple with their lives. Schools should certainly teach about other cultures and continents, he stresses, while faulting multiculturalists who forget that Europe is the unique source of liberating ideas of individual autonomy, political democracy and cultural freedom to which most of the world today aspires. The book was originally published in 1991 by Whittle Communications for selective distribution.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781441717665
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/1/2010
  • Format: MP3 on CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Pages: 1
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.40 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Arthur M. Schlesinger (1917 - 2007) was a historian who served as special assistant to President John F. Kennedy. Among his many works are the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Jackson and A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House.
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Table of Contents

Foreword to the Second Edition 9
Foreword 11
1 "A New Race"? 29
2 History the Weapon 51
3 The Battle of the Schools 79
4 The Decomposition of America 105
5 E Pluribus Unum? 125
Epilogue 149
App Schlesinger's Syllabus 167
Notes on Sources 181
Index 199
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Interviews & Essays

On Sunday, March 15, welcomed Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., author of THE DISUNITING OF AMERICA.

Moderator: Welcome, Arthur Schlesinger. Thank you for joining us online this afternoon.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: I am very glad to have this opportunity to discuss these issues which are on everybody's mind.

Paul from Morris Plains, NJ: How do you determine when the United States as a country becomes stridently multicultural? Isn't that a matter of opinion?

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: I think the country becomes stridently multicultural when people argue that the celebration of separate ethnic and racial communities is a good idea. Short of that, multiculturalism enriches our life and strengthens the texture of our society. It is only the notion that ethnic groups should stay isolated and not get mixed up with each other -- this notion seems to be in conflict with the character of our society.

Thomas from Newton, MA: I'm curious to get your forecast for America as a country over the next decade. I know it is impossible to predict, but what are a few cultural trends that you see happening?

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: Well, I think that the ethnic composition of the country will continue to change a bit, but basically I think the process of assimilation will continue, because younger people want to join the mainstream. They want to learn English and take part in the opportunities of American life, and in so doing, they meet people of the other sex and fall in love with them -- even if they are not from the same ethnic group -- and intermarry, and the process of assimilation will go on. I might add that I think that those who would push multiculturalism to the point of ethnic and racial separation, I think that tendency is slackening, because people take a look at countries like Yugoslavia, where multiculturalism takes a murderous form, to Canada, where multiculturalism is nonviolent but threatens to break up the country. Looking at these two, I think people are showing a new interest in what holds a nation together.

Scott Brundage from Chelan, Washington: Was it not in the Kennedy administration that what is known as "détente" began with the Soviet Union? And what impact do you think President Kennedy's life and administration have had? (It seems to me that we have smothered a great deal of substance with womanizing stories.)

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: Yes, it was indeed under President Kennedy that détente began and accelerated the decay of communism. President Kennedy made the first strong actions with the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, as he had steered through the most dangerous moment of the cold war (the Cuban Missile Crisis). Given the brevity of his administration, Kennedy had a solid record of accomplishment in both foreign and domestic policy.

Maria from Manhattan: What do you think spurred the trend of multiculturalism? Why is everyone claiming and celebrating ethnicity right now?

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: America at the beginning was a nation looking toward the future. Newcomers to this country, making the long trip across the Atlantic, wanted to escape the past, they wanted to become American. We are an older country today, and there is more interest in roots. I wouldn't go so far as to say that there is more interest in the past than in the future, but there seems to be larger nature of ancestor worship today than there was a century ago or two centuries ago. I think that is one factor in the rise of multiculturalism. Another is the understandable sense that American society has been rigged against minorities. There is some truth in that, but the greatest and most shaming part of the American tradition is racism. We have been a racist nation from the start. Racist in our laws, racist in our customs, racist in our hearts. Minorities feel a natural desire for recognition of their contributions to American life, and that is another factor, probably the crucial factor in the rise of multiculturalism.

Niki Farrington from Boston, MA: When are you gonna come back to teach at Harvard?

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: I am in my 81st year and have long since retired from teaching, and as much as I like Harvard and Cambridge, I am cheerfully settled in a little town in the South, New York City. But thank you for thinking about me.

Randall from Lexington, KY: You praise multiculturalism, for it's the emergence of long-overdue recognition, but show the negative effects it can have on a country as a whole. Where do we find the proper balance?

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: The question of proper balance between unum and pluribus.... The nation's motto is "One out of many," and I think in the past there has been to much emphasis on "unum," but I think the militant multiculturalists put too much emphasis on "pluribus." The reason why a multicultural nation like the U.S. has hung together for a couple of centuries, except for the Civil War, is a sense of a common nationality, and that nationality is based not on ethnicity but upon common adherence to the principles of the Constitution, civic principles of our democracy. I think that is the core that holds us together and absorbs newcomers into a common American purpose. I think the notion of intermarriage is big because most American are not of one ethnic group, and the division of America into separate ethnic communities disturbs the balance of unum and pluribus. That is where I would draw the line.

Bryan from Oak Park, IL: Do you think this whole Clinton/Monica thing will have any significance in terms of presidential history? What is your opinion of this whole affair?

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: The Catholics draw a distinction between a forgivable sin and mortal sin. I think most Americans feel that lying about one's sex life is a forgivable sin. There are very few Americans who have not lied about their sex life at one time or another. You lie to protect your wife, to protect your children, to protect the girlfriend, your boyfriend, to protect yourself. In addition, it has always seemed to me that questions that invade personal privacy, the questions that nobody has any right to ask, are not entitled to a truthful answer.

Mike from Spring, TX: Do you mind telling us a few thoughts you may have on the '90s as a decade in terms of cultural identities and ideologies? Do you see this country heading in the wrong direction?

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: At the beginning of the decade, I was much concerned by the tendencies to oppose assimilation and integration in American life. I was disturbed by the tendency to celebrate separate ethnic and racial communities. I think this disuniting tendency has been checked somewhat. Checked by the example of Yugoslavia and the new concern with what holds a nation together. And checked even more by sex and love. Today more Japanese Americans marry Caucasians than marry other Japanese Americans. Today many Jews marry non-Jews, and some Jews are worried about the Jewish community in the U.S. Today there are four times as many black-white marriages then a few decades ago. And the whole attitude toward those marriages has changed. I think that sex and love will defeat those who favor the nonmulticulturalism of America.

Neil McDonald from Dear sir, I am at present researching my dissertation on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although this has nothing to do with your new book, I would like to ask, to what extent do you evaluate the role of the Soviet specialists in ExComm? Did they provide any substantial insight as to the causes of the crisis?

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: Yes, I think Kennedy valued the council of the ambassadors to the Soviet Union Lou-Ellen Thompson and Chip Bohlen. I think their assessments of Soviet intentions and Soviet reactions were very helpful in the resolution of the crisis.

Jack Jr. from Wabash, NH: Do you think the metaphor of the melting pot accurately represents the state of multiculturalism in America? Can you provide a better metaphor?

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: The melting pot historically has melted very unevenly, and it takes a little while for people to get fully absorbed in it. So the melting pot is indeed an imperfect metaphor, but it conveys the broad idea of different ethnic strains melted together, each strain modifying the total mix. It is not a perfect metaphor but it is one that has endured.

Karin from New York City: Hello, Mr. Schlesinger -- I greatly appreciate your work. I was born in India and moved here with my parents when I was 11 in search of better opportunities. We are very proud Americans, and while we are of Indian heritage, we are Americans by choice. Many people believe it makes us feel better to be recognized as Indian, and many think that it should be easier for us to speak Hindi rather than English. Funny, no one asks immigrants, but many, like my family, would prefer to be seen as Americans.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: I think your comment is a very representative comment. The reason why most people historically have come to the U.S. is that they want to get away from the country of their birth and become Americans. That is why the effort to make people learn and teach people in the language of their ancestors is resisted by those who want to join the mainstream and handicaps them in their effort to do that.

Amy G. from Salt Lake City, UT: How do you think President Kennedy would view your theory on the negative implications of multiculturalism?

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: It is hard to estimate what Presidents would do after they are dead. It his hard enough to know what living Presidents would do. Kennedy was very sympathetic to immigrants, but he would firmly believe in the absorption of newcomers and in their full membership in American society. He came from an ethnic group, the Irish, who were long excluded and long shunned, and he strongly believed that a major theme in American history is to move from exclusion to inclusion, so I do not think he would be happy about the opposition of militant multiculturalists to assimilation.

Tina from Buffalo: Hi, Mr. Schlesinger. Who are your favorite writers?

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: The great intellectual influences on me would be Alexis de Tocqueville, William James, Henry Adams (the most brilliant American historian), the theologian Reinhold Nieblur; also I am an Emerson fan.

Nick from Ft. Lauderdale: What do you think of the Internet?

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: I am technology incompetent, so I am not in the Internet, but I gather it is an enormous resource, filled with information if you know how to extract it. And it is also a marvelous means of intercommunication. My children are all on the Internet; thus far they have tried in vain to instruct their father.

Darren from Mt. Olive, NJ: Throughout history, violence and war have been such a part of history and human nature. But now, with the implementation of nuclear weapons, it is whole new concept -- war, that is. How do you see this repression of human nature exploding as we approach the millennium?

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: Well, I think human nature will not change a great deal. One of the paradoxes is that nuclear weapons seem to have been a great instrument for peace; had nuclear weapons never been invented, the cold war might have become a hot war. But nuclear weapons make war so dangerous and unthinkable that countries are reluctant to get in a position to feel obliged to use them. But as events in Africa and elsewhere in the world show, the human propensity toward violence has not diminished, tragically.

Michael Johns from Boston: What's your opinion on English as a national language?

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: English should be the major and primary language of this country. It has been and it will be. I think all Americans should learn two languages. A second language should be a part of every education. I would be opposed to making English an official language -- people who advocate that seem to me to lack faith in the future of English, and they do so at a time when more people speak English and books are published in English then ever before. English will be the closest thing to a world language, and I do not think it needs reinforcement by pressing or asking for so divisive a statute as making English the official language. We need not worry about the future of English.

Moderator: Thank you, Mr. Schlesinger, for joining us online this afternoon. Do you have any closing comments?

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: I welcome this chat to have a conversation with people across the country on the question of striking the proper balance between unum and pluribus. For those among us who want to celebrate ancestral cultures, do so, but let us remember always that we are Americans sharing a common nationality and a common cultural identity, and that is why so diversified a society as ours has endured. Thank you.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2002

    Multiculturalism backfires

    Arthur Schlesinger, one of America's foremost historians, asks the penetrating questions that need to be asked about multiculturalism. Most people who posit 'political correctness' and multiculturalism, don't seem to think through the consequences. Schlesinger has the long view, and asks the right questions, and reveals what the true consequences will be. For example, he shows that there is no link between children reading positive things about their 'group' and having their self-esteem boosted (Italian kids don't feel better about themselves after reading that the Romans ruled the world). Multiculturalism, instead of being inclusive, actually shuts minorities out. It wants to enclose us all in our group 'boxes', so that, for example, blacks should read about blacks, whites about whites. This sounds like a white racist agenda, but it often comes from the multiculturalists. The multi-culti agenda often backfires, resulting in more isolation for minorities. Hispanic bilingualism actually tends to shut out Hispanic kids from mainstream life in America. But, as the author shows, English will not go away. In Shakespeare's day, 4 million people spoke English, now it is 1.5 billion. The ultimate question for America is this: are we going to be a nation unified by a single culture, history, and creed, or a Balkanized country of groups. Schlesinger shines much needed light on this often murky issue.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 16, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    Useful study of multiculturalism

    This is a brilliant essay on multiculturalism. Schlesinger points out that "a common language is a necessary bond of national cohesion." So we should do everything possible to ensure that those who live here in Britain can speak English.

    We need to have a common culture, in our single society, of one nation. We should defend British working class culture, which is the positive aspect of our country's history, while rejecting the bourgeoisie's imperial, reactionary culture. Schlesinger writes, "Belief in one's own culture does not require disdain for other cultures." This is like self-respect - respecting oneself does not mean disrespect for other people.

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  • Posted June 6, 2009

    A chance to review where we are at a time of possible historic change

    I used this book for my book club.
    The meeting was in Febuary 2009.
    I had first read it in college.
    It was a good starting place for a three hour discussion of the possible sea changes we maybe approaching.
    I wish it and I had a little more in depth historical background but it worked great as a kick off point for our discussion.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 13, 2003

    Intellectual Honesty From A Liberal

    This is an unblinkered look at multiculturalism for people who want to figure out where the beef is. Schlesinger's answer? What little's there is hiding under a pickle. While he wouldn't say it this way, what Schlesinger gets across is this: Multiculturalism is a misnomer. There's no such thing. Culture is just whatever happens to be. What America has right now is a multi-ethnic culture with two genders. Big surprise. Another big surprise: When people of any ethnicity or either gender assert what multi-culturalists like to call the dominant culture's values -- meaning, when they assert their rights -- it works. Get the idea? Even though we should admit that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence from a position that was insular by comparison with ours...the fact is that the ideas contained in the Declaration of Independence represent all people. The ideas live. They work. They're...dare I say it...RIGHT.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 22, 2008

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