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Fall 2004 · Vol. 33 No. 2 · pp. 194–200 

Curriculum Transformation to Prepare Students for a Diverse World

Teshome Abebe and Zenebe Abebe

In the words of Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, “Leadership is about decisions, and the speed with which one can follow a wrong one by making one that works.” As we enter into the twenty-first century, higher education institutions, particularly church colleges and universities, are (among other things) potentially faced with three major internal and external forces that will impact the design and delivery of their curriculum:

  1. what to do with the increasingly unpopular curriculum based upon Western culture,
  2. how to deal with the staggering proportion of under-representation of ethnic/racial minority faculty and students, and
  3. the ongoing impact of the global economy and demographic shifts.

We are proposing that a deliberate and meaningful attempt be made to reorient college curricula to include non-Western perspectives.

This brief essay examines the extant problems and their causes, and attempts to shed some light on why change is imperative. In a modest attempt to make additional contributions, we will also suggest proposals for debate and consideration.


In the 1980s and early 1990s, the majority of higher education institutions were faced with the upkeep of their aging physical plants (which were mostly built in the 1950s and 1960s) and the reduction of federal {195} funding to higher education. To this day, deferred maintenance continues to be a significant cost in the operating budget for most colleges and universities. Although the issue of deferred maintenance has not, for the most part, hampered the effectiveness of higher education institutions in the fulfillment of their mission, financial stress overall has had a dilatory, if not a negative, impact on a very significant issue: the transformation of the curriculum. While we recognize that each of the three factors mentioned above deserves to be researched and separately understood, we contend that they are interrelated and complementary in nature.

We recognize that the social and political views of academia make any curriculum-related change more complex. It is also recognized that not all institutions are at the same point in dealing with any of the factors mentioned above and their link to curriculum transformation. Some institutions have made limited progress in some areas and continue to work at moving forward, while others may be totally resisting change. An additional factor to ponder is the state of the faculty itself: it may be entirely possible that educating students for the future is more of a challenge than professors and educators had bargained for when they took the responsibility of teaching.

Edgar F. Beckham, dean of the college, emeritus, of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, who is coordinating the Ford Foundation’s Campus Diversity Initiative, comments on the complexities facing higher education today:

Knowledge is changing. It’s getting bigger, but also messier, with more interconnections, more static, more opportunities for ignorance, misunderstanding and contention. It’s much harder for a professor to know a field of knowledge comprehensively, and almost impossible to be confident about what knowledge students are likely to need in the future. (New York Times, 5 January 1997)


It is no secret that the American higher education system and its curriculum, which is a prototype of the English system of colonial times, is to this day based upon Western culture. Yet in the years since colonial times, America has changed drastically: in its political ideology, in its commerce, and in its ethnic diversity. How then, can the curriculum respond to the growing demand of diverse populations? What is the role of higher education if not to create public understanding and to provide graduates with skills and knowledge that they need in order {196} to function and contribute in this diverse society? In our attempts to articulate viable visions and workable strategies for our institutions, we should promote the kind of multicultural academic community which can prepare students for a diverse and global economy.

One of the most pressing agendas for many years to come could be the challenge of restructuring the general education curriculum to more comprehensively reflect our multicultural society. College administrators and professors have the responsibility not only to transform the curriculum, but also to transform the campus culture from a sometimes-hostile environment to a supporting and nurturing place for all students.

Transforming the curriculum and the campus culture requires a major reform in the structure and function of institutions. More specifically, perhaps church colleges and universities, including those of the Mennonite Brethren, need to pay more attention to this issue, especially because developing new leaders for the church and the world now requires a different mind-set. In the words of Darren Duerksen, “These changing times, along with the constant growth of the MB church, create a critical need for well-trained leaders.” For some of us the challenge is not only our inability to see the connection between past and current trends in curriculum needs, but we also fail to see the opportunities for promoting positive change for generations to come.


Curriculum transformation is an old concept in higher education. For the most part, the processes require a committee to look at the existing general education program of the institution. If change is desired, the committee then drafts a proposal to take to its teaching faculty. In essence, the campus faculty respond to the question of what courses should be taught. There are also questions of who will teach them and how they will do so. The process can easily degenerate into an ownership issue focusing on who gets the new credit hours generated, who acquires the new prestige and political clout, and who gets the last word on the debate.

Although the debate begins with noble and grand gestures and pronouncements, the question of what ought to be taught—based on social dictates and what students are asking for as well as employment after college—tends to reflect concerns raised by the few. Thus, the problem with this model is that as times have changed, the way we update the curriculum has not.

The seriousness of the problem was stated very well by Dr. Patricia Cross: “we are using old maps for new highways.” Therefore, as the makeup of our society keeps changing, we are challenged to present {197} relevant and timely information to our students. To avoid stagnation, but also to survive the new wave of global competition, we must consider retooling the professional educators. As put recently by Merrill Ewert and Larry W. Nikkel, presidents of Fresno Pacific University and Tabor College respectively,

some of the most advanced information that we learned when we were undergraduates in the 1960s has been replaced by new understandings based on more recent research. It’s not that some of what our generation learned in school is no longer helpful or relevant, some of it was actually wrong. (Christian Leader, November 2003, 4)

Most of us cannot or will not teach what we did not learn. The American education system has only just recently made attempts to include in its curriculum concepts and ideas from non-Western cultures. This was not by accident, but by design. For most teaching faculty the idea of continuing education to explore new ideas in their teaching, while encouraged, is not usually effectively funded. As we all know, the first sabbatical leave for most professors typically does not come until after they have worked for six or seven years. By then the professor is already tenured, and the incentive that used to motivate pedagogical creativity is past. They prepare to join those who have been tenured before them, and the cycle continues. An African proverb states that “one must come out of one’s house to begin learning,” an affirmation of the need for willingness to come out of the norm and one’s own tradition, to explore new ways for a real global education.

The historical problem related to curriculum was stated best by Ann Johnston when she wrote,

Many liberal arts courses offered by colleges and universities today make no references to the life experiences of ethnic minorities. Sometimes, this omission is the result of a philosophical decision: the role of the college is to convey the best that Western culture has to offer. More often, however, literature and scholarship by and about ethnic minorities is absent from reading lists and class discussions because faculty members themselves did not receive a multicultural education. Faculty and staff need resources to help them select and utilize works of imaginative literature, biographies, autobiographies, histories, and cultural studies representative of major minority groups. {198}


As described by Ellen G. Friedman (1996), curriculum transformation, with a history over twenty years, is the attempt to mainstream the new scholarship on gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality—to suffuse the academic curriculum with this scholarship and with the points of view out of which it arrives. Although the issue of curriculum transformation and multicultural education will continue to be an ongoing debate in higher education, we offer a couple of models for consideration.

A number of scholars have developed models to help us better connect with our students. For instance, some scholars advocate curriculum inclusion, while others prefer curriculum infusion, and yet others like to see multicultural education be presented using the model of curriculum deconstruction and transformation. Professor James A. Banks, Director of the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington, Seattle, defines multicultural education as a restructuring and transformation of the total environment so that it reflects the racial and cultural diversity that exists within U.S. society. Banks further suggests four approaches to integrate concepts in the curriculum, one of which is the “transformation” approach. He writes,

In the transformation approach, which is designed to help students learn how knowledge is constructed, the structure of the curriculum is changed to enable students to view concepts, issues, events, and themes from the perspectives of various ethnic and cultural groups. (James and Cherry A. M. Banks, eds., Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education [New York: Macmillan, 1995], 12-13)

All too often, educators who have benefited from European-based cultural education have difficulty in viewing multicultural education as an academic discipline that can benefit all students. They fail to see it as basic education, comprehensive in nature, a process to achieve antibiased education, and as an education necessary for global social justice. Instead, they view multicultural education or diversity as being intended to satisfy a particular group, race, or gender rather than as a need that is vital to all institutions in this rapidly growing multiethnic society.

Regardless of the specific model preferred, however, it seems safe to conclude that this growing multiethnic society is challenging us to see beyond what is expected of us and to think in terms of what it means to be members of an interconnected world. In this sense, it is an {199} opportunity none of us can afford to ignore as we continue in the business of educating our society.


The image that America can stand alone is no longer a practical one nor supported by the realities of today. If we continue to limit the image of our “world” to mean “within our national boundaries,” then we have quite a lot of work to do. Today, we find strong interconnectedness between the people of the world and their needs with what some segment of the American population experiences. For example, our nation is not immune from unemployment, poverty, sickness, and illiteracy, and even corrupt business and political leaders. Therefore, it is imperative to deal with the issue of curriculum transformation and empower students by providing the information they need about good citizenship, equality, ethics, and the values of peace and justice.

All higher education institutions, which for the most part are involved in preparing future leaders, must have a renewed interest in what is taught in the schools. Boards of Trustees need to revisit institutional mission and vision statements to ensure that what is stated is what is indeed implemented. The faculty’s awareness of current challenges and opportunities must be examined and updated continuously; our curricula must be revised and should communicate relevant information to students. Not only should we tell them about the global economy and free trade, but also what the opportunities are for them so that they are adequately prepared and are in harmony with their world.

It will be an understatement to point out that campus leaders must always look for new possibilities for change in the learning and teaching environment. We must assist our campus leaders as well as hold them accountable to redirect their followers to the right path. Their focus must be rooted in an intentional effort to make the campus culture both inclusive and supportive of all participants. Transforming the curriculum then becomes the function of leadership that understands the changing needs of the nation and the world.

There are numerous evidences to suggest that institutions with a team of leaders that are committed to change and appreciate the diversity of the campus are successful. The need for colleges and universities to transform their curricula is a matter of national interest. To meet the needs of the growing number of cultural and ethnic diversities within the U.S. society, it is only prudent to plan our children’s curriculum so that they are positioned and better prepared to serve and lead.

Finally, the need for transforming the curriculum is undoubtedly {200} dictated by the kind of student body we anticipate coming to our colleges and universities. In their book, Millennials Go to College (2003), Neil Howe and William Strauss, writing about the new generation and how they will transform colleges and universities, have this to say:

Whatever you are in university life, you face a choice. You can ignore this breaking Millennial wave, by treating today’s collegians as you did the last generation. You can resist it, by pursuing decades-old agendas. You can ride it, by adapting as fast as you can to new needs as they rise. Or you can lead this new youth wave, by preparing for Millennials before they arrive in full force.


Given the changing patterns of culture necessitated by changing demographics and a highly interconnected world, it is no longer sufficient to rely on an educational paradigm based entirely on Western cultures and perspectives. Notwithstanding issues related to equity, justice, and peace, our own national security concerns make it imperative that we look beyond the short-term orientation focused largely on our own culture.

We are not attempting to make the case here that the current educational system and curricula based on Western perspectives alone has been harmful. Instead, we are proposing, as others have done before us, that a deliberate and meaningful attempt be made to change—or rather reorient—the curricula to include non-Western perspectives so that our graduates are in harmony with the needs and requirements of an ever-changing and interdependent world.

Teshome Abebe, Ph.D., is Professor of Economics at Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, Illinois. Zenebe Abebe, Ph.D., is Dean of Student Life at Fresno Pacific University, Fresno, California.

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