Teaching about the Long Roots of Multiculturalism

Is multiculturalism something new? A new phenomenon attached to modern migration? Is it something that has only emerged in public discourse since the 1990s?

The course, Monikulttuurisuuden juuret, – or ‘Roots of Multiculturalism’ set out to answer these questions.

A part of Studies in Multiculturalism, the course comprised seminar meetings and lectures by Aleksi Huhta and Essi Huuhka, both doctoral students of European and world history. Students came from a wide variety of disciplines: sociology, social policy, history and comparative religion.

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The course changed a little from last year, with different teachers, together with new themes and new implementation. Two of four lectures discussed multiculturalism in Finland, focussing on the 19th and early 20th centuries and the other two centred on the history of multiculturalism in Western Europe. These themes are naturally very broad, so they were narrowed down to key subjects, such as international occupations and historical minorities in Finland, and the development of multicultural politics in France and Great Britain.

Given that the majority of students in the class came from disciplines other than history, the historical context of multiculturalism was new to many of them. The course leaders tried to ensure the students became aware of the importance of understanding the historical backgrounds of modern society. Public discussion on multiculturalism – including its challenges and the negative attitudes towards it – was already topical in late 19th century Finland.

During the seminars groups of students gave presentations on different concepts of multiculturalism. The main idea was to show how concepts like ethnicity or racism have long historical roots and that the meanings of words have changed over time. One of the primary lessons was that modern concepts cannot be applied without context to historical phenomena.

Student presentations and the discussions that followed were interesting and active: opinions varied widely on topics such as the concept of indigenous people and race hygiene.

“There have been a lot of engaging discussions during this course,” reported lecturer Aleksi Huhta. “The students have given meticulously researched presentations on concepts such as ethnicity and indigenousness. These are concepts that many of us are familiar with but in whose historical genealogy we are not well versed. This is where these student presentations offer some real perspective.”

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