The intriguing title of this book, Sweet Dreams in America: Making Ethics and Spirituality Work, hardly implies that a complex feminist, postmodern reading of multicultural education lies within its pages. Author Sharon D. Welch, a professor of religious studies and women’s studies, has compiled a series of her essays that asks activists in a multicultural America to think about how to move “from the politics of protest to the very different challenges of building institutions” (p. xxi). Using a pragmatic approach, Welch takes both the Left and the Right to task. She tackles issues of power, chaos, and social change as she develops “a moral vocabulary” (p. xxiii) to use in naming new ways of acting that are based upon “a nondualistic understanding of good and evil” (p. xi). This concept of nondualism is at the heart of Welch’s thesis of how to make ethics and spirituality work. Throughout the book, she uses metaphors from unusual sources to illustrate how contradictions can be held in a creative dynamic tension rather than understood dualistically as either-or oppositions. As befits a work grounded in multicultural education, Welch cites a wide range of sources — theologians, musicians, educators, poets, ethnographers, philosophers, cultural theorists, scholars, writers, feminists, womanists, mujeristas, lesbians, African Americans, Native Americans, Latinas, Europeans, Vietnamese, Whites, women, and men. In every chapter, Welch poses questions that have no definitive answers and challenges commonly held myths; these questions and myths call upon the reader to think about power in a frame of reference that encompasses chaos, ambiguity, improvisation, risk, difference, and change.
In the first chapter, “Virtuosity,” Welch acknowledges the continuing existence of social inequality and injustice despite a vocabulary of progress used by those on the political Right. Asking “How do we respond to the persistence of injustice?” (p. 2), she begins to develop a metaphor to counter a self-righteous language of moral absolutes by drawing upon chaos theory and jazz. Describing jazz as a model of “virtuosity in the face of limits” (p. 21), she notes that it “emerges from the interplay of structure and improvisation, collectivity and individuality, tradition and innovation” (p. 21). She ends the chapter suggesting that by listening and playing off each other’s strengths and limits — as in jazz— coalitions can make their work for justice “swing.”
Next, Welch begins her critique of the Left, focusing on the women’s movement, in a chapter titled “Frustration and Righteous Anger Do Not a Politics Make.” She begins by describing the challenges that come with the complicated work of rebuilding institutions after a radical win against “patriarchal, authoritarian, racist, and elitist power structures” (p. 27). Welch notes that feminists, in claiming the truth of their point of view, held “delusions of our own relative innocence” (p. 27), not seeming to notice that their own relationships to power with regard to racism, class privilege, and homophobia were shaped by domination. After providing examples of problematic practices of viewing self and others, she cites a variety of sources, including African American conjure, Haitian Vodou, and the blues, that might serve as transformative guides toward developing qualities such as resilience, responsiveness, and balance. These essential elements of a “nondualistic spirituality” (p. 45) encompass failure and limitation as well as wisdom and courage, both within oneself and in others.
In the chapter titled “Learning to See Simultaneously Yet Differently,” the reader senses a shift in focus. Moving from critique, Welch takes up the challenge of describing multicultural education. She organizes the chapter in three sections. She begins the first section by posing questions about connection — how to maintain connection as a nation and what the role of education is in the process. More questions follow: What does it mean to be an American? How much difference can a community hold? How do we make sense of our multiple communities and our multiple identities? Whose stories matter? The answers to questions about connection, she suggests, are found in connections — to people and nature of the past, present, and future. The second section is a discussion of ambiguity and difference, and the importance of learning “to see the world through multiple lenses” (p. 63). In the third section, Welch discusses the goals and purposes of multicultural education in terms of five models: teaching the exceptional and culturally different, the human relations approach, single-group studies, multicultural studies, and a social reconstructionist approach. Her conclusion suggests that through an integration of these models “a nondualistic understanding of self, group, and national identity” (p. 82) can be achieved.
Welch continues her focus on multicultural education in the chapter entitled “The Art of Ambiguity.” She begins by describing two approaches commonly used in diversity training — one that heightens conflict through confrontation and one that attempts to create “safe space”— and then suggests a third way, that of growth through critique and disagreement. Seeing democracy as “intrinsically conflictual” (p. 87) and “a structure that has to be created anew in each generation” (p. 93), Welch suggests that by normalizing criticism through sharing different experiences and solving problems as a group, a “space for learning” (p. 107) from conflict can be created. She also proposes that, rather than “destroying” relationships, critique and conflict can enable the development of civility, respect, and group cohesion. The purpose of critique in multicultural education is not merely to denounce, but to change practices of oppression — to create new possibilities for action.
In the final chapter, “Ethics without Virtue,” Welch uses the Holocaust as an example to discuss moral and political ambiguity — how it is fed by seeing others (whether the oppressor or the oppressed) as “fundamentally unlike us” (p. 124). She asserts that multicultural education offers a nondualistic logic of identity, one that allows the thought that we could be like those who are oppressed — or oppressors. The admission of this possibility, she maintains, can lead to the “perversely liberating” (p. 125) recognition that, in fact, we are the Other. Then compassion — rather than shame — can emerge. Welch further suggests that the way to live with ambiguity is simply to do the best we can and live with the consequences — and offers the blues as an expression of “a way of living with defeat and pain without succumbing to either cynicism or self-pity” (p. 125). In drawing the book and chapter to a close, Welch discusses the joy that is inherent in caring for others and the need for “decentism” — the mundane kind of daily decency that springs from the joy of being alive even while “feeling fully the limits and boundaries of life” (p. 135).
This is an optimistic and often engaging book. It does, indeed, provide a new vocabulary for thinking about power and political activism. However, the book sometimes seems as if it has been cobbled together from separate pieces — and, in fact, portions of most chapters have been previously published. Nevertheless, this volume fearlessly plunges into a turbulent sea of ideas and brings quite a few unique gems to the surface.
The audience for Sweet Dreams in America: Making Ethics and Spirituality Work is eclectic. Because it draws from education, theology, women’s studies, and cultural studies, and covers multicultural education, ethics, social justice, and related topics, this is a book that may engender rich conversation among scholars, educators, and activists in many quarters.