E unum, pluribus

By Jonthon Coulson

The motto of the United States of America – ‘e pluribus unum’ – is Latin for ‘from many, one’. It connotes similarly to the national motto of Indonesia – ‘bhinneka tunggal ika’ –, which translates from Sanskrit and Old Javanese to ‘unity in diversity’ (or more literally, ‘that which is in pieces is one’). Both of these nations gained independence from overbearing colonial powers only when people from different places and backgrounds united in the struggle for freedom. In light of this, it makes sense that these mottos match.

Like Indonesia and America, Jamaica also utilizes all-for-one language in its national motto – in English, not Jamaican Patois. (Source: Creative Commons)

The similarities don’t stop with mottos. Both Indonesia and the U.S. are among the most populous and culturally plural nations in the world, but since expelling their oppressors both have been led politically by a dominant group that has consistently governed to protect its privileges. A single set of identities has denoted the succession of leaders of each country respectively: White male Christian English speakers in the United States of America, and Javanese male Muslim Bahasa Indonesia speakers in the Republic of Indonesia. (In fairness, a female did serve as president of Indonesia for part of a term. Megawati Soekarnoputri was the daughter of the nation’s first president; political dynasties are another a common feature of these countries.) When considering the ramifications of such political dominance, the nation’s mottos might be read a bit differently: Of many groups vying for rights and opportunities, one consistently rules over the rest.

Such an uncharitable reading is almost Animal Farm-ish, in that governing ideologies got turned around on themselves by liberating pigs, who ultimately become indistinguishable from the horrible humans they deposed. But how else have these mottos from opposite ends of the Earth that celebrate(d) the power of diversity ended up being operationalized back into a power pyramid? More importantly, what can be done about it?


No single explanation can capture how and why, in both of Indonesia and the United States (and so many other nations), what began as a unification of lesser groups to displace a regional hegemon gave way to the largest of those groups holding on to power for 75 and 224 years, respectively. But in considering the maintenance of power by these groups, of their inter-generational transmission of national history and cultural values, one aspect of the apparatus that warrants critical consideration is education.

As a scholar of curriculum who has taught everything from middle school to graduate school in both countries, I can identify core features of their respective educational systems that likely facilitated the shifting logics of their mottos: both provide free (read: taxpayer-funded) education to about 50 million children annually, both use standardized assessments to measure student learning and award degrees, both require adults to achieve certification to teach in these schools, and both struggle annually to recruit people to teach, especially in poor, Black, and rural communities. Limited resources, ranking and sorting mechanisms, barriers to entry, and discriminatory neglect all empower the political elite to superstructure education at their whim and will.

But let’s presume best intentions for a moment. Let’s presume that even the dominant group wished to maintain this sense of ‘unity in diversity’ at the onset of education, knowing their nations were not yet strong enough to resist recolonization otherwise. (This truth was brought bluntly to bear on Indonesia’s elite, actually; after the Dutch departed, the nation was colonized by the Japanese for three years.) Let us presume, further, that the versions of history taught in their respective schools valorized diversity and made clear that freedom only become possible when people came together across differences. If we extend these kindnesses in considering the educational nascency of these nations, we come again to the question of the pyramid, here phrased just a bit more specifically: How did the cultural perspectives, referents, histories, and languages of the dominant group end up being codified and inculcated so extensively in the schools of these nations? Again, what can be done about it?

Concepts of Transculturality

At last year’s Heidelberg School of Education’s Digital Autumn School, discussions of the concept of transculturality offered new ways of engaging with the aforementioned questions. Dr. Portia Williams asked, in considering the exchange of cultures, equal contribution, and cooperation to bring about something new, how this can be facilitated when partners may not be equal, when there is an imbalance of power. She urges us to consider equity of access and modes of participation. Her conversational partner, Dr. Tobias Endler, extended this line of thinking, arguing that transculturality is a way of setting up society to bring together people of different backgrounds to form a network that everyone benefits from. Bringing people together across differences in identity and power is the purported goal of both Indonesia and America (and many other nations). As these scholars discussed the interlinkages between democracy, education, and specifically teacher education, I wondered how transcultural scholars might respond to my questions, and what it might take to make them more widely practicable.

Juneja and Kravagna (2013) productively complicate the governing logics of populous, plural democracies with their suggestion that we must reject the ‘nation-state default mode’, and disabuse ourselves of the “romanticizing belief that we inhabit a world where difference is harmoniously dissolved.” Perhaps the failing grace of Indonesia and the U.S. was in believing that independence from a colonial power was an enduring victory for the freedom of man; internal colonialism and ethnic dominance perhaps were staved off by the spectre of recolonization for a time, but that time passed quickly. Educating the next generation to revere fallen heroes and regaling them with stories of previous freedom struggles traps them in a static past, lures youth away from the trials and tribulations of their own times. Transculturality rejects adaptation to the ways of elders, and instead invites elders and youth to transform together, to be in process always.

This theorizing problematizes teacher certification courses that too often restrict members of local communities – especially those who did not have equitable access to education when they were young – from teaching their own children. In prioritizing the technical over the cultural aspects of teacher learning, both countries have brought upon themselves teacher shortages, which has led in turn to neocolonial adventures of recruiting youth from metropoles to teach Other People’s Children (Delpit, 1995) at the margins. Rebalancing the cultural and the technical in teacher education and interrogating teacher recruitment and certification may simultaneously constitute an act of justice and economic investment.

This alone will not suffice. Confronting a history of identity domination insists that citizens holding all identity positions engage in these conversations. The work cannot simply be left to what Orwell called the ‘down-and-out’. As Pratt (1991) notes, transculturality also entails “a striving to belong and have belongings, to maintain safe houses and ensure presence in the contact zone”. This entails that all who are in contact be also in discussion. Brought together under the banner of national liberation, citizens of plural democracies must come to bear with the fact that nations will not, cannot indefinitely protect our diversity or ensure equality. This is the work of the People, the Rakyat, La Gente, and it should be undertaken using what Pratt calls “the literate arts of the contact zone[: transculturality,] along with autoethnography, critique, collaboration, bilingualism, mediation, parody, denunciation, imaginary dialogue, vernacular expression, and more.” That list might make for a nice set of school standards.

In a world moving rapidly toward a post-State era, though, perhaps the purest expression of the transcultural or, in terms of global catastrophic climate change, of Wergin’s (2019) transecological, is the exploration each of us must undertake in our own subconscious mind, in the depths of our own hearts. A nation, our human family do attend to the logics of ‘e pluribus unum.’ But what a phrase like that fails to capture, and where our work surely must begin, is encapsulated by Gandhi’s notion of an “ocean in a single drop”. Perhaps the best way of entangling ourselves with the mottos and civilizing missions of nations is not in conjecture and response, but by posing our own mottos, all aligned with the understanding that each one of us has so many cultures inside.

Of one, many: ‘E unum, pluribus’.

Jonthon Coulson
doctoral candidate Teachers College, Columbia University


Delpit, Lisa D. (1995). Other People’s Children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press.
Juneja, M., & Kravagna, C. (2013). “Understanding Transculturalism”. Model House Research Group (ed.), Transcultural Modernisms. Akademie der Bildenden Künste Wien. Berlin: Sternberg, 22-33.
Orwell, G. (1946). Animal Farm. New York: Penguin.
Pratt, M. L. (1991). “Arts of the Contact Zone”. Profession, 33-40.
Wergin, C. (2019). “Ecologies of the otherwise: Ecocritical concerns and the Australian continent”. B. Neumeier / H. Tiffin (eds.) Ecocritical Concerns and the Australian Continent. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 109-122.
–, (Oct. 22, 2020). “Transculturality in the 21st century”. HSE Autumn School Transculturality in Teacher Education
Williams, P. / T. Endler (Oct. 23, 2020). “Exclusive access – or doors wide open? Teacher education, transculturality, and the ingredients of a vibrant democracy”. HSE Digital Autumn School Transculturality in Teacher Education.

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