Ever since I was a child I have been intrigued by the differences I saw and see between people of different backgrounds. I was a child of migrants and ones that didn’t speak the host country language very well, so my world, especially once into school, was a split one.
At home, or outside of school, I was largely immersed in my parents’ cultural ways (or the available parts of these). My extended community contact circled around kinship and church groups, both of which had strong ethnic roots. I grew to know their rituals, language, stories and ways of being.
In school, however, it was different. Lunch was different, the way I spoke with other kids was different to how I spoke with my cousins, celebrations were different. These different worlds existed, all with a 1km radius, and I had to switch from one to the other as I walked through a gate.
Many years later, I find myself a million miles away, well thousands of miles at least. Thirty-nine years ago, I left the town I was brought up in, and twenty years ago I left the country I was brought up in. In that time, I have come to see and know the world in so many varied ways, and I have come to appreciate how different we can be from each other, and more importantly how we are different.
This recognition of difference is important. And it is important because I find myself working in a school with people from all parts of the world. It is important because our charter as a school is to promote global citizenship and international mindedness. Unfortunately, as with many initiatives I have come across in my time, very few people understand what this really means; many operate from within a highly uncritical framework, unaware of their own biases.
Oh sure we have a recognition of differences above the line – “the Five F’s” of culture -food, fashion, festivals, folklore, and flags – the observables. In addition, an influx of second language learners might also force us to look at differences that they bring with them. You know, some may actually not have it in their cultural DNA to proactively ask questions, so we might develop strategies to address this. On the whole, however, an informed look into the ways of schools that brandish the “global” banner pretty quickly pierces the rhetoric.
Sure, many schools have significant scope within students’ courses to learn about other people, customs and beliefs. Some may have opportunities for students to analyse, discuss, ponder, and perhaps see things in a different way. In fact, I know of schools that mandate that unit writing includes an exploration of issues that have global significance.
Yet, herein lies the problem.
Being internationally minded is not a case of learning about others, it is an action, and one cannot act from behind a computer, or in a room that is structured on specific cultural principles. Rooms, by the way, that are predicated on a very specific model of schooling that, well, isn’t inclusive of a whole range of cultural values.
Just in case we forget, or when there is a special event forthcoming, teachers get reminders from their administrators to include experiences that will help students become global citizens. What is ironic about the latter is that the simple act of instructing teachers to act in this context contradicts claims of understanding what it means to be culturally sensitive, and in some extreme cases is actually very offensive to some.
That is not to say that we should not celebrate, but that we should acknowledge and talk with those others who are not the same as us, rather than carelessly rob them of their dignity.
I understand full well that, as organisations, schools are built upon certain principles, but I also understand that these principles come from somewhere. And this somewhere has a cultural context, and so this context continues to get promulgated at the expense of other landscapes that constituents might bring to the party.
Unfortunately, rather than face this scenario, rather than acknowledge that we are working from within a particular power portal, rather than face that fact that, by virtue of birth, we are privileged to promote our ways above others, we succumb to to the effects of our emotional immune system. We rationalise, excuse and trivialise, so that we may believe that we are doing the right thing. We promote the visible, the photo op, because that is the public testament, the token, that allows us to be at peace with ourselves.
And when I say “we” in the paragraph above, I actually mean “you”, because despite having an appearance that hardly distinguishes me from others, I am one of a minority in the world that I exist in. As a person of such a group, I have seen others simply take for granted that I think like them because I look like them.
I have a close friend who takes great delight in voicing his frustrations about the occasions where he has been in meetings with peers and has been nonplussed by their resistance to any mention of the ways he was brought up to understand and engage in substantive dialogue.
His way, his culture’s way, understands professional conversation to be explicit, precise, analytic and definite. Issues are discussed, points debated, decisions made, to-do’s recorded and acted upon. Completion is important, excellence more so. Perspective and clear challenge are ways to be welcomed, for they provide people with the space to hold their ideas up for critique. Roles are decided and boundaries respected. Unfortunately, there is a significant cultural gap between such a forthright approach and the indirect one that seems to flow through many schools. By indirect, I mean an approach characterised by softening modulators such as “could”, “a little”, “maybe”, “sort of” and the like that many of us have heard in conversation and in addresses. Such language is not essentially bad, but it is different to that which some have grown to know and use. The problem is not in the language itself, but in the fact that there is little acknowledgement that culturally some are different and that they intrinsically have a different approach. And when there is that recognition, there is rarely any effort made to close the gap. Consequently, rather than walking the global citizen talk, others continue to roll along in their cultural bubble, typically oblivious to any of the real world outside of it.
I am not suggesting that my way is ‘the way’, but I am suggesting that if you are truly internationally minded, you would have the humility to accept that not everyone is like you. You would acknowledge this, and perhaps learn from it.