Your School is Not Multicultural

Your school is not multicultural. It is not intercultural, either, although I’m not sure there’s much of a difference. Despite the best verbiage we can manage, we’re continuing to colonize non-Western minds and cultures. And no-one seems to care.

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I realize these are controversal claims. The purpose of this post is go deep into some aspects of schooling to identify how Western ideals are pre-empting our tame attempts at multiculturalism.

Introduction

Globally, wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of the Western elite. Using the levers of economics, politics and the media, the powerful seek to maintain the hegemony for their own profit and security. A paradigm of Western dominance is the necessary backdrop to any discussion about intercultural education.

Multiculturalism in education is about respecting individuals, and consequently about using education as a means to establish equality and social justice in our schools and communities.

Thus, our effort to establish a level playing field for all cultures is an act of decolonization. We seek to run our schools without bias against non-Western students. We seek to make our classes about the world, not just the European experience. However, the lofty goal of multicultural education has largely been betrayed, and our schools continue to oppress and colonize students with non-Western cultural heritages.

Gorski concludes that

…the practice of intercultural education, when not committed first and foremost to equity and social justice – to the acknowledgement of these realities and the disruption of domination – might, in the best case, result in heightened cross-group awareness at an individual level. But in many cases, such practice is domination. And in any case, ignoring systemic oppression means complying with it.

If we fail to actively fight against Western domination, we are complicit in its perpetuation.

People

Let’s start with the United States. In the US, 83.5% of teachers are white (and non-Hispanic) while only 63.7% of the general population is white. Black, Asian, and Hispanic people are half as likely to be teachers as their white peers.

In the UK, 91.5% of teachers are white. In Canada, 94%.

In international schools, the effect is worse: work permit restrictions mean that only those from the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or Ireland can be hired by most schools. The result is that international schools are largely staffed by a mix of local teachers and these Western imports.

Contrast the cadre of white teachers at my school with their culturally diverse students.

B7Q2HrxCUAAEac6B7Q2HvjCUAAvSQcThe above pie charts depict the country-of-origin for staff and students at my school in the 2014-15 academic year. The staff fail to reflect the diversity of backgrounds of the students, and they also exaggerate the cultural impact of one country in particular: the USA.

The problems with a non-representative teaching population are numerous. Teachers are unable to relate to the unique challenges students face, and students fail to find role models at school who carry the same cultural orientations as themselves.

A worse impact, however, is that the dominant culture will act to suffocate multicultural exchange, sharing, and compromise. Cultural touchstones, attitudes, or belief systems shared by the Americans and Latvians in the pie charts above will be held nearly-universally by the faculty of the school. Examples include respect for free-market capitalism, support for NATO, and celebrating Christian holidays.

A Belorussian student told me about the frustration he felt that the children in his neighbourhood had taken up the practice of trick-or-treating on the evening of October 31st. These children are not American, he says. Yet the reaction when I suggest to new international teachers that we tone down our Hallowe’en celebrations is one of incredulity: it’s Hallowe’en, of course you have to carve pumpkins and eat candy…

Meanwhile, amidst the hoopla and fervour of celebrating their own cultures, the staff forgets that students and their families have traditions of their own. Although nearly a quarter of the students celebrate it, we let Orthodox Christmas pass without even a mention (except for emails home, demanding explanations for unexcused absences). Students experience crucial life-events at home — the sort they would share with friends, back in their home countries — but don’t feel like their beliefs are welcome at school: after all, none of their teachers would understand, right?

Language

Many schools face the age-old immersion challenge: total, or supported? In practical terms, do we insist that students speak only the common language of the school (ie: English), or do we encourage them to use the languages they know as a springboard to learning?

The research suggests that total immersion provides quicker language learning, and so many schools make it a school rule: English Only! One school in Poland took a hard line, suspending students for infractions: soon, the student body was trained to speak only English in the school.

But while language learning is a valuable academic goal, the costs of such a policy are tremendous.

Language is a fundamental component of a student’s culture. It is the medium by which their beliefs, ideals, and commonalities are shared. It is the prism through which they view humanity and the world. It is how they communicate with their families. Refusing students the right to speak in their native tongues acts to choke the connection with their cultural biosphere.

But even worse, given our understanding that language acts reciprocally to frame our thoughts, restricting students to a learned language constricts their ability to think, to reflect, and to be creative. Imagine writing a poem or conducting a science experiment about snow when you only know the word “cold”.

Cutting off their language acts to sever the core of a student’s self from the human we see in the hallways. Language learners aren’t just quiet because they don’t know how to express themselves: they are quiet because they have nothing left to express! Promising we can reconstruct cultural meaningfulness after the language has been developed is a hollow promise: by then, it is too late, and we have created another split-minded student who feels isolated from school.

Rules

Whether we call them rules, expectations or policies, every school has a set of social norms that are upheld through some form of disciplinary system. These serve two purposes: to ensure the smooth running of the school, and to prepare students to live freely in a state under the rule of law.

Like national laws, school rules are rooted in the history and philosophy of their institutions, and thus reflect the preconceptions, biases, cultural norms, moral codes, and traditions of the power-brokers in the school. School rules created by Westerners embody Western culture, and these rules are rarely as impartial or rational as the rule-setters imagine them.

Let’s look at some examples.

No weapons allowed.” A prohibition on knifes, firearms, and other weapons seems reasonable: it is clearly designed with student safety in mind. Yet, once they are in the building, we equip our students with scalpels in the biology classroom, carving knives in the art room, and power tools in the tech shop. The problem isn’t that we don’t trust students with dangerous items, but rather that we don’t trust students who feel comfort or ownership with sharp tools.

We phased out the bringing of pocket knives into schools over the past generation: not because the children were using them aggressively, but because they were carving up their desks! I use a bullwhip as a demonstration of breaking the sound barrier in my physics class, but it has been made clear to me that the whip is not for public display (never mind that a whip isn’t even a weapon). The prohibition on weapons, thus, is not for practical purposes, but rather for the appearance of safety. Assuring safety through appearances — “security theatre” — is certainly a Western cultural phenomenon.

Listen respectfully by making eye contact, remaining silent, and putting away the cell phone.” In the classroom, an assembly, or any of the many other places we expect obedience from students, the expectation frequently voiced is that students should “listen”. By this, we mean that they should face the speaker and make eye contact; remain silent and avoid reacting outward to what is being said; and refrain from interacting with technology, notes or other items while listening.

Eye contact is a culturally-fraught issue. Research suggests significant cultural differences in the interpretation of prolonged eye contact between individuals from Western and East Asian cultures, for example. Likewise, the question of how to best acknowledge the speaker’s thoughts is answered differently by different cultures: silent listening is preferred in some, while others place higher value on interchange to acknowledge a message being received. Similarly, the role of technology is at the heart of a new cultural divide, with the live-bloggers and note-takers on one side and the listen-quietly advocates on the other.

In short, a vision of listening as a passive, quiet, inactive affair with eye contact and no feedback is a particular Western viewpoint, and cannot be supported in any school that claims to be multicultural.

“That shirt is so inappropriate.” A complaint I frequently hear from my fellow teachers is about the cultural expressions of our students: the way they dance, the way they touch each other, and the way they dress. To people from the West — and especially Americans, given the puritanical and Protestant roots of their country — good taste means modesty.

This belief is shared by some cultures, including those that adopt a conservative interpretation of Islam and other Western religions. But the belief that modesty means appropriateness is not universal, and the repercussions of Western dominance of cultural norms in the school are clear.

When a student is told that her dancing is too suggestive, her hugging too personal, and her dress too revealing, these direct and damaging value judgments are masquerading as objective dictates. The young man whose pants are hanging low off his hips is carrying his culture with him — to demand he hitch up is to demand his check his culture at the door. A selectively-permeable cultural barrier that admits only the dominant culture is surely a structure of cultural imperialism.

Where’s your hall pass?” As a final example, consider the obsession many schools seem to have with tracking and controlling the geographical location of students at all times. What logic underlies the demand that a 16-year-old be required to obtain permission before stepping outside to urinate? This obsession with control is a deeply-rooted trait of Western culture.

A preoccupation with control extends through many school rules: tardy slips, limited numbers of absences, a chain of communication, mandatory departure times, doctors’ notes, to-the-minute timetables, long lists of graduation requirements, homework, and mandatory school supplies are common features of schools — yet none are necessary for effective learning.

Students are faced with only one true choice: to submit to the dominance of a Western-oriented school culture, or to rebel against it.

Curriculum

The undertow of colonialism is also prevalent in the curriculum of our schools. The traditional line-up of courses — literature, history, geography, maths, and science — reflects a narrow view of the world and excludes much non-Western culture simply by preventing it from entering the classroom.

Our language classes remain fixated on the reading of fictional stories. These stories overwhelmingly focus on the Western canon, with anti-colonial works both scarce and of a fundamentally different nature from Shakespeare and Dickens. Indeed, the works of these two authors (like many of the other classics) were pop art of their day, ret-conned as high prose. The effect is that most of a literature course is spent immersed in the mores and ways of Western society, with a foray into Things Fall Apart just different enough to suggest to students that other cultures, too, exist. A truly multicultural “literature” class would spend much of its time on the oral tradition; examining pottery, stelae, and papyri; and connecting with the cultural media (television, film, music, and online media) that are most relevant in students’ lives.

History is a uniquely Western obsession. While many cultures place value on the remembrance of the past, only Euro-Americans focus on digging up ruins, on gaining newness from the old, and on constantly revising our knowledge of things long-gone. Like geography, historical studies of other cultures are a shallow form of colonialism. However, focusing only on the history of Western society (as we do) denies the value of non-Western cultures when this particularly-Western form of cultural expression is elevated to become a course of study at school. As Joseph writes in The Crest of the Peacock, describing the Eurocentric view of world history,

Where [non-Europeans] appear, they do so in a transitory fashion whenever Europe has chanced in their direction. Thus the history of the Africas or the indigenous peoples of the Americas often begins only after their encounter with Europe.

Geography, likewise, is fundamentally an expression of colonialism. By learning about other cultures without developing empathy for them, we subdue them by knowledge. A Western student who learns that Korean children sit on the floor and eat off a short table considers this weird, different, and categorized: these facts serve to make Koreans non-threatening others. Unfortunately, by the time they get to high school, where projects and studies can meaningfully build empathy toward unmet strangers, the study of human geography and other cultures is largely superseded by other courses such as history or psychology. In their teenage years when Western children are finally ready to begin decolonizing their worldviews, we take away the one course that could most effectively help them to do so.

There is an extent to which school mathematics is effective training for adult life. For many students, their high school maths courses will serve as preparation for university. Aside from this preparation, however, there is a great deal of maths remaining in the curriculum, the instruction of which is motivated by arguments about the value of math as a form of logic and art. Although math in broad terms has nearly-universal application, the subject we teach in school is neither the symmetries of Islamic tiling nor the spherical geometry required to navigate by the stars.

Instead, we teach a form of mathematics developed by English, French, and German mathematicians — calculus — with very little application to quotidian life (and, oddly, it is only at this point that the history of mathematics begins to appear in the classroom: we neglect the contributions of the Arab scholars, but not the modest contributions of European mathematicians). The alternative — statistics — is marginally more useful, but with even less cultural currency. If mathematics is to be taught as something other than strict skills training, it will need to be a form of mathematics that values the world’s diverse needs, uses, and employment of mathematical ideas.

Science has a built-in culture that is overwhelmingly Western. The philosophy underlying scientific practice owes much to Enlightenment-era thinking, and there are significant problems associated with poor cultural representation among scientists. Worse, science confronts head-on, and sometimes even attempts to refute, cultural beliefs held by students. These “misconceptions” are seen as the problem, rather than as equally-valuable ideas. Although there are grounds to make science classes multicultural, there has been little effort made by educators to value the science of students’ cultures or to bring non-Western culture into the science classroom or curriculum in a meaningful way.

Some modern curricular developments hold promise, but others represent regressions. The “maker” movement is premised on a particular technological culture that is unquestionable Western. Art, music, and physical education courses have potential to be multicultural but often seem hamstrung by their sizeable Western traditions.

The International Baccalaureate [IB] promises a multicultural education, with a mission statement that begins,

The International Baccalaureate® aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.

Yet the IB curriculum itself is intercultural only in a superficial way. The science and math courses in the Diploma Programme are the familiar listing of Western concepts, with no space for non-Western views, and the literature and history courses have little scope for decolonizing curricula.

The market of the IB is the internationally-mobile Western family, who want a familiar variety of education when they live in China, Brazil or Kenya, as well as the internationally-aspiring family that is willing to set aside their culture in order to give their children a Western-style education. The IB Organization is incentivized to offer a Western education while promising an intercultural one, so we cannot be surprised that they are not delivering a decolonizing curriculum.

Making it Worse

If you ask an educator or administrator about multiculturalism at their school, they tend to point to two things: an atmosphere of respect, and themed events. Undeniably, respect is a key ingredient to intercultural understanding. However, mere respect does not right the wrongs of colonialism. At best, the respect-based approach calcifies the existing power structures. Thus, we need to do more than merely encourage our students to listen and respect each other.

The second oft-cited side of multiculturalism is the themed event. This could take the form of an international song-and-dance show, a mother-tongue reading session, or ethnic food day in the cafeteria. The problem with these events is that they are not acts of decolonization.

Instead, the non-Western cultures are put on display, to be marvelled at, to be tasted, to be trivialized, and to be reduced to their barest sense of otherness. Are Korean students empowered when the cafeteria serves kimbap, or are Aboriginal students empowered when their classmates perform a tribal dance? Of course not. Their complex culture has been collapsed to a mere exhibit, and the social hegemony has only gotten stronger.

Consider, too, the balance of learning that happens when students engage in intercultural sharing. The children from non-Western cultures will share their complex worlds with the others, but learn relatively less, as they already understand Western culture. The children from Western cultures, on the other hand, will learn more. We claim that knowledge is the key to power, so who is being empowered by this sharing activity?

Clearly, our traditional ‘sharing’-based approach to culture isn’t going to decolonize the school.

Conclusion

The problem of culture looms large, both because of its importance in education and because of the impotence of our attempts to be intercultural educators. Colonialism runs deep in the school, through the adults, the policies, the curriculum, and even our attempts to be multicultural. The solution will require that we care deeply about our students, work tirelessly to bring about change, and think critically about everything we do as educators.

But most importantly, we need to start talking about this. In schools where the dominant Western culture has so prevailed that colonialism is expected without even being articulated, we need to start talking abut it. In schools where power structures support the oppression of non-Western cultures through overt or mendacious means, we need to start talking about it. And in schools where the students are getting hurt every day because they don’t fit into the cultural narrative we’re written for them, we need to start talking about it.

Let’s conclude with visionary tweets from a series by Jose Luis Vilson:

Author’s note: This post is part of an evolving understanding of culture in schools. I have adopted a blunt style here for the sake of the argument. I would be grateful for your feedback and criticism via comments below.

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One thought on “Your School is Not Multicultural

  1. Pingback: Quantifying Border Crossing | Teaching Danny…

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