Importance of cross-cultural education

EducationWorld October 2020 | Special Essay

Contemporary primary-secondary students first need to understand and identify with their own cultures and then become curious about other cultures. Interaction can be enabled by emergent new technologies.

Ravi Hutheesing is a US-based keynote speaker and the author of a forthcoming book, Pivot: Empowering Students Today to Succeed in an Unpredictable Tomorrow

A few years ago while teaching a two-week course at a university in Beirut, Lebanon, I expressed a desire to visit Baalbek on the other side of Beqaa Valley as it is reputed to have the most impressive Roman ruins outside of Italy. Therefore, I enquired from locals if they could help arrange an excursion. The response was almost unanimous: “Don’t go!” they said, explaining that the road was regularly patrolled by Hezbollah and the ruined city was only 10 km from the ISIS front in Syria. Nevertheless, I found a taxi driver willing to take me there although as an American citizen, there was the possibility that I could be held hostage for ransom.

En route, an armed soldier stopped us. After exchanging a few words with my driver, he got into the front seat. Seemingly oblivious of my presence, they spoke animatedly in Arabic as we drove away. I wondered whether they were negotiating a deal to take me hostage? Twenty minutes later, we stopped at a hut. The soldier got out, tapped on my window and in a friendly voice offered me coffee. I declined, so we moved on leaving him behind.

Sensing my relief, my driver said to me, “Don’t worry. He is Muslim and I am Christian. But first, we are Lebanese.” This simple yet profound statement of unity encapsulated so many important lessons. First, implicit bias — attitudes and stereotypes that impact understanding — generated apprehension, prompting me to wonder if I was the subject of a negotiation. Secondly, I wondered why if deep-rooted political differences between Muslims and Christians of Lebanon could be transcended, why do antagonisms between Hindus and Muslims, Dalits and Brahmins persist back home?

As the world pivots toward a sharing economy (think of global enterprises such as Uber and Airbnb), global peace will stop being an ideal and become a necessity. We have been moving toward a decentralised sharing economy ever since the Internet, Napster music service, and p2p file sharing were invented in the 1990s. Now, as the Covid-19 pandemic has forced schools to close and deliver content digitally, we are experiencing decentralisation of knowledge as students are accessing multiple information and knowledge sources outside of conventional school environments.

This transition highlights the necessity of cultural education which can and must, be taught in schools to prepare students for a global future. Contemporary primary-secondary students first need to understand and identify with their own cultures — which I define as one’s system of beliefs, behaviours and values — and then become curious about other cultures. This can be done between religiously and socio-economically diverse student groups by using emergent new technologies.

In 2018, I founded Ravi Unites Schools, a network of schools worldwide whose classrooms engage in real-time audio-video interactions. Under this programme, I have matched poor high school students in India with rich peers in north-eastern USA, English speaking bilingual high school students in Chile with Spanish speaking bilingual peers in the US. The objective of this initiative is to develop cross-cultural competence and understanding across geographic boundaries and socio-economic divides.

In the new Internet era, the role of the teacher has changed. She is no longer the purveyor of information but a facilitator of experiential learning. Every classroom worldwide can initiate video pen-pal interactions across national boundaries. All that’s required is a network and logistics coordinator such as Ravi Unites Schools, which can help to connect them through social media. And every teacher can facilitate and supervise cultural interactions to make these experiences valuable.

Whole child education is important and necessary because that’s the way to arouse empathy, and nurturing empathy is the best way to create a peaceful world. The course I taught in Lebanon (as well as in Iraq and Indonesia) was song-writing, in which I purposefully brought together students from traditionally opposed cultures and religions to collaborate and write music together.

Millennials and Gen Z consume infinitely more music than their predecessors, and that’s why developing interest in the arts through education is more logical and necessary today than ever. Humanity is at a crossroads and greater cooperation and empathy should be nurtured at a time when children and youth are ripe for cross-cultural engagement. Educators including parents need to create forums for such engagement because it’s participants who make the magic in any collaborative and creative arts project.

Inter-cultural understanding and competence is critical for advancement, and for ensuring that the next generation transcends divisive religious, socio-economic, caste and gender boundaries. By exposing contemporary students to peers from different cultures, we can inspire tomorrow’s leaders to empower those below to rise above them.

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