Intercultural education may be viewed as an application of cultural anthropology to the design and implementation of formal educational curricula, largely in prebaccalaureate programs. Its goal is to instill in students an appreciation of other cultures so as to offset a dogmatic and unproductive ethnocentric worldview. In an interconnected world where the capability to deal effectively with cultural differences is a necessary skill, this is an admirable educational program, but one beset with challenges.
The Related Approaches of Anthropology and Multicultural Education
Intercultural education is somewhat distinct from both the teaching of anthropology and multicultural education for elementary and secondary students. An anthropology course, while it may achieve the same goal as intercultural education, is designed to describe the ideas and methods of social science, based largely on what anthropology has learned about human cultural variation, the origins of humanity, and the rise of civilization. In this, it is broader in scope and less focused on transforming students’ ethnocentric views. An anthropology course will spend most of its time describing the methods of anthropology, the fossil record and what inferences can be drawn from skeletal and artifact remains, and, more to the point of intercultural education, what anthropology has learned about cultural systems and the range of variation exhibited in these by societies around the world. A student may do well in such a course but not come to the transformational understanding required for intercultural education.
Intercultural education is not specifically tied to anthropology as a discipline, especially an anthropological approach that dispassionately presents a description of humanity. Rather, it seeks to persuade students that there is an inherent value in other cultures. In this regard, it may be imbedded in any course (e.g., English, language, social studies). The findings and conceptual approach of cultural anthropology may inform and guide it, in concert with allied fields such as sociology, speech communication, psychology, and world history, but may not be directly identified with it.
Intercultural education is also distinct from multicultural education, although it blends into and overlaps with it. Multicultural education focuses more on cultural pluralism within a nation and, in support of this, strives to present pedagogical materials from a variety of perspectives (by ethnicity, gender, social class, etc.). This is done in order to provide students of diverse backgrounds with materials that they can identify with and thereby gain some measure of ownership of their educational experience and close gaps in achievement.
Intercultural education is designed to create in students an improved world-view, one that includes an appreciation for the broad range of human cultural capability and expression. In other words, it is the educational application of the anthropological dictum that the members of all human groups possess an equivalent level of intellectual competence and a cultural system that is well formed and valid. This anthropological view of humanity is associated with two seminal orientations about how humans and human culture should be studied. These constitute the basis of an intercultural approach, as well as its challenges, in elementary and secondary education: a comparative approach to learning about humanity and the analytic skills to perceive practical and ideological value in other ways of life, or cultural relativism.
Comparative or Cross-Cultural Approach
Students may be told that humans are all equally capable, but an anthropological approach would hold that this conclusion must be supported by convincing accounts depicting humans of different cultures effectively dealing with appreciable challenges in their daily lives and environment. Selecting texts presents a challenge of combining the often mutually incompatible demands of interest (the materials should be written at an appropriate level and also be dramatically compelling to engage the willing involvement of the student) and validity (the materials must be reliable or realistic as to the relevant features of another culture). Anthropology carries the added burden in that much of what it describes about other cultures, such as forms of religion, marriage, and sexuality, may be considered unsuitable as instructional materials in elementary and secondary schools. For example, Margery Wolf’s readable account of a Taiwanese family (The House of Lim) necessarily includes accounts of prostitution, gambling, and arranged child marriage. The goal is to introduce students to other life ways, yet some of these will be problematic to students, and probably more so to their parents/ guardians. Educational curricula, especially in the United States, must meet community standards, and just as with the controversy over the teaching of evolution, pedagogical materials that present religious, marriage, and political systems of other cultures as explicitly valid (and, in effect, equivalent to corresponding local systems) may meet resistance.
Anthropology has long been familiar with case studies reasonably short ethnographies, used individually (e.g., the Holt, Rinehart & Winston series, Case Studies in Anthropology) or in readers (e.g., Service’s Profiles in Ethnology). However, these were designed for college courses and thus were in the realm of adult literature and may be unsuitable for grades below the last years of high school. There has been a substantial growth in texts about other peoples in the world designed for elementary and beginning secondary students, but these have not always managed to merge interest and realism. There has also been a substantial growth in visual materials dealing with other cultures, especially in educational television. Many of these productions have focused on the life experiences of youth, with the expectation that this is what will interest, and will be appropriate for, an elementary and early-secondary-school audience. The irony of the success of these materials is that while they may very well be absorbing and valid in their representation of younger people in other cultures, it is really the world of adults whose valid worldview and cultural practices international education must present in a convincing light.
Another issue in the preparation and selection of cultural descriptions is that of standardization. If one goal is to present the idea that different religious systems can provide equally satisfying ways of community worship and integration, then there must be a number of written and audiovisual materials that present religious beliefs and rituals in comparable ways. Students who are examining, for example, how forms of worship may support forms of subsistence should have access to works that provide sufficiently comparable descriptions of these aspects.
It is necessary, from an anthropological standpoint, that the effort to make the rest of the world valued must be vested in valid and reliable knowledge of other ways of being human. Gaining an effective and lifelong appreciation of other cultures has to be based on the sometimes unpleasant reality of different customs and not simply presented as simply a good and enlightened perspective. An intercultural education informed by anthropology must continue to locate and develop pedagogical materials that meet the challenge of explicating different cultural worlds.
The second anthropological contribution is cultural relativism. This is the analytic orientation that other, and especially quite different, cultural systems can be demonstrated as providing valid, productive, and satisfying ways of being human given the environmental and sociocultural situation of the society. An excellent set of comparative pedagogical materials by itself is not sufficient for the goals of intercultural education. A student may read or view a variety of ethnographic accounts and even enjoy and be stimulated by the experience, yet still be unconvinced that any of these represent valid human ways. It may even be the case that the degree of enjoyment at vicariously learning about “strange” ways is directly proportionate to the degree of certainty that these other practices are not only “strange” but abnormal.
Thus, the challenge is to place comparative materials in an instructional framework that provides students with the intellectual and affective ability to confront (not necessarily approve of and adopt) other cultural ways and then to understand that these may make sense. They have to be understood as possessing an appropriateness within a functioning cultural system that provides workable solutions for certain social and environmental problems and opportunities. This challenge may not be able to be overcome, at least within the confines of formal education. Achieving what has been referred to as “transspection,” the ability to convincingly project oneself into very different ways of thinking and behaving, seems overly utopian. This cognitive condition, it should be emphasized, is not being done by an assimilating immigrant to whom its success or failure has serious real-world consequences, but rather as a class project or homework assignment. Furthermore, intercultural education is not well served by a negative approach that implies that other cultures are successful simply by critically detailing the purported flaws of the national culture. Nor is it achieved when the world is depicted as made up of “good” societies (third-world or underdeveloped societies) or “bad” societies (industrialized first-world or powerful Western state systems). Rather, a convincing case must be presented that explains a rationale for another culture’s practices and ideology. Anthropology has often achieved this by placing another culture in its social and physical environment. Providing accounts of breast-feeding until the fourth or fifth year due in part to a protein-poor tropical environment, of sororal polygyny due to the importance of the cowife bond and a cooperative women’s work group, or of the prohibition on beef consumption in Hindu India due in part to the value of cattle dung have been staples of anthropological relativistic explanation. These and many others have to be presented effectively and convincingly in relation to the data that students obtain from their comparative materials in order for intercultural education to be successful.
Intercultural Education as a Luxury
Intercultural education may be viewed as luxury (even an irrelevance) compared to the acquisition of skills such as computation, literacy, citizenship, national culture, and subsistence/occupation technologies. It is important for the world’s great powers to include international training in the education of their future citizens, since many of them will be involved in programs that will impact other cultures. Yet the advantage may not be valued by nations for whom education struggles to provide primary schooling for its youth. Those newer nations striving to inculcate their youth in a national culture may fail to appreciate the usefulness of spending time and money on other cultures, especially when they have inherited curricula oriented toward the values of other, specifically European, cultures. Finally, ethnically heterogeneous nations may well conclude that it is crucially important to emphasize interethnic education (i.e., multicultural education) rather than with the world as a whole.
Intercultural education is a valuable application of anthropology. Yet as with many other attempts to improve humanity’s outlook on the human condition around the world, it faces many challenges.
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- Hoopes, D. S. (1980). Intercultural education. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.
- Lerner, E. (1994). Cultural conflicts: Case studies in a world of change. Portland, ME: J. Weston Walch.
- Social Science Education Consortium. (1972). A preliminary review of the intercultural dimension in international/intercultural education, Grade K-14 (Publication #156). Boulder, CO: Social Science Education Consortium.