Education for a multicultural world (Rodolfo Stavenhagen)

The challenges to education are great in a world which is increasingly multicultural. As the process of globalization becomes a more immediate reality for the planet’s population, so also comes the realization that ‘my neighbour may no longer be like me’.

For many people, this may come as a shock because it challenges traditional stable visions of neighbourhood, community and nation; it questions long-established ways of relating to one’s fellow human beings and it turns ethnic diversity into the stuff of everyday life.

On the one hand, economic globalization brings the producers and the consumers of different continents and regions into functional relationship with each other.

Today’s global corporations are organized in such a fashion that a single product may contain parts made in dozens of factories in as many different countries. The managers and employees of these giant firms often spend more time shuttling
between countries than they do at home with family and friends, rather like the soldiers of fortune of olden times. It would be disingenuous to believe that the current restructuring of the world’s economic relations has no effect on the personal
attitudes and values of everybody involved – from the unskilled worker in an assembly line in a poor nation to the consumer of a product which says on a tag that it was ‘Made in . . .’ a faraway country.

On the other hand, the rapid expansion of communications networks, especially the audiovisual media, has brought what used to be considered unrelated events in faraway places into the intimate space of millions of homes from metropolitan neighbourhoods to urban slums to remote villages. The exotic is no longer distant and the distant becomes ever more familiar. To the extent that the cultural industries promote the lifestyles of the Western, urbanindustrial, middle-class sectors by way of satellite dishes and video stores, the multicultural world draws closer together, and the cultural values of those lifestyles become, as it were, international standards against which local populations (particularly the young)  measure their achievements and aspirations.

The counterpoint to globalization is reflected in the massive movements of populations across international borders. Whereas in earlier times colonial settlers spread out from Europe into the so-called undeveloped areas, in recent decades
millions upon millions of migrant workers and their families have flocked into the industrial heartlands of Europe and North America from all over the former colonies and the economic periphery, in search of better livelihoods and, frequently, to escape oppressive political and social conditions as well. Even as the former industrial economies are in fact ‘de-industrializing’ and exporting many of their manufacturing operations abroad, massive migrations of culturally diverse peoples from Third World countries impose increasing strains on traditional labour markets and the social fabric
of the host countries.

Most modern nation-states are organized on the assumption that they are, or should be, culturally homogeneous. That is the essence of modern ‘nationhood’, upon which contemporary statehood and citizenship are founded. No matter that in most cases the facts differ from the model; nowadays, mono-ethnic states are the exception rather than the rule. But the idea of the mono-ethnic, culturally homogeneous nation has been used more often than not to disguise the fact that such states are more adequately described as ethnocratic, that is, where a single majority or dominant ethnic group manages to impose its own vision of ‘nationhood’ upon the rest of society. In such circumstances, ethnic groups that do not conform to the dominant model are treated as ‘minorities’, not only numerically, but mainly in sociological and political terms. This contradiction leads not infrequently to social tensions and conflicts that have escalated in recent years in a number of countries. Indeed, many of the current ethnic conflicts in the world can be traced to the problems inherent in
the way the modern nation-state manages ethnic diversity within its borders.

Those problems are directly reflected in the social, cultural and educational policies adopted by states with regard to the various peoples, nations and ethnic groups that live within their borders. One of the most important roles assigned to
formal schooling in many countries has been to fashion good, law-abiding citizens who will share a single national identity and who will be loyal to the nation-state.

Whilst this no doubt served a noble purpose, and may even have been necessary in certain historical circumstances, it also led in many instances to the marginalization and even the destruction of numerous ethnically distinct peoples whose cultures, religions, languages, beliefs or ways of life did not conform to the so-called national ideal.

Religious, linguistic and national minorities, as well as indigenous and tribal peoples were often subordinated, sometimes forcefully and against their will, to the interests of the state and the dominant society. While many people thus acquired a new identity and national consciousness (particularly emigrants to new shores), others had to discard their own cultures, languages, religions and traditions, and adapt to the alien norms and customs that were consolidated and reproduced
through national institutions, including the education and legal systems.

In many countries there are tensions between the purposes and requirements of a ‘national’ system of education, and the values, interests and aspirations of culturally distinct peoples. At the same time, in an increasingly interdependent world,
conflicting tendencies pull in different directions: on the one hand, the trend toward national homogenization and world uniformization; on the other, the search for roots, community and distinctiveness, which for some can only be found by strengthening local and regional identities, and keeping a healthy distance from the ‘others’, who are sometimes perceived as threatening.

Such a complex situation represents a challenge to the education system and to state-sponsored cultural policies, as well as to the functioning of market mechanisms in (among others) the fields of communications and entertainment, those vast
networks in which global cultural industries call the shots. In recent years, traditional educational policies based on the premise of a single national culture have come under increasing critical scrutiny. More and more states not only tolerate expressions of cultural diversity but now recognize that instead of being an obstacle to be overcome, multicultural and pluri-ethnic populations are the true mainstays of democratic social integration. Education in the twenty-first century must come to grips with that challenge, and education systems (in the widest possible sense) must be flexible and
imaginative enough to be able to strike a creative balance between the two structural tendencies mentioned above.
A truly multicultural education will be one that can address simultaneously the requirements of global and national integration, and the specific needs of particular culturally distinct communities, both in rural and urban settings. It will lead to an awareness of diversity and to respect for others, whether those others are my nextdoor neighbours, workers in the field, or my fellow human beings in a faraway country. To achieve such a truly pluralistic education it will be necessary to rethink the objectives of what it means to educate and be educated; to remodel the contents and the curricula of formal schooling institutions; to develop new teaching skills and educational methods; and to stimulate the emergence of new
generations of teachers/learners. A truly pluralistic education is based on a philosophy of humanistic pluralism. This is an ethos that prizes the social realities of cultural pluralism. The values of humanistic and cultural pluralism that are
necessary to inspire such educational transformation are sometimes lacking; they must be generated in the educational process itself and will in turn be strengthened by it.

Many observers, however, have serious doubts about cultural pluralism and its expression in multicultural education. While paying lip service to cultural diversity (which can hardly be denied in today’s world), they nevertheless question the
wisdom of furthering diversity through education. They fear that this may lead to the crystallization of separate identities, the strengthening of ethnocentrism, the proliferation of ethnic animosities and, finally, to the disintegration of existing nation-states. There are certainly many current examples of e x a g g e rated ethnic nationalisms leading to political separatism and societal breakdown, not to mention genocidal massacres and hate-filled ethnic cleansings. Yet
ethnic diversity cannot be wished away and it is unrealistic to blame multiculturalist policies for the numerous conflicts that in many instances arise precisely because ethnic diversity goes unrecognized or is suppressed.

The criticism of multiculturalism (and the term means different things in different contexts) may come from ethnic nationalists who feel that the ‘essence’ of their nation is being undermined by foreign elements (immigrants, culturally differe n t i a t e d minorities). But it may also come from concerned liberals who want to build the ‘civic’ nation in which every single individual has the same worth as any other, regardless of race, language, nationality, religion or culture. They feel that by emphasizing cultural or ethnic distinctions, borders and walls are erected between otherwise equal – if not
always identical – human beings. It is only through education tending toward a truly civic culture to be shared by all that differences will cease to beget inequalities and distinctiveness will no longer generate enmity. In such a world view, ethnic identities will belong to the purely private domain (like religion in the modern secular state), and should be of no concern to public policies.

While that is surely a worthy vision, we see all around us that ethnic groups do mobilize around cultural symbols and beliefs, and that education systems are in fact at stake in today’s ‘cultural wars’. Whether such struggles are deeply embedded in the collective psyche (as some would hold) or are simply manipulated by opportunistic ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’ (as others might argue), it is not by relegating them to the backroom that democratic, humanistic values can be fostered. Surely the world in the twenty-first century is mature enough to know how to foster a democratic civic culture, based on individual human rights, and to encourage at the same time mutual respect for the culture of others, based on the recognition of the collective human rights of all peoples around the world, great or small, each as deserving as
every other.

This is the challenge that must be met by education in the twenty-first century.


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