The possibilities and limits of intercultural education in and for South Africa

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Abstract

Recent and current events in the global political landscape (such as the withdrawal of the United States of America’s armed forces from Afghanistan) provide grounds for concluding that even the strongest military and financial-economic world powers, albeit based on appeals to the Creed of Human Rights, cannot ensure the triumph of democracy and a free economy, at least as these ideas have been defined by the West. Military force, economic power and moral authority having failed in many parts of the world, education remains a possible means for improving people’s circumstances around the world. Internationally, among other things through the work of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), interculturalism and intercultural education as its educational counterpart have in recent times been embraced in the place of multiculturalism and multicultural education. Interculturalism has recently been widely proclaimed as the most appropriate response for coming to terms with the challenges of a culturally diverse world. Despite this turn of events, this development has so far not been reflected in the public and academic discourse on education and in education policymaking in South Africa. The purpose of this article is to provide tentative answers to the following questions that arise in view of this hiatus in the South African educational discourse: How have interculturalism and intercultural education internationally been conceptualised, and how have they unfolded? How and to what extent has the conceptualisation thereof been shaped by societal forces and ecologies in other parts of the world? And what are the possibilities and limitations thereof in the South African cultural and socio-political context?

This position paper is based on an examination of primary and secondary sources regarding education and cultural diversity, internationally and in South Africa. The methods of history of education and comparative and international education are employed to arrive at tentative answers to the questions posed above. (The article itself contains a more detailed explanation of how these methods were implemented in searching for answers of this nature.)

Multiculturalism and multicultural education emerged during the last quarter of the 20th century in response to major socio-political changes, especially in Western countries. By the early 21st century, however, this pedagogical approach to the increasing levels of diversity in the world no longer provided an adequate response to the challenges of the time. The essentialist view of culture embodied in the notion “multicultural education” had by that time been deemed to be problematic in a world characterised by hyperdiversity, hybrid identities and transculturalism. Socio-political developments in the early decades of the 21st century, brought to a head by the 9/11 catastrophe, made educators and educationists realise that the late-20th-century postmodern attitude, leading to an uncritical and unqualified acceptance of cultural and other forms of diversity and to a casual acceptance of differences among people and their cultures, had to be counterbalanced by an approach seeking to create greater consensus and cohesion among all these centripetal cultural, social and political forces.

As a response to this challenge, interculturalism and intercultural education emerged. Interculturalism has been found to rise to the challenge in four ways, according to Markou (1997). It promotes:

  • education in empathy, that is, the idea of a deep understanding of others, of putting oneself in their situation;
  • education in solidarity, that is, the idea of cultivating a collective conscience for the promotion of social justice;
  • education centred on intercultural respect; and
  • education that stimulates ethical thinking and dialogue.

The following seminal publications and events can be regarded as milestones in the development of interculturalism and intercultural education: Charles Taylor (1992), Bhikhu Parekh (2000), the United Nations’ 2001 as the Year of Dialogue among Civilisations campaign, the UNESCO summit in Rabat (Morocco, 14−6 June 2005), the Rabat Declaration on Dialogue between Cultures and Civilisations (UNESCO 2005) and the European Union’s Year of Intercultural Dialogue in 2008, the same year in which the White Paper on Intercultural Education of the Council of Europe (2008) was released. In each of the three world regions where intercultural education has developed so far, namely Western Europe, North America and Latin America, it has taken a different shape contingent upon the specific societal and cultural context. In North America, its focus has fallen on the intercultural relations between the population of European descent and that of African descent – those from a more distant past and those from a variety of origins in the more recent past (recent immigrants). In Europe, interculturalism has been revolving around relations among the various indigenous cultural groups within the European Union, and also, though to a lesser extent, the relations between these European groups and recent immigrants. In Latin America, the main drive of interculturalism and intercultural education has been the empowerment of the First Nation people – the indigenous population.

Intercultural education has recorded both successes and shortcomings. Despite several empirically proven successes, it has also alerted educationists to the possibility of asymmetrical power relations preventing truly open discussions among different cultural groups. Asymmetrical power relations, especially in a North-South dialogue, may render intercultural education open to the criticism that it is mainly intent on advancing the interests of the Global North and tends to neglect those of the Global South. The second problem with interculturalism and intercultural education is, as with all approaches to education, a perceived gap between policy and practice. The potential of intercultural education to attain the objectives of interculturalism in society is also limited due to the complexity and indeterminate condition of society and education.

In South Africa, the cultural mosaic, the constant threat of political and socio-cultural polarisation, the lack of social capital and social cohesion and the presence of a number of other contextual conditions all point to the need for intercultural dialogue and, in particular, intercultural education. The South African society, its education project and its public and academic discourse on education have opted for a different approach, however, namely to proceed from post-apartheid desegregation via multiculturalism towards decolonisation and decolonised education. This paper argues that intercultural education may be a more promising course to follow than a drive towards decolonisation, in general, and decolonised education in particular. A number of pre-preconditions will have to be met for interculturalism and intercultural education to flourish: an intercultural education programme for South Africa should be tailored in accordance with the South African socio-cultural context, and educational institutions, such as schools and universities, should become spaces where students and teachers feel safe and willing to participate in a free and open intercultural discourse with others from widely different cultural backgrounds.

Keywords: comparative and international education; decolonisation of education; diversity; intercultural education; interculturalism; multicultural education; multiculturalism

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Die moontlikhede en beperkinge van interkulturele onderwys in en vir Suid-Afrika

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