Sing it, sister

22 May

Intercultural education… represents one of the essential guidelines for defining the quality of our future, to the extent that the interaction between cultures is not only a political issue, but above all a cultural and cognitive issue.

–Professor Carlina Rinaldi, 2000

I scooped this quote from a colleague’s blog ( and just want to unpack it, at risk of singing my same old song again.

Intercultural education (variously also called multicultural education, social justice education and cultural competence education) refers to the intentional practice of those understandings, habits of heart and mind, and skills that help us to learn more deeply and enduringly by cultivating:

  • awareness of self (including one’s cultural frames of reference),
  • presumption of diversity in any engagement with another person or group,
  • recognition of cultural and systemic inequities that privilege some identities over others, and
  • discernment and capacity to effect social change for the mutual benefit of self and community.

… At least that’s one definition I use.

What Rinaldi points out is that while this educational framework, which is rooted in helping kids learn better, is certainly political (see all the debates over academic rigor “versus” multicultural/social justice/intercultural/cultural competence education), it is inherently cultural and cognitive, too.

The very debate over intercultural education is an example of how “the interaction between cultures” is cultural: having to name education as “intercultural” at all is indicative of the normative culture within which this movement is taking place. There is only “intercultural education” because something precedes it, which we refer to simply as “education.” And just like “intercultural education,” this plain old, needs-no-introduction “education” has a particular pedagogy, bias and relationship to other schools of learning and teaching. Yet “education”s position is unique in that its biases are so ingrained in us that they are virtually unapparent. Thus, “education” needs no introduction, no case to be made for it: it is simply the standard, the norm. And “education” gets to be right until an upstart unseats it (and becomes the new generic “education”). Because the forms that education can take are themselves cultural constructs, it is vital that in the debate over different schools of education, we practice precisely those understandings, skills and habits of heart and mind that intercultural education is based on. (I realize that’s circular logic, but I’m willing to stand by it.)

As for cognition, stereotype threat and its effects on learning and educational outcomes (Steele) evidence how “the interaction between cultures” is a critical cognitive issue. At the very minimum, in any learning instance, a student must engage the culture of the teacher and the culture of their subject of study (and sometimes, these coincide). An identification with negative stereotypes in either/both of these cultures does not predict student performance but does consistently correlate with additional physiological and intellectual stress. The energy that a student must divert to managing stereotype threat comes at a cost to their primary task of learning, no matter the outcome on paper. Steele’s research suggests that education that denies any cultural aspect and ramifications of the learning-teaching transaction will continue to lose and shut down students. And not all students equally, but particularly and disproportionately those students who identify and are identified outside the dominant culture that defines our generic friend “education”: among them, brown and black boys, girls in the STEM disciplines and students whose learning styles are disabled in traditional classrooms.

Bringing our cognitive faculties to bear on the understanding of culture and cultural interactions (which is at the heart of intercultural education) can not only minimize stereotype threat, it can empower us to unleash the learning and teaching potential of every individual by integrating, rather than stripping them of, the cultural frameworks through which we understand ourselves, the world and each other. All of this suggests that the interaction between cultures is not only political, cultural and cognitive, but whole-person educational, as well.


** Thanks to CT for his blog and collegiality.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: