Adaptability in face of cultural difference

7th July 2006 at 01:00
In a world being transformed by economic globalisation, mass migration and the "shock of civilisations", international schools should be at the forefront of the inter-cultural dialogue necessary for survival in the troubled world of the early 21st century.

The International School of Geneva now includes students of 133 nationalities who speak 98 mother tongues. I have to keep an atlas open on my desk to remind me where they all come from. There is no doubt that many of our students develop an openness of spirit and a respect for difference that is perhaps our main educational legacy.

It is not always easy. Given the range of views and backgrounds among our students, dealing with 911 and the outbreak of the Iraq war required skills of a high order. Only recently, a group of lower secondary students turned up to celebrate their country's national day wearing its army's uniform. It gave us an opportunity to get across key messages.

A school with people from many different backgrounds, and parents with different expectations, does not always agree on its curriculum or teaching methods. My own enthusiasm for the study of world religions, for example, is not shared by all of my colleagues. In addition, there are days when the cultural and educational gulf between our francophone and anglophone staff seems so insurmountable that the most we can do, as politely as possible, is to agree to differ.

Despite all this, I have come to feel that we are not necessarily at the real cutting edge of inter-cultural dialogue. We live in a peaceful city in a peaceful country, and many of our students come from relatively prosperous backgrounds, and have long experience of living in a tolerant environment.

It was against this background that I recently decided to spend a few days at International College in Beirut, a predominantly national Lebanese school with which my school has had teacher exchanges over the past three years. I wanted to see how a school in a divided society, educating children from all of Lebanon's very different communities, was tackling issues of inter-cultural dialogue in conditions much tougher than those that I was accustomed to.

I was enormously impressed. The school kept going throughout the Lebanese civil wars, with only minor interruptions, despite the fighting taking place all around. This is a school that has created a secular space in which students from all backgrounds can work and play together, putting to one side (though not abandoning) their separate identities, and developing mutual respect.

Like my own school, the school in Beirut is not without its challenges.

Although most students leave the school tri-lingual - learning Arabic, French and English - it is not always easy to persuade some francophone Lebanese Christian families to give Arabic the status that it deserves as the main national language. This is part of the country's French colonial legacy.

The school, like the country, has also not yet found ways of including the civil war in its humanities courses. That may not be surprising. My visit coincided with further Israeli air strikes on Palestinian refugee camps within Lebanon and this, together with a journey through the Hezbollah-controlled Beqaa Valley, made me realise how fragile the current peace potentially is. If peace is to be consolidated, it will be former students who help to bring it about.

Visiting Lebanon also allowed me to put into perspective our current preoccupation with educating young people to cope with a world of change.

The country has some of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in the world, such as Byblos, where there has been an urban settlement for 8,000 years. The area has experienced regimes run by Hittites, Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Turks, French, to name but a few. Coming to terms with cultural difference is hardly a novel issue.

I came home feeling that there are deep reserves of adaptability in ordinary people that some of our current change gurus may well have overlooked.

Nicholas Tate is director general of the International School of Geneva

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