Life lessons and multicultural liberty

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Media coverage of the United Nations tends to focus on its involvement in political crises and its attempts, and more often than not failures, to keep the peace.

Living in a school community in Geneva closely linked to the UN makes one realise how this is but the tip of the iceberg of a vast amount of highly-intelligent unpublicised activity aimed at making the world a better place.

How many people, for example, have heard of the annual global reports of the United Nations Development Programme? The recently-published 2004 report, on Cultural Liberty, is full of wise, balanced insights relevant to any education system trying to come to terms with issues of national identity and cultural diversity.

The report is firm on the need not to tolerate cultural traditions disrespectful of human rights. It sees the importance of maintaining the unity of nation states. At the same time, it stresses people's rights to diversity and the huge benefits that arise from cultural liberty and the recognition of multiple identities.

There are many lessons in this report for schools like mine with 119 nationalities and 85 mother tongues. More and more major cities around the world have schools of this kind. The UNDP report cites Toronto, where 50 per cent of the population was born outside Canada.

Where schools in such cities draw on families from poorer backgrounds and on refugee communities, the cultural diversity can be even greater than in fee-paying international schools, catering as many of these do for a highly multi-ethnic but often more homogeneous elite.

Teaching pupils whose family backgrounds, countries of origin and countries of residence may all be multicultural both poses a major challenge, and provides massive opportunities, for educators.

When the International Baccalaureate was developed at the International School of Geneva in the 1960s, its aim was to provide an appropriate education for schools operating outside national education systems. Given the growing recognition of cultural diversity within some of these systems, it is hardly surprising that the take-up of the IB now extends far beyond its original target audience.

There is a fundamental difference, however, between an international school and a school operating within a national education system. What distinguishes schools within national education systems is that, whatever their student population, they must start from the basis that they are educating their pupils for life and future citizenship within the national community. They need to give priority to the national language or languages, and to the literature, history and culture, in all its diversity, of the nation state they are in. This gives them a different mission from international schools.

International schools, by contrast, are much more clearly centred on the development of world citizenship, global awareness and intercultural understanding. While these values are not unimportant in national schools - they are crucially important for all young people - they should be at the heart of an international school's curriculum.

The mission of international schools is to focus on the whole world and its multiplicity of cultures, on world history, and on contemporary global issues.

Schools in national education systems have other priorities. There are some nation states where the overwhelming need is for an education system that promotes a greater sense of belonging to a wider global community. There are others where the role of the education system is above all to change an ethnic sense of identity into a civic one.

There are still others where the main need is to promote a sense of common purpose within the nation state itself and where the promotion of greater openness towards the outside world will only come about as a result of a stronger commitment to one's national community.

As the UNDP report reminds us, there are no simple solutions and no universal models, but there are lessons that can be learned if only we are able to step outside our immediate concerns and open our eyes to what is happening elsewhere in the world.

Nicholas Tate is director-general of the International School of Geneva

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