On education and intercultural understanding

By Ken Corn (teacher, United States, AC) and Lodewijk van Oord (teacher, Netherlands, AC)



Amidst the burgeoning literature on the role of culture in human affairs, it is possible to identify a dominant perspective which appears to accept the inevitability of cultural difference in the realm of human thought and behaviour. Within this view, cultural heritage plays such a decisive role in our thought and action that it determines the boundaries of the imaginable. In organisational and educational studies, this approach is often associated with the popular work of Geert Hofstede, whose multi-dimensional model has been used extensively as a framework for cultural case studies.


Within this mapping of culture, ‘intercultural understanding’ facilitates the bridging of the gaps between relatively isolated cultural islands. Fostering such intercultural understanding has often been adopted, in itself, as a noble and worthwhile goal of international education. The Fourth Biennial Alliance for International Education conference held in Istanbul, Turkey in October 2008, for instance, took as its theme, International Education: A Bridge to Intercultural Understanding. The building of bridges is a pleasant and convenient metaphor in education; a vivid image of what genuine intercultural understanding might be able to do. It is a metaphor that is hard to disagree with, and even harder to refute, yet this image can be constricting by its necessarily binary nature.


In this short paper we argue that this dominant perspective towards ‘culture’ is too limited to be effectively utilised by educators with an overtly internationalist agenda. We hope to untie culture from its essentialist and stereotypical shackles, and move towards a more profound understanding of how to approach human difference. As we will argue, helping students to discover their multiple group allegiances and how pluralistic and permeable identities can be, will prove a more fertile breeding ground for genuine human understanding, as opposed to a deterministic focus on reductive impositions of ‘culture’.


The bridging model of intercultural understanding

Hofstede (1994: 5) defines culture as ‘the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category from another.’ Key to this definition is the concept that culture functions as the main determinant of difference. Members of a culture share their mental software, Hofstede argues, and this mental programming determines their values and attitudes. These inherent programmes are largely static and deeply embedded in a particular society.


Embedded in this perception of what culture is, and how cultural differences can be understood, we can find ‘intercultural understanding’ as the bridging mechanism across the divide that naturally exists between homogenous and relatively static cultural entities. The underpinning assumption beneath this model of intercultural understanding is that one needs to ‘construct’ a bridge over towards someone else’s culture in order to effectively communicate with that individual.  In other words, in order to fully understand a member of another cultural community, one first needs to sufficiently understand one’s own culture whereby a firm base can be laid down, and then be prepared to cross the gap in order to learn about the other culture before one can effectively understand ‘the other’ who inhabits this foreign cultural space. As Hofstede (1994: 238) explains:


The basic skill for survival in a multicultural world … is understanding first of one’s own cultural values (and that is why one needs a cultural identity of one’s own) and next the cultural values of the other with whom one has to communicate.


Those who support this reductive perspective argue that we should not be too optimistic about the possibility of genuine intercultural understanding. A particularly pessimistic view is for instance expressed by Theo Harden (cited in Bredella, 2003: 31), who writes:


[The learner] has to be able to draw the line exactly where ‘understanding’ becomes a threat to his/her identity. Instead of creating the illusion that it is possible to ‘understand’ a foreign culture it is therefore probably wiser to prepare the learner for the difficult position of the respected outsider, who, no matter how much he/she might try, will never fully ‘understand’ and will never be fully ‘understood’.


The Irish playwright, Brian Friel more poetically expresses this idea in his play, Translations (1981), as Lieutenant George Yolland bemoans the seemingly incontrovertible fact that:


Even if I did speak Irish I’d always be an outsider here, wouldn’t I? I may learn the password but the language of the tribe would always elude me, won’t it? The private core will always be (…) hermetic, won’t it?


What these citations leave us with is a perception of culture as sealed and isolated; found within geographically specified communities bound together by essentialist elements. The assumption is that all the members of a particular cultural community have something fundamental in common, and that this quality is highly influential in determining their actions and behaviours. This essential element can never be fully grasped by ‘outsiders’, who might be treated with respect, but can never be fully integrated into that other culture.


Cultures as incorrigibly plural

One of the strongest critiques of the essentialist and reductive notion of culture was postulated by Edward Said. Said (1994: 408) recognised and accepted the existence of cultural difference, but argued that our overriding humanity can prove to be a far greater determining factor when contemplating our identities and allegiances:


No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about.


What the essentialist notion of culture ignores is the fact that cultures are rather amorphous and protean constructions. In addition, the relationship between the individual and his or her cultural surroundings is less static and deterministic than Hofstede and his supporters would have us believe. This idea of cultural multiplicity is encapsulated in the following comment by Amin Maalouf (2000: 21):


No doubt a Serb is different from a Croat, but every Serb is also different from every other Serb, and every Croat is different from every other Croat. And if a Lebanese Christian is different from a Lebanese Muslim, I don’t know any two Lebanese Christians who are identical, nor any two Muslims, any more than there are anywhere in the world two Frenchmen, two Africans, two Arabs or two Jews who are identical.


In his novel Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie (1981: 108) asserts the complexity of every individual as follows:


How many things people notions we bring with us into the world, how many possibilities and also restrictions of possibility! (…) To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.


Both Maalouf and Rushdie make it vividly clear to us that the complexity of human relations cannot be explained alone by a narrow interpretation of culture. Their understanding of human diversity is similar to the views of scholars such as Kwame Anthony Appiah and Amartya Sen. Appiah (2005: 117) argues that the human differences that we seem to be obsessed with are ‘really a matter not so much of cultures as of identities’. Building upon this idea of the importance of identity, Sen (2006: 19) demonstrates how our multiple identities foster a multiplicity of allegiances, of which culture is often only one:


There are a great variety of categories to which we simultaneously belong. I can be, at the same time, an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with a Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident, an economist, a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a non-religious lifestyle, from a Hindu background (…). This is just a small sample of the diverse categories to which I may simultaneously belong.


Due to these multiple identities and their subsequent allegiances, the extent of heterogeneity within what is taken to be one culture is often underestimated: ‘Discordant voices are often “internal,” rather than coming from the outside’ (Sen 2006: 112-113). This turns cultures into ‘incorrigibly plural’ entities, to borrow a pithy epithet from the Northern Irish poet Louis MacNeice’s poem Snow.


Identity and cosmopolitan learning

Sen’s focus on our multiple identities and allegiances and the notion of cultures as ‘incorrigibly plural’ open up numerous avenues for the articulation and pedagogical approaches towards human difference in international schools. Allowing students to map their multiple identities, allegiances and affiliations can be a rewarding and insightful learning experience. Students can be asked to write down and share their narratives of how their allegiances have shifted under changing conditions and life experiences. Exercises such as these can lead to transformative learning experiences. What students learn from this is what they most probably already knew intuitively:  That individuals are members of multiple groups, and that the pinning down of people to single and unchangeable group membership is more likely to create confusion than to foster understanding. As Sen (2006: xii) puts it: ‘A solitarist approach can be a good way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world.’


In addition, the identity-approach offers possibilities to explore human diversity in terms of their inter-relations beyond their mere differences. This perspective is advocated by Fazal Rizvi (2006: 32), who writes:


The notion of a pure culture, located within its own territory, has always been a myth because all cultures result from their encounters with others. If this is so, then, relationality must be regarded as crucial for any attempt to internationalise curriculum through cosmopolitan learning.


We believe that the identity-approach to culture and cultural differences insists upon the development of an educational agenda which can be implemented by educators with an overtly cosmopolitan worldview. The underlying assumption of this perspective is that our ‘many-cultured world’ now consists of ‘many-cultured societies’ consisting of ‘many-cultured individuals’ and their numerous, at times culture-related, allegiances and affiliations. The pressure and influence of these allegiances and affiliations form a person’s social identity – an amorphous and protean sense of who one is and where one stands in relation to the social world.


Cultural heritage certainly plays a role in this formulation of identity; a role which is bigger for some than for others. The assertion that people are more and more ‘many-cultured’ assumes a wide-ranging variety of difference. People are not only different from each other; groups of people are also different from other groups of people. These differences change under a continuing process of cross-fertilization and intergroup encounters. This fluid construction of identity is always a dynamic rather than a static process.


This perspective on culture and identity needs to be taught with a sense of some urgency and deep conviction. This is a difficult endeavour, and we realise that the idea of amorphous identities has been challenged in the post-9/11 world. Sadly, our era seems to have little time for nuance and ambiguity, and the simplistic, reductive sloganeering epitomised by the assertion that, ‘you’re either with us, or against us’ holds a certain sway in a time of limited attention spans and the need for immediate gratification, even perhaps in the realm of education.  Hopefully, with a newly installed administration in Washington, which wears its multiplicity of identity as a badge of honour, this may well be changing, but there are many that seek to undermine such optimism.


It is for this reason that cosmopolitan educators need to voice their alternative perspective explicitly and repeatedly. We must all actively embrace the plural, both within ourselves and with all those that we encounter as educators. If we don’t, others will proscribe an alternative, negative agenda and manipulate simplistic divisions for their own ends. We need to take heed of the warning implicit in W.B. Yeats’ powerful poem, The Second Coming as he reminds us that too often:


The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.


It is beholden upon us as international educators to express our own ‘passionate intensity’ as we strive to embrace that which is ‘incorrigibly plural’ within all cultures.



This paper was presented at the Fourth Alliance for International Education conference held in Istanbul, Turkey 26-28 October 2008. We acknowledge Darlene Fisher and the strand participants for their thoughtful questions and remarks.


Ken Corn is teacher of English and Theory of Knowledge and Academic Staff Coordinator at the United World College of the Atlantic, Wales. Email: ken.corn@atlanticcollege.org

Lodewijk van Oord is teacher of Middle Eastern History and Peace & Conflict Studies at the United World College of the Atlantic, Wales. Email: vanoord@atlanticcollege.org



Appiah, K. A. (2005) The Ethics of Identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Bredella, L. (2003) For a flexible model of intercultural understanding, in: Alred, G., Byram, M. and Fleming, M. (eds), Intercultural Experience and Education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.


Friel, B. (1981) Translations. London: Faber and Faber


Hofstede, G. (1994) Culture and Organisations: Software of the Mind. London:  HarperCollinsBusiness.


Maalouf, A. (2000) In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. London: Penguin Books.


Rizvi. F. (2006) Epistemic virtues and cosmopolitan learning. The Australian Educational Researcher 35(1): 17-35.


Rushdie, S. (1981) Midnight’s ChildrenLondon: Vintage.


Said, E. (1994) Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage.


Sen, A. (2006) Identity and violence: The Illusion of Destiny. London: Allen Lane.



– United World College Student Magazine –


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