By Carol Reid
Today we hear growing anti-Islamic slogans related to dress practices, religion and citizenship. Saying it is wrong to do this is only part of the struggle to resist this simple rhetoric. Examining why it is wrong might be marginally better, but where that leads us is often into a tricky path of us/them and a focus on difference. Better still might be a focus on the values of a civil, cosmopolitan society that we want to sustain.
While we have been a successful multicultural society this is often understood in demographic terms, in simple numbers. For others it means celebrating different ways of being – food, lifestyle, customs, dances, languages and so on. In education in particular, the approach has often failed to respond adequately to a fear of strangers. The approach has been called liberal plural multiculturalism, a celebration of difference, which is much better than assimilation but isn’t helping us deal with the global reach of ideas, instant communication of terror and increasing mobilities of people.
I argue, as do others in Europe, Canada and elsewhere who are thinking about new ways to live in this globalising world, that we need more than a return to the old model of multiculturalism. We need what has been called an ‘agonistic’ approach or cosmopolitan thinking (Todd, 2010), the idea that to deal with difference at a deeper level might mean that we don’t end up with consensus. We see this anyway in our election result, in the politics around Brexit in the UK and Trump in the USA. It is the way of the world, this expression of difference. But how do we live with it?
The model of multiculturalism we have built our success on was about one-way integration, helping people to integrate, recognising their unique languages and cultures while committing to the nation. In practice the mainstream culture did change, and has become what has been called everyday multiculturalism, but just under the surface there are cracks.
Our nation, Australia, like many other nations, is now more open, whether we like it or not, and thus the call for a return to closed borders, a singular national identity on the part of citizens, and backward-looking protectionism is not achievable. Just listen to the fallout of Brexit. Teachers know that young people in our classrooms come and go (Reid and Watson, 2016). They return to countries where relatives still live, and they come back. Connections are global. For Aboriginal students this has always been the case so in many ways they are our first cosmopolitans, transforming their lives through trade and mobility (Forte, 2010). They have done so through what has been called ‘cultural translation’ – comprehending, connecting and evaluating to create new ways of living (Papastergiadis, 2011).
What to do in schools then? The first step is to offer no recipes, no prescriptions about practice that remove the judgement of teachers in often complex situations. This also means that applying universal principles of what constitutes human rights might not be a simple thing to do. Applying and following rules without thinking leads to problems. Hannah Arendt has argued it was one explanation for the rise of fascism in Germany (Arendt, 1994 cited in Todd, 2010). Human rights, for example, can be about listening to all the explanations about why cultural practices are valued while accepting that some will be shared and others not. Appiah has called this being ‘partial cosmopolitans’ (2007). The point is that we cannot really know our students through a set of cultural attributes that are static because the practice of living is a dynamic process that teachers engage in every second of the day. This cannot be prescribed in professional knowledge lists as a set of competencies to be measured. It is practiced through the development of reflexivity; the idea that all our viewpoints are culturally conditioned, yet keeping an eye on inequality.
A call to a set of rules about how to live, such as those currently being trumpeted across the globe, are a reflection of where we are today. It is a wakeup call for those of us involved in teacher education to engage with how teachers’ judgement is being taken away with increasing lists of competencies. Facing the complexities of the world we live in will require more than rules. It will require a cosmopolitan disposition and thinking.
Appiah, A. (2007). Cosmopolitanism: ethics in a world of strangers. New York London W. W. Norton.
Arendt, H. (1994) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York. Harcourt.
Forte, M. C. (Ed.). (2010). Indigenous Cosmopolitans: Transnational and Transcultural Indigeneity in the Twenty-First Century (First ed.). New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.
Papastergiadis, N. (2011). Cultural translation and cosmopolitanism. In K. Jacobs & J. Malpas (Eds.), Ocean to outback: cosmopolitanism in contemporary Australia (pp. 68-95). Crawley, W.A.: UWA Pub.
Reid, C. & Watson, K. (2016). Compulsory schooling in Australia : perspectives from students, parents, and educators. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Todd, S. (2010). Living in a Dissonant World: Toward an Agonistic Cosmopolitics for Education. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 29(2), 213-228.