. International Relations and the Classroom | London Progressive Journal
A non-partisan journal of the left.

International Relations and the Classroom

Sat 17th Aug 2013

We in Britain are often subject to the age old criticism of being insular and self engrossed. Whereas this is not strictly speaking true, there is an element of truth in this belief. Such an attitude was probably exemplified by the newspaper headline when there were heavy storms in the English Channel: “Europe cut off”.

The British have always delighted in patronising foreigners as a rather odd species – bearing a passing resemblance to us, but not quite like us. Samuel Johnson said that the more he got to know France the more he got to be satisfied with his own country – a fairly typical British response to foreign lands. But then, a person of any nationality anywhere in the world would say exactly the same thing about his/her country whilst abroad. A Palestinian friend of mine, whilst sitting in a grand old British manor house, told me that he could not wait to get back home to Gaza. I am ashamed to say that I was a trifle surprised that anyone wanted to be in Gaza after being in such a magnificent country house. But then, for a short while, I was seduced by the glorious library we sat in with its wall to wall leather bound volumes. I momentarily forgot the wonderful Palestinian landscape.

Having said this, all of those little comments made by the British about foreigners are always uttered tongue in cheek and usually with no malice. Malicious or not, we do have a rather incomplete understanding of other nations, their lives, their cultures as well as the great deal that they actually have in common with us. Being Anglocentric is a consequence of a highly successful Empire that spread Anglophilia and Anglophobia far and wide. The Empire’s greatest success was, of course, the English language, now virtually an international language understood by the overwhelming majority of the world’s growing population.

Our education system does a great deal to try to broaden students’ views of other nations and cultures. Amongst current trends are curriculum components aimed at understanding world faiths and their practices, encouraging an understanding and empathy for British cultural diversity and studying the geography and history of other countries. Occasionally, the curriculum includes some knowledge of the impact of other civilisations on our civilisation. For example an enlightened mathematics teacher would remind his students that algebra was a product of Islam, a science teacher might mention that chemistry comes from an Arabic word because that was where the science was born. The list of inventions and scholarly research coming from Greek, Roman and Muslim peoples is endless. However, such acknowledgements are rare because the majority of British teachers themselves have little knowledge of the Greek, Roman and Islamic Empires.

In as far as they go, these curriculum components are useful. They give the student a view of ‘otherness’ that is not available elsewhere in the curriculum. However, they do have two major drawbacks. Firstly, they tend to be tagged onto the curriculum in any which way rather than being studies in their own right. Secondly, and much more importantly, they tend to stereotype the ‘other’ in a way that is, at best patronising and, at worse, racist.

I was recently invited by my local constabulary and by community representatives to attend an event during which I was exhorted “to dance, eat and listen to music from other cultures”. As I have always done, I politely declined the invitation. I gave some acceptable reason of a prior commitment. But my real reason was that of extreme irritation at the representation of other cultures through dance, food and music. Such an event, I felt, turned the particular cultures represented as being made up of one dimensional people whose existence was, presumably, predicated on “dancing, eating and making music”.

Only once did I make the mistake of attending a huge Chinese New Year event in Salisbury involving seven hundred school children. Imagine my horror when I arrived and found hundreds of children dressed in colourful gowns (presumably Chinese people always dress up in discarded curtain materials), shuffling awkwardly (presumably because all Chinese people have their feet bound), smiling inanely through shoe lace moustaches dangling on either side of their mouths (presumably all Chinese men – and maybe women for all I know – have long thin drooping moustaches) and generally drinking ghastly drinks out of bottles with lizards in them. The organiser approached me to ask me reproachfully why I was not dressed as a “Chinaman”. I said that I was a Chinese businessman on a trading visit to New York hence my uncomfortable suit, my phallic symbol of a tie and tight shirt strangling the life out of me. I suggested that our next event should be a British evening during which we should all come dressed as druids, Scottish clansmen, Morris dancers, Christian fundamentalists (they have huge crosses on their shoulders and across their chests) and gypsies selling lucky heather and casting curses at everyone who refuses to buy. Needless to say, the organisers omitted to invite me to the next Chinese New Year. Next morning, the local paper ran a story of “satanic goings on” at the event objected to by local Christian evangelists. I personally did not know who was more offensive: the organisers of the Chinese event with its implied insult to a Chinese culture, the press with their headlines or the so-called Christian racists who objected to harmless theatrical activities.

You would have thought that the organisers would have given up. Nothing of the sort. A few weeks later they had a similar even to celebrate Diwali. Thankfully, I was not invited so I could not regale my readers with whatever horrors appeared at the event.

This is but one example of the stereotyping of other nations and cultures through well intentioned education. The damage that these experiences do is incalculable for, not only are they stereotyping others, they are also focusing on differences when we human beings have infinitely more in common than we do differences.

How can schools ensure that students gain an understanding of international relations between peoples of the world?

There are many ways that this could be done. Clearly, what we do now should continue because students do need to know about the geography, history, religion and cultures of other countries. This is currently done through the conventional learning situations, i.e. second hand reading, viewing, discussion, writing and other such activities. It is rare that in learning about Islam, the students meet a real life Muslim to alleviate the ghastly Islamophobia currently prevalent because we seem unable to understand the simple imperative: Muslims are just like us – human.

One way of getting students to understand ‘others’ is to bring them into the classroom. This can be best done through, for example, linking schools in different countries. The benefits are obvious:

1. The students would correspond and converse with real people. The real life experience of having a conversation with, say, a Palestinian student in Gaza is infinitely more powerful than all the DVDs in the world. The Bristol student would engage with his/her Palestinian counterpart in Gaza and both would soon find the great deal that they have in common: parents, homework, school, teachers, duties and other such irritants which get in the way of real adolescent existence. They would also get to know about the differences in their lives. For example the British student would understand, probably for the first time in his/her life, that poverty is relative, that occupation is oppressive, that freedom can not be taken for granted. The Palestinian student would understand, probably for the first time in his/her life, that there is such a thing as a peaceful life, that there is freedom to choose and freedom to be, that there is potential wealth for those who seek it. No amount of curriculum work based on representations can do as much as a face to face conversation, internet dialogue and, ultimately, exchange visits where each takes part in the life of the other.

2. These activities will also have a positive impact on learning through different media. One obvious impact would be on the use of ICT. Students would e-mail regularly, use Skype to talk, exchange photographs and videos and research each other’s countries on the internet.

3. An area where English teachers work very hard is in trying to get their students to have and to show empathy with others. Indeed, several Advanced Level examination boards award the upper marks to essays and responses that show empathy whilst giving personal critical responses. The international classroom is a perfect venue for this because each student would need to understand a great deal about the person with whom they are linked. For example, currently, conversations would bring up the fact that the Palestinian student, if a Muslim, is fasting which is an experience unknown to the British student, unless, as is highly unlikely these days, he observes the mere idea of Lent in the Christian calendar. The Palestinian student would need to understand what Christmas is about and what all the fuss is about the presents under the tree. Obviously, these examples are but two where there are literally an endless number of comparisons to be made between the two lives which require empathy, understanding, compassion and respect.

4. To me, the most important aspect is the discovery of all the qualities that we, as human beings, have in common. I remember that when my first novel came out, a professor of mine at university called me into his office to congratulate me on my achievement. He went on to stutter compliments about the novel (the stuttering was caused because there was nothing to be complimentary about, as I now know). His face suddenly lit up as he declared that the greatest quality about my Palestinian novel, which took place in Beirut, was the way that it showed how all human beings were the same the world over when it came to horrible family life! I did not know whether to be pleased or insulted. I was young then, so I was pleased. I am old now, so I am insulted but amused. We human beings are so alike that the time has come to look for the commonalties in us and to stop identifying each other by those things that are apparently different. Even our different faiths are similar: each aimed at living a decent God fearing life. The differences in our faiths spring from our own choices to be different and to denigrate the others by excluding them as being of a fake faith compared to us of the “true faith”. Our needs are the same. Our conversations are the same. Our parents are as lovingly irritating in any language. We love in the same way. We cry, we laugh, we eat, we sleep, we dance, yes, and play music in the same way. If only we could see how much we have in common, perhaps we could stop hurting each other unnecessarily, and usually, in the names of various faiths or political creeds. The international classroom’s main benefit to our students is probably the opportunity to realise how alike we all are across the world.

5. Of course, from a curriculum point of view the benefits are legion. Empathy in writing (english), understanding the genesis and formation of other countries (history), understanding other peoples’ experience of the weather and the landscape (geography), understanding faiths (religious education), being acquainted with other languages (modern foreign languages), understanding different political systems (citizenship), communicating through the internet (ICT). On a deeper level, there are opportunities for understanding the economic systems of other societies, the unique national art of other countries, the food eaten by other people and so on.

The international classroom is a two way process which needs both ends of the link to work consciously on maintaining and enhancing the link. Experience has shown that once made, the link is largely maintained by the newly formed friendship groups. Where the adults are needed would be in channelling the benefits to as many parts of the curriculum as possible. They would also need to ensure that the younger students are protected from any potential mishaps or opportunities for abuse through rigorous safeguarding checks, especially on the internet. Finally, the adults would need to ensure that discussions continuously take place between the students evaluating the link, its impact and their perception of its value. This is potentially important as a means of making sure that the process is a conscious one being constantly built on for the benefit of all students.
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