Immigrant Students and Multicultural Citizenship

There exist such an ironic inconsistency between, on one side, the endeavor for global competencies in schools and— on the other— the negligence of immigrant youth. Remaining an untapped source of multilingualism, transnationalism, and cultural adaption, immigrant youth are often left to fill the roles of the low-performing, unengaged students in the back of the class. Instead of contributing to the cultural education of their classmates, these resourceful individuals are criticized for their inability to assimilate, or to become ‘good citizens’. At the heart of a discussion of immigration, therefore, lays the concept of citizenship, especially in the changing landscape brought round by globalization.

Remaining an untapped source of multilingualism, transnationalism, and cultural adaption, immigrant youth are left to fill the roles of the low-performing, unengaged students in the back of the class.

Examining the theories of immigrant student integration, Sanchez and Kasun (2012) note that as a result of heavy-handed assimilation policies in schools, “we miss the opportunity to recognize the possibilities and promise of engaged transnational students” (p. 81). Possibly due to the fear of weakening the nation-state, expression of immigrant culture, religion, and language is discouraged.

While at times haphazardly included in the curriculum as ‘add-ons’, there rarely exist true multiculturalism in Western school systems. Interestingly, the very element promoted in most school systems today— global competencies— could easily be achieved by acknowledging immigrant students’ set of skills instead of shunning them. Skills like multilingualism, tolerance and cultural understanding cannot be taught solely through means of textbooks, nor can we hope to attain them in mono-cultural classrooms.

There is potential in immigrant students, and schools should construct ways to meet and embrace the diversity that immigrants bring to classrooms.

There is potential in immigrant students, and schools should construct ways to meet and embrace the diversity that immigrants bring to classrooms. Are we to stay true to the concept of schools as “mini-democracies”, we must work harder at preparing our youth for the real world; a world that is not neatly structured nor streamlined. We might need to place immigrant youth at the center of education, rather than in the periphery, drawing on their unique experiences to design lessons and foster cultural openness and understanding.

The mere presence of other ethnicities or religions does not foster tolerance and openness— indeed, it may increase the sense of difference and segregation. In most societies, “schools are considered crucibles for socialization into citizenship and a democratic society” (Maira, 2006, p. 227), yet the failure to include immigrants in an interactive learning process is creating a fragmented, flawed democracy. By creating a platform for open discussion and cultural exchange, students in multicultural settings will not merely be exposed to superficial diversity, but also learn how to engage civilly with individuals of different beliefs, views and backgrounds. We should strive for multicultural citizenship, where two or more cultures and languages are combined without challenging each other.

This can start in the classroom.

References:

Maira, S. (2004). Imperial Feelings: Youth Culture, Citizenship, and Globalization. In M. M. Suarez-Orozco & D. B. Qin-Hilliard (Eds.) Globalization: Culture and education in the new millennium. London, England: University of California Press.

Sanchez, P., & Kasun, G. S. (2012). Connection Transnationalism to the Classroom and to Theories of Immigrant Student Adaption. Berkeley Review of Education, 3(1): pp. 71-93

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Education, culture, and society

Jim Cummins – the multi-literacy specialist at the University of Toronto – spoke at a conference I attended last year. He stated that, “when students see themselves reflected in their learning, they are more likely to stay engaged and continue on with their education.”

This quote highlights the interrelationship between education, culture and society. Education is most effective when it is culturally relevant, and when children are allowed to learn within a system that not only benefits their society (e.g. making them into obedient citizens), but also benefits them.

In a globalized world the appreciation of “other” truths is essential to conflict resolution, global interaction, and the peaceful advancement of humanity.

Any educational system is a product of its society, BUT a society can also be transformed as a result of education. Similarly: education can be a tool for cultural reproduction, BUT through education we may also see a cultural transformation (in society and within each student). It is this intricate inter-dependence that I find so interesting.

I cite Michael Apple (2001) a lot: “Curriculum reflects what is considered by an education system as valid and legitimate knowledge” (as cited in Gross, 2006, p. 607). Education, then, is not synonymous to knowledge, as it is the society (or the government) that decides which “segments of truth” to include and exclude. It is crucial to keep this in mind as we go through our education – and to remind our children that the truth is never one-sided or definite. In a globalized world the appreciation of “other” truths is essential to conflict resolution, global interaction, and the peaceful advancement of humanity.

References:

Gross, Z. (2006). Power, Identity, and Organizational Structure as Reflected in Schools for Minority Groups: A Case Study of Jewish Schools in Paris, Brussels, and Geneva. Comparative Education Review, (50), 4. 603-624.

Does the spread of English necessarily lead to the displacement of local languages and cultural identities?

Many of the concerns related to the “take-over” of English language across the world, is related to the perceived negative impact this will have on local cultures and languages. I feel this panic is unconstructive — even harmful — to the preservation of local culture.

English will continue to spread, as will Western culture. Trying to stop it will only result in a failure to come up with real solutions: it will misdirect our efforts. We must find a way to combine the use of English with our local language. We must find a way to combine and appreciate the mixing of local culture and foreign influences (whether this be American influence in Africa, or maybe Arabic influence in Europe).

English will continue to spread, as will Western culture. Trying to stop it will only result in a failure to come up with real solutions: it will misdirect our efforts. We must find a way to combine the use of English with our local language.

Phillipson (1992) and Crystal (2003) often refer to Scandinavia when deliberating on the power of English in displacing local languages. This is true. We do see a lot more English in tertiary education in Scandinavia, especially as most textbooks, Internet sites, and research papers are written in English. I do want to underline, however, that primary and secondary school is entirely in the local language, as is any governmental institution.

The introduction on English does not mean the death of the local language. Bilingualism is a natural human capability, and while some people are worried about the increased use of English in Scandinavia, I remain positive. The Norwegian government, for example, have firm policies at hand to ensure the continued use of local Norwegians languages, while still enhancing English as a Second Language in schools. Every Norwegian citizen should speak Norwegian and English fluently. In fact, I hope we will see more trilingualism in the years to come, hopefully with emphasis on Arabic, French, Chinese or Spanish.

There should be no dialectic between English and the local language – instead there should be an embracing of bilingualism.

Crystal (2003) contends that the “need to a global language is particularly appreciated by the international academic and business communities” (p. 13), and this trend needs to continue. With one common language we can share more information. The issue to me is not the diffusion of English across the globe, but the acute necessity to ensure that all people learn English. I am excited about the prospects of a global language, and am not the least worried about the loss of local languages, AS LONG AS proper policies are in place to ensure the continued use of local languages.

There should be no dialectic between English and the local language – instead there should be an embracing of bilingualism. I see Norway as a good example, where every aspect of public life is in Norwegian, but the school places a heavy emphasis on English as a foreign language, so that every citizen is proficient by the time they graduate secondary school.

References:

Crystal, D. (2003). English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Crystal, D. (2003). English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

What does multicultural citizenship mean?

Edward Said (1994) reminds us that in today’s globalized world, “no one […] is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are no more than starting points” (as cited in May, 2001, p. 108).

I thought this quote was a good place to start the discussion on multicultural citizenship. To me, multicultural does not only refer to the community, but also the individual. When we talk about multicultural, therefore, it is not only about diversity within cities and nation-states: it is about diversity within persons.

 New identities emerge in the intersection between global and local

It is about not stopping at one label, but rather accepting each individual as a myriad of identities (such as a gay Swedish Buddhist, or a Muslim Chinese woman, or a black French Jew…if that exists yet.) Interestingly, I find that multiculturalism is closely linked to the individual. One might think that with globalization we would see a homogenization of cultures and identities, but I think that we actually will see the opposite.

New identities emerge in the intersection between global and local. For example, in Norway fifty years ago we saw a very clear majority of white, Christian heterosexuals. Today – while there definitely has been a diffusion of the traditional Norwegian culture as a result of global influences – we see a myriad of version of “Norwegian”, including various religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and so on.

Multicultural citizenship means embracing all identities that exists inside each person. It is NOT the same as having separate pockets of “pure” cultures living in harmony within a community. While this is not a bad thing, I do not see this as true multiculturalism. Culture is not a static concept. Culture changes and transforms constantly – that is what makes it culture.

Multicultural citizenship means embracing all identities that exists inside each person. It is NOT the same as having separate pockets of “pure” cultures living in harmony within a community.

Global citizenship to me refers to the ability to interact with people from all over the world. It includes the ability to adapt to different cultures; to be curious and open-minded toward new concepts; to appreciate the limitations of ones own cultural lens and framework.

References:

May, S. (2001). Language and Minority Rights: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and the Politics of Language. NY: Pearson Education.

What we can learn by studying groups like the Uyghurs

I would argue that a lot of the people reading this post have grown up in relatively Western cultures. We have grown up with American movies and CNN news. We have attended schools where students sit by desks in square classrooms. Many of us think that majority rule (i.e. Western democracy) is a fair system – a system so fair, in fact, that it should be promoted in other parts of the world. The majority of us have completed a Western education, most likely taught in English. These are some features making up our culture.

We study minority cultures, we read about “exotic” life views and rituals. But why? What value does the study of unknown cultures hold, other than expand our cultural horizons; entertain us; make us reflect for a brief moment on our own view of reality? Will the study of groups like the Uyghurs (sometimes written with an ‘i’) ever lead to anything more than research papers circulated in a tiny group of academics?

Why do we read and write in English in graduate school? Because at some point in history, the English-speaking world won a “battle”.

We can say the same about studying Somali clan culture or Aboriginal knowledge systems. Yes, these are interesting facts and stories, but how (if ever) will they counteract the hegemonic influence of Western values?

Gardener Bovingdon (2004) notes that, “single-stranded narratives intentionally suppress evidence of historical alternatives [and that] they write competing narratives out of history” (p. 354). Why do we read and write in English in graduate school? Because at some point in history, the English-speaking world won a “battle”. The winners write history, as we all know, which is why we all understand terrorism as a bad thing. Suicide bombers, killing embassy workers in the Middle East are universally understood as “the enemy”, right? What, then, about the Western forces bombing Afghan villages, killing civilians, spreading fear, terrorizing the local population? How would the future history books read, if the villagers wrote them? The same can be said of the Uyghur civil/separatist movements. The US and UN agreed with China in 2002, in the labeling of such groups as terrorists.

History is not unbiased or true, yet the history books tend to portray them as such. It is easy to forget that, “official histories […] depend on tendentious interpretation of key terms and events” (Bovingdon, 2004, p. 356).

History is not unbiased or true, yet the history books tend to portray them as such.

The importance of studying unknown groups and narratives, then, is perhaps not to change policies or revolutionize systems. Rather, it is to continue reminding us that history is biased. The narrative of historic events that we learn in school; that we see in the news; that we read in books, are not true; they are a version of the truth. By studying the Uyghurs, we are not just learning about an alternative narrative of Chinese history, but we are also reminded that all history was once written by the “winners”. That, to me, is the most valuable argument in favor of the preservation and diffusion of indigenous cultures. I would never expect indigenous languages and cultures to challenge the current “ruling” systems, but I would expect them to function as reminders that there always are alternate perceptions of reality and history.

References:

Bovingdon, G. (2004). Contested Histories. In Starr, F. (2004). Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, pp. 353-374.

The role of religion and language in public education

I would argue that religion and language are two of the aspects of our identity that defines us the most. Further, it would not be wrong to say that education should provide a safe and nurturing environment for children to develop a sense of self and finding their place in society. Does it not follow that religion and languages should have a central part of public education?

Ultimately, we must determine how much of a child’s education should take place in schools (the public sphere), and how much should be left up to parents and/or religious institutions (the private sphere). Is it necessary for the state to provide culturally relevant education to all citizens, or is it enough simply to facilitate this by for example cutting down the time students have to spend in school? At a school I taught at, students were off Wednesday and Friday afternoons, at which time most of them attend classes in subjects like Islam, foreign languages, or other subjects not provided by the school. The school was so multicultural (both in terms of religious beliefs and languages), that the administration could not possibly meet the needs of all students. Is this practice nurturing diversity and multiculturalism, or is it strengthening the divisions between ethnic groups in society?

Ultimately, we must determine how much of a child’s education should take place in schools (the public sphere), and how much should be left up to parents and/or religious institutions (the private sphere)

Milligan (2006) observes that by separating Islamic education and public schools, the Philippines government is producing citizens who are “virtual foreigners in their own country” (p. 416); they are Muslim Filipinos who see their nationality as being completely separate from their religion and language (Arabic). Would decentralization of the educational system remedy this situation? Could we have certain school districts with “Islamic” schools, and others with “Christian” schools? Or how about introducing Arabic as language of instruction (LOI) as an option for Muslim students? Would such arrangements lead to a healthy flourishing of cultures, or would we see closed-off religious ghettos, each with its own educational system? My worry is that through decentralization and less nation-state control we are building boxes that only fit certain stereotypes. I mean, what happens to the Christian minority in a Muslim area? Or what of the children from mixed families?

My worry is that through decentralization and less nation-state control we are building boxes that only fit certain stereotypes.

I’m asking a lot of questions in this post, and it’s not for the rhetorical effect, but because I really do have trouble making up my mind on this one. As I mentioned above, I think it is crucial to have a clear understanding of the difference between education and schooling, and of what we want our schools to provide. Michael W. Apple (2001) states that, “[c]urriculum reflects what is considered by an education system as valid and legitimate knowledge” (as cited in Gross, 2006, p. 607), but by this definition most nation-states today would come off as rather neglectful. In Rwanda, for example, the national language is at best allotted a couple of hours each week, while imported languages like English and French have taken over as language of instruction. What signal does this send to the children about their origins and culture? Which values are transmitted through the national curriculum?

Perhaps it is a (wrongful) essentialist assumption to think that Muslim students require Arabic classes to be “whole”, or that Jewish students should be entitled to Hebrew classes because their language is what makes them Jewish. From my own experience, though, I would claim that there is a lot of identity tied up in language. Like May (2008), I feel that “[c]hanging the language preference of the state and civil society, or at least broadening then, would better reflect the cultural and linguistic demographics of most of today’s multinational (and polyethnic) states” (p. 164).

References:

Gross, Z. (2006). Power, Identity, and Organizational Structure as Reflected in Schools for Minority Groups: A Case Study of Jewish Schools in Paris, Brussels, and Geneva. Comparative Education Review 50(4): 603-624.

May, S. (2008). Language and minority rights: Ethnicity, nationalism, and the politics of language. Routledge: New York.

Milligan, J. A. (2006). Reclaiming an Ideal: The Islamization of Education in the Southern Philippines. Comparative Education Review, 50(3): 410-430.