A pedagogy for Cultural Understanding & Human Empathy

"For us, we are all very different, our languages are very different, and our societies are very different. But if we could extract ourselves from our point of view and sort of look down at human life the way a biologist looks at other organisms, I think we could see it a different way. Imagine an extrahuman observer looking at us. Such an extrahuman observer would be struck precisely by the uniformity of human languages, by the very slight variation from one language to another, and by the remarkable respects in which all languages are the same."

- Noam Chomsky

How we see ourselves, how we describe ourselves reveals a great deal about how we see ‘others’. In May of this year, speaking to the audience of the International Conference on Thinking, Bruno Della Chiesa invited us to consider how we might approach the question of "who we are?”. In responding to such a question, what list of affiliations do we invoke to define ourselves? Do we attribute our identity as belonging to a particular culture or nation? How important in our self-definition is our membership to one or more of the subgroups of humanity?

Bruno shared that the cumulative impact of his study of language and of languages is a re-imagining of his identity to one that is defined primarily by his ‘humanity’. With each additional language that he mastered his perception of his place in the world was altered. He moved from a one-dimensional perspective of the world to what he describes as an n-dimensional perspective; an understanding of cultures not in isolation but as a richly interconnected whole. As we learn additional languages we develop an understanding of language from the interferences between them. Each additional language is easier to learn as we see beyond the differences to an understanding of the fundamental constructs which are near universal. The same pattern occurs as we experience and learn multiple-cultures from our engagement with languages. We become open to a cross-fertilisation of ideas resulting in a philosophy of language and with this and through exposure to multiple cultures we develop a philosophy of culture. This philosophy of culture allows us to see ourselves (us) and ‘others’ as members of a global culture defined by our humanity rather than our nationality.

How we construct our identity defines how we see “others”. Human history is marked by the often ugly and bloody interactions between a powerful ‘us’ and new and frightening ‘other’. Too often we see the world in terms of ‘us’ and ’them’ and this perception of ’them’ of otherness has allowed the worst of our inhumanities. It is this perception of ‘others’ as something to be frightened, mistrusted, as unworthy, uneducated or uncivilised which has allowed us to engage both in war and to turn our backs on those in need. But, if we begin by defining ourselves as humans, the notion and power of and negative responses towards ‘us and them' relations is diluted. When we see our commonalities before we see what makes us unique we remove the greatest barrier to a better world.

Recent events locally and globally reveal that despite all our efforts; the rise and rise of democracies, the normalisation of global transactions, of the daily blending of cultures in increasingly multi-cultural societies, of the historical analysis of our past failings, we must never turn away from the threats posed by the perception of ‘us’ and ‘others’ as a relationship which must be dominated.

One day, maybe, we will have a world where the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has dissolved. Where our capacity for human empathy and understanding eclipses our capacity for hate, but such a time will not happen without our efforts and as Paulo Freire reminds us, education has a powerful part to play.

"But the humanist, revolutionary educator cannot wait for this pos­sibility to materialize. From the outset, her efforts must coincide with those of the students to engage in critical thinking and the quest for mutual humanization. His efforts must be imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power. To achieve this, they must be partners of the students in their relations with them." - Paulo Freire

When we encourage our students to learn another language so they may better understand themselves and their neighbours, when we encourage them to study another culture not to know how ‘others’ live but to explore what links us all, we make possible a new definition of ourselves, not derived from our place of birth but from our undeniable humanity. We need a pedagogy that allows our students to see 'the very slight variation from one culture to another, and by the remarkable respects in which all cultures are the same'.

By Nigel Coutts