With stories and through the humanities, we can bring distant cultures into our classrooms. These may be cultures that our pupils associate with through family ties, or they may not be. The stories we do and do not tell shape the way our pupils come to see the world.
But how nuanced is the view that we give? How much simplification is acceptable before we begin obfuscating the reality?
There is a growing chasm between the way we present the world to our pupils, and the realities of these places. In many cases, we contribute towards Othering the people there.
Othering. n. The process of perceiving or portraying someone or something as fundamentally different or alien.
In order to reduce issues to paragraph length and to make the intangibles of culture appear more knowable, we can promote generalisations and simplifications that children grip onto but, simply, are neither true nor anything as interesting as the jumbled reality.
When I was studying Social Anthropology, I learned about far flung places, rituals and social systems. I learned about the meaning of the way a Mongolian Yurt is organised. I learned about exchange networks of jewellery as a means to maintain community between different islands. I learned about cows as currency and the Balinese cockfight as a dance of masculinity.
Each of these examples illustrates a social phenomena that is interesting precisely because of its inconsistencies and nuance.
I am writing this from Indonesia.
If my pupils were to know anything about it, they are most inclined to know the capital city, its large population and its status as the nation with the greatest Muslim population. Just today, I have seen the remarkable nuance.
Java, the most populous island, on which Jakarta (world’s second most populated city) is located, has a predominantly Muslim population but at Borobudur, a Buddhist temple dating back over a millennium, a statue of the Buddha is adorned with the swastika of good fortune found in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.
This morning at 8am, the Islamic call to prayer projected by the muezzin rang out over the statue of Ganesh within the site of the world’s largest Buddhist temple, in the world’s most populated Muslim country.
Factoids cannot capture this.
When we present a place as one of tuktuks, slums and urban sprawl, as often we do when building contrast with Western locations, we hint at binary oppositions – educated/uneducated, rich/poor, dependent/independent etc.
When we include certain countries in our discourse solely as examples of victim nations, such as when Bangladesh is discussed solely as a place that will be flooded through rising sea levels, we do an enormous disservice both to pupils (especially the Bangladeshi ones) and to the subject we are teaching.
Children, by the inescapable fact of them not having lived very long (for which we can hardly blame them), haven’t the life experience or worldly knowledge to second-guess what they are told about places they haven’t visited. Instead, they are so often allowed to entrench their own false and negative presuppositions, and our curricula often support this. Perhaps we ourselves do this, thinkingly or unthinkingly.
In this way, children come to see Africa as a byword only for poverty, and African as a byword for poor. Except Egypt, which they perceive to be a space that is not ‘really’ Africa, and no longer properly exists after Cleopatra. India, where it is found in a primary Geography curriculum at all, tends towards a focus on indigenous Adivasi people; whilst this in itself is no bad thing, such as in the QCDA Chembakoli units, in isolation from the bigger picture it leaves pupils with a deeply misguided and ethnocentric perspective on India, as a titan nation at once more developed and less developed than our own.
Perhaps there is scope for social anthropological approaches to develop new routes into a world curriculum that more accurately captures the hazy and sharp edged character of culture?
How can a curriculum bring pupils to reflect on cultural difference in order to think critically about their own culture(s), without straying into generalisation and stereotype?