Saturday, 17 May 2008

Tolerance, intercultural dialogue and student exchanges

A hectic spring term with two foreign partner groups visiting our school is coming to a close. Time for reflecting on the experience once again. The above postcard found at a bar in Brussels last Christmas came to my mind. More and more I am thinking about the concept of tolerance and the challenges of establishing true intercultural dialogue in these school projects.

On the surface my school is all for organising these visits. But when the guests arrive, it is almost merely the odd few teachers in charge of the visit who have any interaction with the guests whatsoever. Yes, everybody tolerates the guests' presence, but they all remain disappointingly passive, some tantamount to indifferent - no dialogue is initiated. Interacting with the guests is generally considered a disruption to the daily routine, and the charged curriculum just simply doesn't leave even one 45-minute lesson to spare for welcoming the guests into the classroom for some cultural exchange. Maybe I have become far too cautious as well, going to all lengths to avoid any confrontation with my colleagues and consequently organising the guests' schedule so it interferes with the general running of school as little as possible. In fact, after the second visit this spring, one colleague said to me - with all positive intentions - "oh, you really organised the visit well this time, we didn't even notice that there were foreign students here for two weeks!" For me, this of course was an indication that the whole visit had been a total flop from the point of view of enhancing intercultural dialogue. In the words of Daniel Goeudevert, who wrote an article titled 'Nothing from nothing' in 'The End of Tolerance?' (published by the Alfred Herrhausen Society for International Dialogue, 2002, ISBN 1-85788-317-9):

Real tolerance - of the solid variety - is a process. It is not enough to simply bring together people from different cultures, of different ages and sexes. The important thing is how these people treat one another and others...

As for students themselves hosting the guests in their homes, gladly quite a few seemed to enjoy it. However, when the two groups came together at school, as before the separate national groups were drawn together to speak their own languages - yet again, despite our attempts to encourage our group to mingle and mix. I have written about this so many times before - it only occurs automatically and naturally to very few people - young or old - to take the initiative and be sociable and make an effort to get to know somebody in these school contexts. Some students complain that they simply haven't got anything in common with their host or guest. They have little understanding of the fact that we teachers are not matching agents to find soulmates and best friends for life for every participant. Nevertheless, I can appreciate their wish, as unrealistic as it is. One piece of advice for anyone ever doing a student exchange - never, ever let students see the guests' / hosts' photographs before the allocation of families has been done! All young people seem to be terribly fixated on looks - understandably, but sadly. And quite honestly, at the end of the day, when we are talking about a homestay of 1-2 weeks, you should be able to get along with anybody, when allergies and other health restrictions have naturally been taken into account in advance.

At the moment, I feel somewhat disillusioned about the whole business of school exchanges. I keep asking myself whether it really is worth all the extra hours and bother. After 10 years of doing this, still no great snowball effect of booming interest and enhanced learning is in sight. Yet, the same old beaming light still keeps me going, I guess (as I blogged in March) - focusing on the few individuals for whom these projects are life-changing experiences.

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