Photo Credit Jan Garrison
Lessons in cross-cultural competency
September 9, 2016

Editor’s Note: The following piece was originally delivered as a talk by Head of Schools Jim Power during the first all-school meeting of the year.

If you’ve been reading the newspapers the last week or so, you may know something about Colin Kaepernick’s decision to not stand during the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner” before football games. While many strongly disagree with how the 49ers’ quarterback chooses to express himself, because they find his sitting or even his kneeling during the National Anthem disrespectful, almost everyone concedes that he has the right to express himself in this way.

Like it or not, that is just a part of American culture. When Thomas Jefferson first wrote about the importance of “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” over 200 years ago, his philosophy reflected a strong belief in individualism and an equally strong belief in restraining the power of government for fear it might restrict individual freedoms.

I want to come back to that focus on individualism in a moment, but first I want to tell you that Pat Bassett, who is something of a futurist when it comes to education, believes that your success depends upon something he calls the “6 C’s.” They are:

  • Critical thinking
  • Creativity
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Character and
  • Cross-cultural competency.

I’d like to offer a few thoughts on that 6th C, and I’ll begin by saying that I didn’t always have a great handle on cross-cultural competency myself. Let me offer one embarrassing example. My mom is from Ireland, and because I lived there for a while and am interested in churches, one Sunday morning I attended a Church of Ireland service.  When the minister referred to “We Irish men and women” during his homily, I was completely taken back. I grew up understanding that to be Irish was to be Catholic, and that if you were a Protestant in Ireland, by definition you had to be British. A bit binary, I know!

After the service, I approached the minister and asked him if he honestly felt he were Irish. (I was 20 years old at the time, full of bravado, short on wisdom.)  The minister’s jaw dropped in disbelief, and he paused before asking me when my own parents had emmigrated from Ireland to the USA. When I told him that they had moved in the 1950’s, he caught me by surprise by asking me if I felt I was an American. Of course, I did! (I was mildly insulted by his question.) He then said, in a very measured tone, “My family immigrated to Ireland in 1635. How do you think I feel about my nationality?”

I hadn’t intended to be offensive with the wise Church of Ireland minister, but in hindsight, I’m sure I was.

I hadn’t intended to be offensive with the wise Church of Ireland minister, but in hindsight, I’m sure I was. I was a bozo because I assumed that everyone, no matter where they were from, no matter what their language or culture, saw things the same way I did. I lacked what Pat Bassett  calls “cross cultural competency.”

Which brings me back to last week, when a dozen Tibetan monks were with us. While the monks had been invited to visit Culver long before I landed here, I believe these sorts of cultural exchanges are an important part of our educational program. From time to time, we invite outside artists, speakers, dancers, and singers to share their talents with our community, and we do this because we believe there is a benefit in our being exposed to individuals with different talents, skills, beliefs, and world views. While we would never require you to agree with a particular guest or his or her perspective — that would be indoctrination, not education — we do think there is a benefit in spending time with those who see the world through a different, and sometimes even a contradictory, lens.

But here’s where things get interesting and somewhat nuanced: Some of our Chinese students found themselves in a difficult situation: their parents did not want them to participate in anything that might suggest they supported a “Free Tibet” movement. (While it is good to be exposed to people who think differently, it’s also important to be sensitive to the pressures our international students sometimes experience.) Because of this, those students had a choice: they could either attend the concert, or they could meet with Dr. (John) Buggeln and me to discuss issues and ideas related to their decision. In the end, eight students met with us and they did a terrific job of articulating cultural differences and explaining how those differences influences their thinking.

We need to learn how to disagree without becoming disagreeable.

There is a danger in oversimplifying things, but many of their good concerns boiled down to issues of respect. It seems that a number of other students had been badgering them with “Free Tibet” signs and paraphernalia. On one level, this may seem innocent enough; at first blush, it might look like students’ exercising the same rights that Thomas Jefferson espoused. But the more I think about it, the more all of this reminds me of stories I’ve read about suburban students taunting inner city school students by repeatedly yelling the name of a particular presidential candidates in an aggressive manner. It may look like political discourse, but it’s actually just a form of harassment.

The bottom line for me in all of this, whether it’s Colin Kaepernick’s approach to the National Anthem, or a Chinese student’s way of thinking about Tibet, or even an American student’s attempt at voicing a libertarian argument, the underlying value is the same: We need to learn how to disagree without becoming disagreeable. That’s the essence of cross-cultural competence. We can disagree without taking that disagreement personally. And it is important to remember that just because someone disagrees with us, that does not mean he or she is disrespecting us.

In a better world, we might see see disagreements as fascinating rather than threatening. After all, our world would be a dull place if everyone agreed with everyone else on every issue! In a pluralistic society, we need to know that some individuals see things differently, sometimes very differently, and we need to be sensitive to those differences, and respect those who articulate them. I hope this is something we will learn going forward, as we grapple with developing our cross-cultural competencies. That’s a lesson I first started to learn years ago from a wise old minister who was, without a doubt, thoroughly Irish!


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