For me as a boy growing up in rural Ontario, Canada in the 1950s, “multiculturalism” was not a familiar concept. Although I started reading the National Geographic Magazine regularly in 1952 and was therefore aware that other cultures existed, my blinkered version of social reality was almost exclusively comprised of melanin-deficient, English-speaking Protestants. And, although one-quarter Roman Catholic myself, even Catholics were a local oddity. As for others, they were not exotic, merely absent. For example, there was not a single student of even marginally direct African heritage in my high school until I was in my senior year and I met no one of the Jewish (never mind Hindu or Muslim) faith until I enrolled in an urban university. No doubt, from whatever national, religious or “racial” perspective, there were and are plenty of people like me who did not encounter or, in the alternative, find themselves defined as the “other” until relatively late in life.
One consequence of this isolation was that the need to overly identify with religion (or any other social category except, perhaps, gender) was not present. After all, almost everyone was, on most matters, part of a homogenous culture. Perhaps counterintuitively, this made it easier, upon abandoning my own religion at a fairly early age, to regard other people’s faiths with relative equanimity unless, of course, they made a futile attempt to convert me.
As such, I was something of an unwitting child of the European Enlightenment for whom religious debates seemed rather quaint. I was an optimist then. I imagined that religion would soon be discarded by my society and that it would, in time, also be jettisoned by all but the most recalcitrant and remote among the others. In the presence of the faithful (irrespective of the faith) I didn’t push the matter and, in fact, found some of the enduring architecture, music and rituals of some religions to be aesthetically pleasing. I hope I won’t sound excessively condescending when I say that they often seemed to me to be akin to exquisite antiques of lasting beauty, regardless of the beliefs and cultural practices that inspired them. At best, I regarded the doctrines they embodied to be obsolete (the occasionally charming leftovers of a more primitive era which would soon become items of mainly anthropological interest―like flints and pottery. At worst, I saw them as reminders of past bigotries and brutalities which would surely not last long in the (post)modern world. I was quite wrong.
The city in which I now live prides itself on its dubious virtue of “tolerance” and boasts of having more than one hundred languages spoken on its streets. Its occasionally comic boosterism, I must admit, isn’t always as absurd as it may seem. There are problems of ethnic and “racial” antagonisms but, no matter that there may be seething resentments just beneath a veneer of politeness, the worst examples of “intolerance” remain relatively mild and properly explained in terms of economic factors (poverty, youth unemployment) rather than overt clashes of cultures. No doubt, there are ample examples of law enforcement authorities engaging in “racial profiling” and ethnically exclusive juvenile gangs on some street corners; but, again, it could be much worse. On the other hand, the arrival of immigrants has, if nothing else, altered the cuisine so that red meat and overcooked root vegetables no longer define the domestic diet.
Elsewhere, from Baghdad to Belfast, from Sri Lanka to Syria and from the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia to the American state of Georgia, there are more visible societal schisms, confrontations and clashes. Over the past century and more there have been far too many instances of hostilities and atrocities up to and including genocide to enumerate. Sometimes the divisions have tribal and sometimes national. Sometimes they have involved the extermination of aboriginal peoples to make way for colonials. Sometimes they are promoted or at least explained and sometimes justified as matters of political ideology or religion.
This was not the way it was supposed to be. From the aforementioned European Enlightenment through the various bourgeois revolutions―especially the American (1776) and the French (1789)―and up to the far-famed United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the “whiggish” history of “progress” certainly had ups, downs, reverses and side-steps. Nonetheless, despite the brutalities of twentieth-century totalitarianisms, there were sufficient grounds for imagining that some problems could and would be overcome. A combination of political democracy, free market economies, technological innovation, literacy and emerging educational institutions all combined to support the faith that humanity might be on the right road after all.
Today, such faith may seem naïve if not delusional. The threat of ecocatastrophes, increasing economic inequities, religious conflicts and systemic restrictions on civil rights even in the most advanced democracies can easily overwhelm and drive otherwise competent citizens into the literal idiocy of private life seeking escape from the depressing and occasionally horrific events relentlessly brought to them on as many “platforms” as our IT geniuses can invent and market.
The publication of Signposts gives us an opportunity to take a break, to breathe deeply and to haul ourselves away from the sensational headlines in which terror warriors (on all sides of multidimensional squabbles) (un)consciously ratchet up levels of personal (beheading hostages) and impersonal (bombing alleged targets) violence to previously unprecedented levels – unprecedented, that is, to people who have forgotten their history and are now condemned to repeat it.
Signposts comes out of Europe. It is composed and presented by well-meaning and high-minded people who sincerely believe that it is possible for human beings to live together in relative peace, dignity and mutual respect. They are convinced, moreover, that decent social relations can be constructed if people are educated to take one another’s humanity seriously. Their premises and promises are pretty much the opposite of those presented by fear-mongers in positions of influence and authority in government and elsewhere.
Signposts also comes out of the rather complex bureaucratic tangle that defines some of the more benign institution of Europe which struggle with the problems of elementary and secondary education in an already culturally diverse continent where more languages, religions and cultural traditions are packed into a smaller geographic area than anywhere else on the planet – and where that cultural complexity is becoming more and more complicated in light of inexorable patterns of global demographic shift.
Perhaps it is precisely because of the familiar but also distinct origins of this slim volume that it can be of tremendous value to postsecondary educators world-wide. It addresses issues with which we are all familiar (and more or less “comfortable”) and it does so by forcing us to come to grips with the relatively simple principles that can provide the opportunity to ameliorate if not to eliminate the tensions that beset us whenever we find ourselves focused on this or that example of “man’s inhumanity to man” (and women too).
Since we are no longer able to avoid our grandparents’ admonition to avoid discussion of religion and politics in otherwise polite company, Signposts helps get the necessary conversation going.
The book has a specific and a very practical purpose. It is meant, as its subtitle simply states, to speak about “policy and practice for teaching about religions and non-religious world views in intercultural education. As mentioned, it is addressed to elementary and secondary educators, but its message is far more widely applicable. And, to reiterate, it is not just about “getting along,” “respecting diverse beliefs,” and promoting an “awareness of the contributions of others” to our various societies. It is about facing the issues of diversity head-on, understanding not just that people are different and how we should learn to play nicely together (which too often means ignoring or discounting our difference), but also why we differ and how managing diversity can be accomplished in the (post)modern world.
As if to insulate the reader against prematurely emotional reactions, the more-or-less anonymous authors make it clear that Signposts is the collective product of Recommendation CM/Rec(2008)12 of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe as articulated by a panel of experts who deliberated for a decade in collaboration with the Wergeland Centre in Oslo, Norway before coming up with his slim 127-page document. As a sensible sceptic of all things bureaucratic, I confess that I was not unduly impressed.
Again, I was wrong, for just as my youthful anticipation of a growing secular society was on the wrong side of at least the current wrinkle in history, so also my preternatural suspicions about expert panels were premature. Here’s why: Signposts gets down to basics! It provides a neat, compact summary of the background to the problem of religious diversity; it clearly articulates its “key themes” without overindulging in pious rhetoric; it presents a serviceable vocabulary without obviously succumbing to the hypocrisies of “political correctness”; it offers helpful ideas about “competence” and “didactics,” ensuring that the curriculum and the capacities of the students are not stretched beyond suitable limits; it puts the discussion in a useful context including discussion of the media’s complicity in sometimes exacerbating conflict; it unself-consciously brings non-religious thought into the mix; and it entertains a useful discussion of the possibilities and limits of issues concerning allegedly universal human rights. Then, it concludes by contextualizing schools, recommending connections to other communities and organizations and giving helpful advice on how to ensure that students and others can avoid closure when the school term ends. After all, just as democracy must exist between as well as during elections, so education for citizenship cannot be a closed book once the class is finished.
Howard A. Doughty teaches cultural anthropology and political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org