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George Walker: Why diversity in education matters July 6, 2010

Posted by Alex, Managing Director in International education.

Professor George Walker, former director general of the International Baccalaureate, continues to shine as one of the leading lights in exploring, promoting and driving forward international education.

We are very fortunate to have published a number of George’s collections of essays and lectures in the past, including his latest title Challenges from a New World. The latest issue of International School (is) magazine also carries the first of two articles by George, considering identity and location.

I doubt if there is a single international school in the world that does not contain within its mission statement, strap-line or letterhead an encouraging reference to diversity.  So let me choose Washington International School as a random but typical example:

Global citizens proactively seek out those who have backgrounds different from their own, examine ideas that challenge their own and then enjoy the complexity.

Difference is something global citizens want to do and last year the magazine IB World (September 2008, issue 54) devoted a whole edition to examples of cultural diversity within IB World Schools under the title ‘Celebrating Difference’ with a cover photograph of Dr Lani Guinier, the first black female professor at the Harvard Law School.

So we are urged not merely to recognise and accept diversity as a fact of 21st century life, but to welcome it, to enjoy it, even to celebrate it. I am bound to observe that the series of really interesting articles in that IB World failed to give a single reason for such ‘celebration’.

So why should we? I see no clear moral reason for celebrating diversity but let me quickly suggest ten other reasons, in no particular order:

• We are fortunate to have such variety available to the labour market: economically we cannot afford to discriminate against any individual or group;
• Good public citizens, demonstrating leadership and exploring new ideas, are unlikely to emerge if they are part of a network of other similarly-minded people;
• By stepping outside yourself you can develop a more complex perspective that helps you to understand yourself better;
• Knowing people of different cultural backgrounds may reduce the chances of conflict at moments of tension;
• The concept of the ‘beloved community’ (Martin Luther King’s expression) or human family is a powerful image at times of social struggle;
• We come to understand better the interdependence of different human groups as a feature of a globalised world;
• Everyone’s lives are potentially enriched in a society of ethnic diversity;
• Diversity will strengthen serious political debate, so maintaining a healthy democracy;
• A more diverse genetic pool will ensure the maintenance of a healthy human species;
• In particular, all art forms are hugely enriched by exposure to different cultural practices.

So my point is this. Yes, there are very sound reasons for celebrating ethnic diversity (no doubt you can add some more of your own) but they are more complex than a touchy-feely experience of ‘getting to know you’, making friends and rubbing shoulders with other multi-national students, and they require careful, systematic thought, analysis and discussion in school.

Cultural understanding is taught, not caught, and it is not by chance that I have introduced my theme through two powerful novels, since world literature is a very effective way of extending students’ thinking beyond the walls of the school.

I recently listened to the distinguished musician Daniel Barenboim talking about his West-Eastern Divan orchestra which brings together Israelis and Arabs in a symphony orchestra whose quality has quickly acquired an international reputation. He insisted that it is not an ‘orchestra for peace’ but rather an ‘orchestra against ignorance’.  Similarly, I want to suggest that international schools are not schools for peace, but rather schools against ignorance.



1. Betsy - July 11, 2010

Thank you for your 10 reasons for celebrating diversity. It often seems that schools claim to value “diversity” without having any clear goals for it.

For me, having relationships with people from diverse cultures helps me question my assumptions and makes me reconsider what I think I already know.

2. John Catt Educational - July 12, 2010

Thanks for your message, Betsy. As George wrote in the introduction to his book, Challenges from a New World: “Surprisingly little has been written about the impact of globalisation on education, perhaps because it is still too early to see with any clarity what the effect might be…”
Diversity and globalization are probably the most demanding issues facing educators at the start of the 21st century.

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