Multicultural Education to Promote Human Rights Education

Cards for Democracy
Published on
October 15, 2017
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Multicultural Education to Promote
Human Rights Education

Damian Spiteri

Multicultural education is a wide topic, so wide it is difficult to pinpoint what it is exactly.  It tends to be understood differently in different countries. This is because it is very contextual. Countries like Canada and Australia tend to be associated with people coming from all parts of the world and thereby multicultural education is responsive to this whole ‘mix’ of people and learners coming together. Other countries have migrants who are mainly from neighboring countries. To be effective, education must consider these particularities. It must also be open to information derived from the wider literature on education and the reality that learners are living in an evolving and increasingly globalized world.

Few, if any, educators would disagree with the tenet that one of the main aims of education is the promotion of social equity. In my upcoming book Pedagogy for 2050, which is set to be published early on in 2018, I point out the importance that education is responsive to all students and that there are no learners at schools and colleges who feel left out.

What is cardinal, however, when speaking about multicultural education is a team effort. There needs to be a willingness on the part of governments, families, schools, social venues, and the public at large to make people feel welcome. Multicultural education in schools will fail if society is opposed to it. Therefore, for multicultural education to serve as a means of promoting human rights education, it needs a multi-pronged approach.  This is particularly the case with refugee education, which I see as a ‘sub-set’ of multicultural education and one that I hold very close to heart, particularly, since as a lecturer who was lecturing in Malta, I have direct experience of lecturing to young people from an asylum-seeking background.

When speaking about refugee education, it is to be remembered that children and young people who seek national or international protection from other countries may have had significant disruptions in their education due to war, conflict and/or prosecution in the country from which they fled. Adding to the complexity of promoting intercultural understanding at schools which these children and young people attend, they may have very low starting points in terms of numeracy, literacy; although this must also be balanced against the opportunities that immigrant pupils bring to classrooms and lecture rooms. However, no amount of multicultural education would compensate for their lack in certain skills implying that schools would need to invest further resources to be able to give these children and young people as meaningful an education as possible. Notwithstanding this, education is a basic right, and so the question of what each child can bring to the classroom should remain secondary in education policy and practice. The need for these resources at schools is imminent.

Personally speaking, I believe that multicultural education can only be successful if children and young people can picture for themselves what it means to live in a foreign country among foreign people. Many writers encourage a hands-on approach, including encouraging young people to go abroad, learn foreign languages, and live with host families for short periods of time. These international experiences can certainly be beneficial as they offer young people a chance to get to know about others and about themselves, and thereby be more adept at communicating with (and understanding) other people. However, sometimes this ‘experience’ of relating to people from other cultures is ‘closer home.’ Some international schools and boarding schools characteristically have learners from different countries in their classes. Other schools have high concentrations of migrants. Even if these schools are in areas with poor socio-economic indicators, the education they offer does not necessarily have to be of poorer quality. The learning environment could be characterized as being more complex, with a wide range of cultural and linguistic abilities. However, as children and young people adapt to a new culture, learn a new language, and deal with all the stress of moving to a new country, they are also demonstrating to the others present, through peer learning and social learning, how to be resilient.

One of the major threats to multicultural education is segregation. Segregation is unhelpful for two reasons. Primarily, it encourages xenophobia since it keeps people apart. This implies that what people tell themselves about other people based on their imagination, rather than what they know about other people, takes preponderance. As an extreme example, the Hitler Youth could not have been ‘socialized’ to hate the Jews if they had been encouraged to relate to them and understand them. Secondly, segregation brings on further segregation. If we look at policy areas beyond education e.g. housing, we would find that segregated housing can also lead to segregation in schools; it certainly does not help children and young people in schools and colleges to discover how to live peacefully and respectfully in our multicultural societies, which is ultimately the aim of multicultural education as described in this article. Education is essential for the promotion of the peaceful coexistence of people from different cultural backgrounds. However, it does not operate independently of the wider political system and the labor and housing markets.

Multicultural education is also embedded within the wider literature on children’s rights.  Child labour, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), early marriages, forced marriages, and even certain forms of child abuse should also feature as topics for discussion on the curricula of multicultural education not because these practices are ‘cultural’ – but because, often, culture is provided as a justification for their perpetuation. ‘That is the way we do things around here’, ‘that is the way we do things in our families,’ ‘that is the way we do things in our village/community/country’ are used to link these practices to social norms and social mores; however, they often go against the Convention on the Rights of the Child and are also widely considered as ‘immoral’. It is thereby important that all schools ensure that every staff member, from the minor staff to the Chancellor or Rector have opportunities to develop a core knowledge on children’s rights/child protection.  In this way, they could represent the school’s vision and values in contacts with external stakeholders, and could advocate for change in the wider ‘multicultural’ society.

About the Author

Dr Damian Spiteri Ph.D. is a Senior Lecturer at the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology. He has published a book ‘Multiculturalism, Higher Education, and Intercultural Education’ with Palgrave Macmillan in 2006 and is the author of several published papers on different aspects of education. He has also lectured at the University of Malta, University of Strathclyde and the University of York. He is currently in the process of writing his second book Pedagogy for 2050.


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