Monday, 28 April 2014

X is for (X)Cross-Cultural Learning, the Indian Way

As I mentioned in an earlier post one of the aims of a true Indian education should be to help learners come to a realization that they are deeply and closely connected with the larger world, the larger humanity around them. We also saw in another post that Indian cultural thought encourages us to seek and assimilate wisdom and knowledge from all sources. So it is quite natural that a truly India-centric education should also incorporate, encourage and facilitate a thorough study of other cultures and their contributions to the world knowledge. 
But how should such a study be approached, so that it is meaningful, relevant and helps the learners develop a broader outlook and a deeper connection with the diversity of the world. Surely it can not be at the cost of studying one's own cultural tradition and heritage (as we saw in the posts for  HI, and U). But as we also saw it in the post on N, a deeper appreciative study of one's culture may automatically inspire and lead to an interest in a study and examination of other cultures that are different from one's own.

First, it is important to understand what is a culture. Here is how Sri Aurobindo defines a culture:


So when we study a culture, we should look at all its three aspects and the harmony among them. And if we are to do it according to the Indian view of things, our focus should be on grasping how the soul of a people, their highest aspiration and thought is expressed through the best efforts and accomplishments of their collective minds and imagination, and through the outer forms, systems and structures of society.

An India-centric way of cross-cultural studies will also encourage a study of the extent to which a culture, any culture facilitates the finding and maintaining of a natural harmony of spirit, mind and body. In this view, a culture is also to be valued to the extent to which it has not only discovered the right key of this harmony but also organised its motives, life-forms and movements to express and facilitate such harmony. Such learning has immense practical value for children who as adults will be navigating their life-paths through an increasingly globalized world where intercultural and multicultural experiences are becoming quite the norm.

To understand how cultures are different and how they express those differences through this harmony of soul, mind and body, it is also important to know how to really appreciate and understand a culture that is not the one in which one has grown up or from which one draws one's governing ideals.

Sri Aurobindo has spoken of three ways in which a study of a foreign civilization or culture may be undertaken:

1. There is the eye of sympathy and intuition, and a close appreciative self-identification, so as to reveal the soul of a people. Such an approach, because it is based on an inner identification with the 'other' culture, may not yield much hard data about the outward facts. But we develop an awareness of some of the deeper values, some of the highest ideals that guide that culture. Our focus in such an approach is not exclusively on examining the deficiencies of the expression of that deeper spirit or values in lived reality, but also, perhaps even more so to appreciate its ideal meaning. This is perhaps the most difficult way to study other cultures, and requires long-term and thorough immersion in other culture. Not always possible to do at early levels of education, though a good beginning may be made as early as elementary and middle classes by incorporating carefully selected inspiring and uplifting stories, legends, music and arts from various cultural backgrounds.

2. The second way to study a culture different from one's own is with the eye of the discerning and dispassionate critic. Such a critic tries to see the thing as it is - both in its intention and actuality. It looks at both the success and failure as the highest cultural ideals and values are molded into life-forms and ways of living. It is able to separate out that "which evokes appreciative sympathy from that which calls for critical censure." A wide variety of reading material - sociological, literary, artistic, philosophical, aesthetic and religio-spiritual - may be necessary for an extensive study using such an approach, combined with as much exposure as possible to the lived reality facilitated through travel, study abroad, and exchange programmes.

3. The third way is the way of the hostile critic, who is convinced of the inferiority of the culture under study. Such a critic starts with a pre-conceived idea of what the other culture is all about and stays convinced of his or her judgement because he or she can always come up with reasonable arguments to support it.

Educators and curriculum planners must be very careful when deciding upon the study material for facilitating a cross-cultural learning experience. The above criteria may be used to examine and assess the educational value of a variety of study materials, including books, films, and music, as well as planning other learning activities like exchange programs, online interaction, etc.

A question must also be asked whether we want the learners to develop a sympathetic or a dispassionate view of the 'other' culture, and what is the relative value of each of these. To a certain extent even the perspective of a hostile critic might be useful for a comparative study as long as it is not slander or meaningless distortion or perversion of the facts. But such an approach must be very carefully introduced and only at higher levels of education when the learners have arrived at a certain level of mental development and intellectual maturity to critically evaluate and examine a thought from multiple even opposing perspectives, get to the source of such hostility and maybe even grow in mental flexibility from such kind of comparative study.

At all times, it must be remembered that a truly India-inspired cross-cultural learning experience should be guided by the ideal of Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam (All World is One Family).

~ Painting by Ioyan Mani, source

This post is written for the A-Z Challenge, April 2014. The theme I am exploring is - Putting India back in Indian Education

Click here for the previous post in this series.