Cultural celebrations

In a competence-based educational programme, one of the most fundamentally important constructs to develop is intercultural competence. This means being able to appreciate other cultures, having enough background knowledge about other people’s cultures to know who’s in the room and having the interest, respect and humility to want to learn more about different cultures and, in doing so, to honour the people around you and the generational stories they bring with them.

In Edgar Schein’s much quoted culture model, the visible tip of the iceberg is made up of artefacts whereas the more profound values and assumptions that make up cultural archetypes lie beneath the surface. The argument is that surface-level manifestations of culture (the famous five fs: fashion, flags, food, famous people and festivals) are fairly superficial and that celebrating these or knowing about them is not really taking you to the core of a culture.

I would agree but only to a certain extent. I used to be of the opinion that cultural fairs, international evenings and the like were stereotype-anchoring fanfares with nothing particularly profound about them. However, I’ve changed my views through time and believe that if cultures are celebrated intentionally and in the right way, the process is actually very profound. In any case, seeking deeper connections than visible ones should not should not prevent us from appreciating the visible. The visible is the outer shell of the invisible, something deeper, anyway, and cultural artefacts are primarily symbolic, they tell a story.

Learning the literature, philosophy and history of another culture is undoubtedly more profound gateway into its inner recesses: Wole Soyinka opens the mind to Yoruba culture, a full ToK unit on First People’s cultures allows one – as it did for my class and me – better understanding of what you are researching, for us it was the Wayfinders of Polynesia; studying Confucius gives one a profound insight into the political context of the Zhou dynasty in China.

But, does this mean that we should not celebrate cultural festivities at all? 

At Ecolint this year, across the seven schools and three campuses, our students, parents and staff celebrated Diwali, Dia de Los Muertos,  Hanukkah, Eid, Nowruz, the Lunar New Year and Christmas. We also celebrated Neurodiversity week and will be celebrating Africa Day later this month. Parents came on campus to set up cultural stands, students stood up in assemblies and taught each other about the historical and religious significance of festivities from their countries, students learnt about essential symbols from other cultures. And all of this happened in a context of joy, serenity, sharing and peace. It was particularly moving to see the community learning about each other in a time where international conflict is building walls between people. The way of peace is surely built on crossroads and bridges.

I was at a conference explaining these cultural festivities to a group and someone said “yes, yes that’s the easy bit”. Well, it’s not actually that easy, the organisation is colossal and it can only be done with large scale community participation, one risks being criticised for celebrating one culture and not another and by onlookers who will say, yes this is all very superficial. But how superficial is it to see children from different cultures and sometimes from countries at war with one another dyeing each other’s hands with Henna, learning classical dance steps together, learning each other’s calligraphy and mythology?

It’s actually more profound than we think. Cultural festivals are not just superficial parades of clichés, they are living testimonies to thousands of years of history, they are living pieces of collective identity, and they bring us together in something that becomes universal. 

My message to fellow educators is not to be afraid to celebrate culture, not to think it’s not enough and therefore should not be done, that intercultural competence development has to be some uniquely intellectual and morose affair. Celebrating culture is a wonderful way of bringing the community together and building up intercultural competences, for we learn best when we learn together, when we are involved and – why not – while enjoying it at the same time.  

These three steps can be considered to ensure a meaningful cultural celebration:

  1. Don’t cheapen the experience by treating it like a mere party, link cultural celebrations to a higher cause: peace and inclusion for example, or global citizenship. This gives the event a deeper meaning and mission-aligned purpose.
  2. Make sure it’s inclusive and involves students, parents and staff and most especially those from the culture or part of the world being celebrated: put them in the driver’s seat to organise it (“nothing about us without us”). 
  3. The emphasis should be on learning (rather than eating!).

What is particularly powerful in these events is the personal reflection they engender. When you experience another culture’s expression and in such a way that it touches you, when that piece of music enters your soul, that dance connects with something atavistic inside you, when a poem from a far away place awakens something lurking in your unconscious state, even when something makes you stand back and feel different, it ultimately brings you back to yourself through the mirror of another human experience: in that reflection you encounter your own culture. This is intercultural learning and when it is kinaesthetic and lived, it’s visceral and emotional. This kaleidoscopic turning inwards through outward-facing signs, this learning of the self through the other enriches our sense of what it means to be human, reminding us of the collective mosaic that makes up our collective story and how beautiful the many faces of humanity are.

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