Human Rights Trump Cultural Tradition

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Inclusive education is, “not limited to the inclusion of those children or young people with disabilities. Inclusion is inclusion of all regardless of race, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexual orientation, language, socio-economic status, and any other aspect of an individual’s identity that might be perceived as different[1]. As educators, how do we tackle this goal in countries or regions with a history of excluding certain groups? For example, is it our obligation to improve inclusive education for gender and sexual minority students in countries where homosexuality is considered a crime[2]?

When it comes to rights and justice in education, I am tempted to take a purist approach: insist on full equity, anything short of this is unacceptable. In reality, the concept of equity is subjective, complex, and extremely difficult to measure[3], so this mentality is practically inoperable. Additionally, as a visitor in countries abroad, I am compelled to position myself as the learner (rather than the teacher), to value diversity[4] (rather than assume my perspective is superior), and to respect local traditions (even if I do not practice them).

Still, those who do not have access to the privileges of a dominant group need and deserve allies and advocates. To ignore disparity is to be complicit in discrimination. In countries and regions where inclusive policy and practice is discouraged[5], whether by social norm or legal position, this is particularly salient. What is our role, as international educators, when local cultural traditions marginalize certain students? Are we overstepping our reach to demand equitable education when we are guests on foreign ground? On these questions, we can take guidance from international human rights agreements, such as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that, “Everyone has the right to education”.

While the large multi-national cohorts that initiate human rights agreements have been critiqued for slanting toward Western ideology, these benchmarks are still preferable to leaning on one individual country’s interpretation of who deserves to attend a school that is relevant, safe, and inclusive. Human rights are more important than culture and tradition. So, discriminatory practices such as keeping young girls home to do the housework while their brothers go to school[6], are not acceptable. Marginalizing gender and sexual minority students from the full educational experience[7] for any reason, including cultural or religious objection, is also intolerable.

To implement policies stating as much is easier said than done. These types of shifts must be carried out sensitively, carefully, and sometimes slower than we like. Heavy-handed, hasty, top-down mandates (even with benevolent intentions) may prove counter-productive, causing backlash and a staking of camps. International education policy-makers, then, must be people with a deep understanding of the culture where they are working, a strong background in relevant policy, and a commitment to the well-being of all children, particularly those who have been historically disadvantaged.

How do you exercise cultural humility as a guest abroad, while also working toward inclusive education for all of your students?

[1] Polat, F. (2011). Inclusion in education: A step towards social justice. International Journal of Educational Development, 31, p. 50-58.

[2] For the record, my answer to this question is a firm: yes.

[3] Wiseman, A. W. (2008). A Culture of (in)equality?: A cross-national study of gender parity and gender segregation in national school systems. Research in Comparative and International Education, 3(2), 179-201.

[4] Déquanne, B. (2017, February 9). Stronger Together [blog post]. The International Educator Online.

[5] Fully aware, here, that my own country of citizenship (the United States) has a well-documented history of denying equitable access to education; this is not a ‘foreign problem’.

[6] Lewis, M. & Lockheed, M. (2007). Inexcusable absence: Why 60 million girls still aren’t in school and what to do about it. Washington, DC: Center for Global Development.

[7] Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Giga, N. M., Villenas, C., & Danieschewski, D. J. (2016). The 2015 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.

8 thoughts on “Human Rights Trump Cultural Tradition”

  1. A lot deeper than that, a lot deeper,
    You gotta remember, when you say diversity it also includes respecting thoughts contradictory to your own, that right there is the beauty of life,
    Also as it pertains to the post, In my years of teaching abroad I have only once seen a disabled child (included) in the classroom,

    There are reasons for this but at the end of the day most of these schools are private schools and parents are paying for their child to be educated in line with their view of what a good education is,

    In a lot of ways America and Americans can be out of touch with life and the processes of life in this world for whatever reason,

    There are various forms of discrimination whether subtle or not, for example if I know that 80% of people from this neighborhood or group don’t attain college degrees,

    I can set the job requirements to a point at which a degree is required, or another example is when companies advertise position and state that you must be from an English speaking country (namely the seven),

    Certain people won’t accept things, that’s life, let them be,
    Who’s to say who is right in a world of opinions,
    for some people its the most High GOD the Father of Yesu that is the authority on right and wrong,

    for others its there customs and traditions, opinions will always abound but the results of what is practiced is the greatest testimony,

    Mahalo, for your time.

    1. Dear TrueLokahi,

      Thank you for your readership.

      It is true: many international schools do not offer inclusive programs for children with disabilities. It is my understanding, from speaking with people who specialize in this area, that the winds are shifting toward more inclusion, and some prominent international schools are opening up in this regard. Still, as you point out – this is not yet the norm.

      Also agreed that various forms of discrimination exist within our social and cultural structures. My post was meant to highlight discrimination (or, rather, inclusion) within the educational context.



      1. Mahalo, Emily for your reply,

        ‘My post was meant to highlight discrimination (or, rather, inclusion) within the educational context.’

        I feel you on that and hence the part about the mentally or physically disabled and
        a preference on hiring teachers from the English speaking countries (namely the seven: USA, Canada, NZ, UK, Australia, South Africa, and Ireland).

        Which is rather ironic when we talk about inclusion or discrimination, because this is a subtle form of it.

        And what therefore happens is that the contributions to “International Education” is in many ways processed through the lenses of those with Western Ideologies.

        Which carries with it, its values and customs, that are linked to it. We may value freedom of speech, choice, etc. But that style or approach is not functional in a society where people are nurtured otherwise.
        If we believe people shouldn’t be forced to conform to traditions and customs that are contradictory to our own beliefs than we also have to accept the inverse of that.

        And maybe if we bend the mirror a bit we can see that these differences in views, and compromises or lack thereof may also be a special form of inclusion in its own right.


        1. Dear TrueLokahi,

          Thank you for your reply, and I regret that we cannot discuss further in person – I think it would be a very interesting conversation!

          If you have the time, I invite you to read my post on hidden curriculum. I think it may speak to some of what you’ve articulated.

          When it comes to cultural traditions, I agree that it can be valuable for students and educators to learn from the school’s host culture. That said, the point of my post above is that I draw the line when these cultural traditions violate human rights.



  2. I am not a Trump fan, but I am a fan of intelligence. You seem to be neither. If you want to take on an American initiative towards education, you should look at the last 3 presidential attitudes about the same. It is easy to pile on Trump, I know> I have been doing it for a long time now. But your attitude about what is “right” and “wrong” is very interesting when viewed through the lens of an IB mindset. You might have heard of IB at some point in your vast experience in international education.

  3. As International teachers, we are subject to the will of our board and parents. It is nice to state what should be and what is right, but when you might state this, you will certainly be sent packing. Such a diva mentality. I wish you would try and get a job at half the schools represented with that attitude. You know nothing.

    1. Dear T. Herrold,

      Thank you for your readership.

      It is difficult to offer much of a response to your comments, as they are directed at me personally, rather than the content of my writing.

      I will note that, while the title of my post does include the word trump, it is intended as a verb, and completely unrelated to President Trump. I hope that helps to clear things up for you.



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