How universities can teach their students to respect different cultures

Universities expose students to difference, providing them with a unique opportunity to learn from others. Shutterstock

Universities are diverse spaces. Their students are of different races and religions, belong to different socioeconomic groups and are even geographically different: some come from cities, others from rural areas and still more from completely different countries. With such exposure to difference, students have the unique opportunity to learn from others.

South Africa’s universities, however, are struggling when it comes to this sort of learning. Most, like their peers on the continent and globally, commit themselves publicly to core values such as diversity and global citizenship. Yet they are missing out on developing students’ intercultural competence, which is key to bringing those core values to life.

Intercultural competence is a combination of skills, knowledge and attitudes needed to engage successfully across difference. It’s what is required to get along at an interpersonal level with those who may not seem like us. Universities have an important role to play in developing this competence. Doing so can help equip graduates for living and working in the 21st century.

Focusing on intercultural competence can also encourage the kind of often hard discussions that will benefit South Africa in the long run. Apartheid physically kept people apart and this legacy persists, meaning that really getting to know different people is unlikely to happen organically for most South Africans. Educational institutions, at all levels, become key sites of intentional interactions and potential interventions that facilitate deeper connections with each other.

Formal lessons

Teaching intercultural competence can happen both formally – in the classroom and through the curriculum – and informally, through students’ activities and their daily lives in university residences and around campus.

Right now, it’s often language and business students who are primarily engaging with ideas of intercultural competence in class. For example, students learning Mandarin are also taught about Chinese culture and customs. Those who hope to work elsewhere in Africa will learn about other countries’ business customs so they do not accidentally offend a potential client. In these examples, the focus is on how to engage internationally. Not much is done to encourage respectful, nuanced interactions with fellow South Africans.

In the formal curriculum, universities should be examining what is taught, how it is taught and who is being taught in regard to intercultural learning, both domestically and internationally. For example, in medicine, intercultural competence might include providing similar scenarios with patients from a variety of cultural backgrounds and belief systems from within South Africa. This might affect whether a patient is addressed formally or informally, or whether certain foods can be prescribed as part of a diet. It will involve teaching students that some people may refuse blood transfusions or organ donations on religious grounds. Such heightened cultural awareness will aid students in approaching patients in ways that are open and respectful.

Teachers must also understand that all students arrive from different places and at different stages in their cultural development. Lecturers need to appropriately engage all students in the classroom to ensure that, at the end of their degrees, students can communicate intelligently and appropriately across cultures in order to begin moving beyond their own stereotypes and prejudiced views.

While these formal interventions are important, there is also a lot that can be done beyond the classroom to develop students’ intercultural competence.

Informal learning

Universities can boost intercultural competence elsewhere on campus, as much learning occurs outside the classroom.

Here’s a simple example: instead of providing only traditional spoons, knives and forks in dining halls, universities could offer students the opportunity to experience other meal utensils that may be unfamiliar to them, such as chopsticks or even their hands – students can learn that each is an equally valued but different way of consuming a meal.

Elsewhere, conversations could be facilitated around common interests, favourite memories or inspirational people. Through exploring commonalities, students begin to realise that they may have more in common with diverse others than not.

Tough personal questions

Being interculturally competent requires a commitment to an ongoing engagement with learning about ourselves and others. It requires doing some of the “hard work” on ourselves to become open human beings who can really live a life of interconnectedness – embracing learning about others and valuing others as fellow humans, regardless of differences that may seem to divide us. We need to ask ourselves questions such as, “How can I begin moving beyond my own biases? How can I engage those with whom I feel uncomfortable? How I can show my respect for those with whom I deeply disagree?”

A first step in this work might be to remember that we are all in this together and that our actions affect each other. Universities, individual students and staff members need to ask how they can practice these ideas in their daily lives and interactions with each other.

Another step is to remember that people are each so much more than one identity – and to instead begin seeing each other as richly complex humans. What are the multiple identities we each hold? How are we similar to each other and what do we have in common?

Third, we all need to have the courage to move beyond our comfort zones in beginning to get to know others who may not look, talk or think like us.

Constructive, transformative engagement

Focusing on intercultural competence may seem like a strange priority to those who have been watching South Africa’s student groundswell since late 2015. Why should universities focus on intercultural competence when there is other work to be done? Because, we’d argue, developing such competencies will allow people from different backgrounds to begin to engage constructively with each other at deeper and more transformative levels.

Such mutual engagement is good for university graduates, universities and the country as a whole as they work through the many issues South Africans must address.