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Do intercultural Citizens need to be intellectually humble?

7 October 2019
By Manuela Wagner and Michael Byram

The late Paddy Ashdown, British politician and diplomat, emphasized in 2012 “In the modern age, where everything is connected to everything, the most important thing about what you can do is what you can do with others.” (2012  ). In 2015, 193 world leaders committed to 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development (UN General Assembly, 2015) as “a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity” (p. 1). Given the many interconnected problems of global proportion, collaborating with people from a variety of backgrounds is necessary for society to thrive, and soon, to survive. However, divisiveness about important issues seems to be the norm in political discourse around the globe in which people talk past each other and not with each other. In this series of blog posts we ponder the question of how educators can contribute to students’ ability to communicate with those from different backgrounds (e.g., in terms of their political orientation, culture, etc.). In particular, we are interested in the development of language education and two concepts we think play a role: intellectual humility and intercultural competence.

What is ‘intercultural competence’? In short, individuals who are interculturally competent are those who are able to interact with people from different contexts, and/or mediate between people of different contexts who are seeking to interact. They interact with others and discover new information and gain knowledge. In order to do so, they are curious, open-minded and tolerate ambiguity. In the end they are able to judge an event based on specific and consciously analysed criteria – rather than prejudiced and thoughtless reaction -, juxtaposing and taking into account other people’s perspectives and their own (for more information, see Byram, 1997, 2008).

A number of language educators, and more recently educators from other disciplines, have been applying this educational model with students who are able to engage in intercultural dialogue. Students have , for example, worked together with students from another country (or with students from different contexts within the same country) to analyse and resolve a societal problem. When they attempt to resolve a problem in the here and now by taking some action in their community – and not just thinking about it within the classroom –  they apply their intercultural competence to act as ‘intercultural citizens’.

In an era in which our students are confronted with fake facts and in which it seems easier to either hide in echo chambers or let off steam in shouting matches with ‘others’, educators might first have to help students interpret and evaluate information in order to gain knowledge. In order to do so, students must admit that there is something they do not know that is they must show some degree of intellectual humility. ‘Intellectual humility’ is defined as owning the limitations of one’s knowledge, and accepting one’s own intellectual limitations.

Intellectual humility is not easy. In times in which standardized tests assess what students know and often decide what students can do after they graduate, it would not be surprising if students were reluctant to admit that they ‘don’t know’. Not knowing in such contexts means being vulnerable. However, we contend that if we do not help our students be(come) curious, ask questions, make and admit mistakes and limitations, ask for help, and give credit for contributions by others, all of which are characteristics of intellectually humble individuals,  they cannot be good collaborators and intercultural citizens.

To look at this from another perspective: If we want our students to engage with each other and communicate across difference, they need to be open to listening to those who have different opinions and different information and they need to be able to judge this information critically. They will only listen to others if they do not feel they already know everything. Intellectual humility and intercultural competence are closely related, as intercultural competence also includes the ability to avoid prejudiced judgements about others by looking critically at one’s own beliefs and values. In terms of intellectual humility this is often referred to as changing one’s views or admitting a mistake. The connections between intercultural competence and intellectual humility thus become evident and there are potential mutual benefits in bringing together theories and practices from work on both.

One locus of recent work on intercultural competence is at the Council of Europe and its 48 member states. Over the past six years, the Council of Europe has designed its  Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture (RFCDC) (2018) which can be used by educators to foster students’ skills, attitudes, knowledge and values needed for intercultural dialogue in multilingual and pluricultural societies. The RFCDC provides a means of planning and evaluating the teaching of intercultural and democratic competences in all subjects and in educational institutions as a whole. From our analysis of the role of intellectual humility in intercultural competence, we can say that helping students understand their intellectual limitations will be a significant complement to any endeavor in which we aim to foster intercultural dialogue. This is one example of where insights from work on intellectual humility could benefit work on intercultural competence.

Cooperation in the opposite direction might come from analysis of approaches to education for intellectual humility. Regardless of how one goes about helping students become more comfortable with the limitations of their knowledge, we feel that it is more important than ever to foster students’ willingness and ability to be curious and ask questions, to listen to those with different perspectives and find solutions collaboratively, ie crucial elements of intercultural competence.

Focusing on a combination of intercultural competence and intellectual humility seems to be a feasible approach to educate those who can address the challenges we face. In the next blog of this three-blog series, we will take a closer look at the relationship between conviction and intercultural competence in education.

Picture: Open Gate by the authors



1 comment
  1. Wade Schuette

    I would like to suggest a third axis that might be called “perceptual humility” — namely, recognizing, owning, and trying to constantly correct for the ways that our brain’s visual hardware can lie to us.

    The ubiquitous and unchallenged use of visual terms such as “seeing a fact” or “different perspective” is just one manifestation of how humans have taken advantage of their incredibly sophisticated visual neurons to use for “thinking.” Interestingly enough, today’s computer operating systems are likewise making ever more use of embedded “image-processing” chips to do other tasks. A knowledge of the strengths and flaws of this perceptual system which humans have evolved without clear design specs is crucial to seeing how it can alter, filter, and even create our knowledge and beliefs about the world. It is by no means some sort of passive camera that simply shows us “what is out there” — it is a very active agent that is gated by our beliefs and expectations to “focus” ( note the term ) our attention on some subset of the avalanche of possible inputs and interpretations.

    It is a very active participant in “keeping a picture in mind” what is “obvious” to us. And it is very easily fooled. Examples of optical illusions are easy to find. Perhaps the most obvious optical illusion is that the sun rotates around the flat earth that stretches into the distance with us at the center.

    I call attention to this for several reasons. First, it is easier on the ego to sell the idea that one’s internal camera is malfunctioning than that one’s knowledge of the world is wrong. Heck, most of us don’t challenge a need for glasses or contact-lenses or mock those who need them. Second, it is easy to find as teaching aids apolitical examples of cases where students are guaranteed to mis-perceive reality. A huge amount is now known about both the anatomy, psychology, and algorithms of “vision” and “machine vision.”

    This means that a short curriculum could be created to teach “perceptual humility” and there is no reason anyone should get less than a perfect score at the end of the course. This can be taught, and learned, quickly and apolitically.

    Then, although much harder, it should then be possible to work out ways to build on this base and get students to realize that pretty much everything they “know” about the world, and what they “see” around them has to be taken with a grain of salt, regardless how “obvious” it is. Examples from the literature on how peer pressure reliably alters perception itself are available, on everything from which line is longer to which way to face in an elevator.

    One hard but soluble problem is the dilemma that, if you cannot trust your own eyes, what can you trust? This conflict, if left unresolved, is toxic because it will cause the whole subject to be suppressed and lost (just as history books have reduced the terrible Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 to at most a sentence, if that.) Possibly useful, this problem of how to operate with possibly-faulty data is well studied in training pilots to fly “on instruments” where they have to deal with the fact that sometimes lie to you ( eg 737 MAX) and so you must actively decide which to trust and which to ignore.

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