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Open for Debate

The role of conviction in intercultural competence/citizenship

21 October 2019

In the previous blog we investigated the relationship between intellectual humility (owning the limitations of one’s knowledge) and intercultural citizenship (applying the knowledge, skills and attitudes of intercultural competence to solve real world problems in the here and now). The importance of becoming intercultural citizens, we argue, lies in the complexity of “wicked” problems of the 21st century , and therefore an increased and urgent need to collaborate with people who have different convictions which can otherwise cause increased hostility between people from different backgrounds.

In blog two of this series of three, we look at the role of convictions in our ability to act as intercultural citizens. We are particularly interested in how convictions, especially blind convictions, might prevent us from using our intellectual humility and from making judgments based on specific evidence. Blind convictions, per definition, are not the result of logical reasoning. Some convictions are ‘core’ to our way of thinking and living and it is argued that  core convictions are strongly linked to our identity, and as such they represent how we aspire to be seen (Lynch, 2019). It follows that we feel threatened in our identity whenever somebody disagrees with one of our core convictions. A problem arises when (some of) our core convictions turn out to be blind convictions, for then we have no basis for defense and the threat is all the stronger.

Lynch argues further that social media can function as a “blind conviction machine” which reinforces our (perhaps untenable) position.

Convictions, moreover, are shared and are part of the cultures of the social groups to which we belong and which give us a sense of self-esteem and even superiority (Tajfel  2001). Arrogance and the wish to belong to a certain group which shares (blind) convictions, is part of the explanation for the existence of fossilized, and often openly illogical positions of opponents in many public arguments, people who are otherwise perfectly able to use logical reasoning.

While there are certainly additional reasons for the lack of civility in public discourse, blind core convictions binding them to specific social groups may undermine students’ ability to collaborate to solve complex problems if, when they communicate across difference, they feel threatened in their identity. A lack of understanding of the processes and reasons for this results in the inability to address differences and, ultimately, in a communication breakdown. In other words, blind convictions are not only blind because they are not backed by a process of logical reasoning, but they also make us blind to possible solutions to problems. Within the framework we are proposing in this blog, namely that teaching should lead to action in the world in the here and now as well as in the future, the impact of blind convictions on actions is crucial and, we fear, may be debilitating.

Our fear is justified by Lynch who argues that  “because they reflect our self-identities, our convictions carry authority over our lives. Most obviously, they have the authority over our actions, they obligate us to do some things and grant us permission to do others” (Lynch, 2019, pp.6); (blind) convictions may prevent us from accepting a proposal to take a specific action by someone in another social group. To anticipate this problem we need to understand our convictions and the potential harmful effect on our choices of action with others from other cultures with different convictions.

In the model of intercultural competence we have used in our work, the element called ‘critical cultural awareness’ is a means of challenging blind convictions and paving the way for cooperation with others. It is defined as: ‘an ability to evaluate, critically and on the basis of explicit criteria, perspectives, practices and products in one’s own and other cultures and countries’ (Byram, 1997: 53). If, when we make explicit our criteria for evaluating actions and their grounds, we find that we have some that do not withstand critical analysis, then we know we have blind convictions which must be either rationalized or dropped from our way of thinking and our identity. Maintaining  blind convictions could, furthermore, lead us to actions that do not cohere with our and others’  rationalized way of life or to fail to act when we should.

With this in mind, we now provide an example of how intercultural citizenship education with a focus on intellectual humility and critical cultural awareness can help students understand how convictions develop. Our example demonstrates how teachers can help foster criticality in students that facilitates their ability to communicate and collaborate with people of different convictions.

Prior work in intercultural citizenship and intellectual humility education has shown that students’ beliefs can change. For example, in a unit in which high school students in a Spanish language classroom in the US were asked to act as interpreters and mediators for a hypothetical family that had recently immigrated to the US from a Latin American country, students first completed a questionnaire with a number of statements assessing their beliefs about immigration. Statements included the notion that everybody can find a job in the US if they want to work and that you can become successful and wealthy if you work hard enough.

Students then started to investigate the background of ‘their’ family (educational level, age, financial situation, number of children, etc.) and what the family would need to become satisfactorily established in the US. The data describing the families were based on the most recent census data. Some students expressed surprise at how little money some families had to live on, whereas others were surprised that some families’ financial situation was rather robust. Students also discovered that many of the documents and websites immigrants need to understand are not translated. The next step was that they planned various ways in which they could help their family in terms of translating, literally and metaphorically, what they needed to know and do in the process of becoming integrated into US society.

At the end of the unit students wrote reflections and shared what they learned. It was clear that their experiences had made them think about immigration in ways that now included different perspectives which made them question prior conceptions.

Although this is a short example it shows that, with systematic intervention – and the key word here is ‘systematic’ –  students’ beliefs or preconceived notions can change, this being the first step towards critically evaluating the convictions they had before the project began.  Evaluation of one’s belief system can thus be achieved through helping students question what they believe is true, by asking them to consider different perspectives and compare what they consider ‘normal’ with evidence of ‘normality’ from another culture provided by someone else with a different belief system.

Evaluation requires open-mindedness, the willingness to tolerate ambiguity – characteristics of intercultural competence – and ones related to intellectual humility. We need to admit that we do not know everything we need to know and that we might have wrong information. Critical cultural awareness, being able to judge an event, a document, a situation based on specific criteria, being able to evaluate information, and taking a step back to look at the origins of our convictions, is a prerequisite for a functioning democracy. This can however only take place in an environment which is risk-free and encouraging; risk of ridicule and undermining of long-held convictions is a significant factor in this process. Education has to create an atmosphere in which we are (again) able to deliberate and discuss on the basis of explicit reasoning, as opposed to unsupported assertions and prejudices. It is for example significant that in one of our projects the emphasis was on environmental issues as seen by students of 10-12 years, a project which anticipated the protests young people are currently making throughout the world. These recent demonstrations show how significant it is that our students can, with appropriate humility, analyze their convictions and reply in a reasoned way to the sometimes wild and prejudiced attacks on them, for this is crucial to their and our survival.

“favbridge” by antaean is licensed under CC BY 2.0