During my previous articles on this page I have raised critique against intercultural learning (ICL) as used in European youth work these days. I have described how some intercultural learning exercises like the Derdians, where participants are split into those that have modern knowledge and those that have traditional culture, present an old-fashioned understanding of culture, leading to the risk of creating prejudices through intercultural learning.
It might now be time for a small disclaimer – or as we would say in Danish (according to an old aphorism), we have to watch out that we do not “throw out the baby with the bathwater”. Intercultural learning focusing on creating awareness of cultural differences can be useful… in certain situations at least.
Many exercises that are prevalent in current European youth work are based on work done within the business sector. The business sector has developed training programmes, which aim at making business men or diplomats aware of cultural differences in other countries, when they take an overseas assignment or have to negotiate with businesses from other countries.
If one single person is going to travel to another (culturally very different) country, there is indeed a big chance that the persons he will encounter with, will on average be “culturally different” than him, and he does well in adapting his communication style accordingly if he wants a successful outcome for himself and the company.
This approach adapted to youth work makes sense when it comes to preparing individuals for a long term exchange programme like European Voluntary Service (EVS) projects of the YOUTH programme. Or when it comes to developing projects with organisations from diverse countries that have to reach a common agreement.
However, the same ICL approach is used during trainings focusing on societal changes – on involving ethnic minorities in youth work, on fostering diversity, fighting xenophobia, racism and intolerance etc. The argument goes that because it all has to do with culture the answer is the same: increase the contact between culturally diverse people, make them aware of cultural differences, and voila… you get tolerance, acceptance etc!
Practice seems to be based on the “contact hypothesis” that came into fashion in the 50's stating that increased contact would automatically diminish prejudices – unless the contact was superficial. So one of the objectives of many short-term exchanges, seminars and trainings is to get a group of people together from as many nations as possible (both in the team as in the group of participants) – the greater the geographical spread the better.