Theory Teacher's Blog

intercultural competency

A new buzzword these days for educators is “intercultural competency.” It was in the NY Times a few days ago [here], and I’ve heard the phrase tossed about quite a bit this past year in various places. There’s even a conference about it coming up in Minnesota [here].  Apparently, one of the new duties of universities is to instill this competency in students, along with all of the other competencies we have long known about and included in core curriculums around the country, such as writing, speaking, critical thinking, math, science, and art appreciation. So, what is this intercultural competency and is it really the best model for what we need to achieve with our students?

Before I get to this question, I want to engage in a little thought experiment by asking what the standard is for judging scientific competency. Since most liberal arts colleges and public universities require some kind of science class for all students, I pose this analogy between scientific competency and intercultural competency as a way of thinking through the goals of both and how they are achieved. In principle, the goal of scientific competency seems to be our students’ understanding of the scientific method and their ability to put that methodology into effective practice. I suppose one could also hope for a sense of not only the potential but also the limits of empirical inquiry, though I’m not sure even all professional scientists have a proper sense of its limits. However, in actual practice at most colleges and universities, such comptency seems to be measured by whether a student has taken at least one science class, in which he or she bought a really, really expensive textbook and regurgitated the tons of information contained in that textbook on two or three exams.

So, on the one extreme, scientific competency is very easy and probably was learned already in elementary school. It is nothing more than a basic appreciation of how data is gathered and hypotheses tested. One almost doesn’t need a class for that, as it is more of an ethical attitude than it is a technical skill or body of accumulated knowledge. And on the other extreme, scientific competency would require the student to have mastered the basics of biology, chemistry, and physics as well as the techniques of laboratory science. And on this extreme, one would have to be a science major in order to really have that competency, which is perhaps why so few of our students graduating with degrees in art or literature feel that have any scientific competency at all. In between these two extremes, I think most of us can agree that the laboratory experience is the most important thing here – learning and practicing how to pose a hypothesis and set up the proper laboratory conditions for testing that hypothesis.

Is intercultural comptency the same? Is it nothing more than having the proper ethical attitude, or is it a technical skill or body of knowledge? On one extreme, intercultural comptency seems little more than being polite, not passing judgement too quickly, demonstrating an openness to the points of view of others. In other words, not being a jerk. And on the opposite extreme, a real competence requires at least a partial (if not a total) mastery of the other culture — its language, its codes of conduct, and its history. Hence, only someone who specializes in the “other” culture and has perhaps spent significant time in it is “competent.”

Perhaps the proper ethical attitude of science and interculture is learned the same way as the Calvinist interpretation of Judeo-Christian Law — through a confrontation with one’s own inadequacy before it. In other words, the sooner one recognizes one’s own ignorance, the sooner one could be said to be scientifically and interculturally competent. The saving grace of intercultural competency descends upon our students at precisely the moment when they break down in rapturous sobs before the hugeness of their task — the bigness not of the other, but of the Other (i.e., the “big Other,” meaning the symbolic order which constitutes our subjectivity but which we never fully understand, according to the jargon of Lacanian psychoanalysis.) Of course, as I hope you can tell, I’m somewhat joking in this paragraph, but nevertheless, that attitude is implicit in the rhetoric of intercultural competency — that ultimately the student is being judged by the self-appointed authorities of the politically correct moral order.

But I doubt that’s what any university or high school administration actually wants. So, what is wanted here? An insipid valuation of difference? As in, “we’re all different, hooray!” I learned that watching Sesame Street as a kid. And clearly the logic of celebrating difference for difference’s sake breaks down when you look not at ethnicity but at disparities in wealth. Nobody would say, “I’m rich, and you’re poor, but I value our differences, and I want to enable you to retain the integrity of your culture of poverty.” Because of course the poor person would justifiably respond by saying, “fuck you.”

And so, as we all know, difference for difference’s sake is not really the goal of diversity. Rather, it seems to be that we are supposed to learn that our culture is not universal — that not only can we learn about another’s culture, but we can learn to communicate across those cultural differences. Hence, as with scientific competency, the goal is somewhere between the two extremes, and so the goal here is to give the students the tools with which to practice communicating with people perceived to be “different.” 

However, there are some factual errors and ethical problems with this model of intercultural competency as it has been posed. 

The main factual error is rather obvious. Is my “American” culture pizza, coffee, and going to the movie theater? Or is that Italian, Ethiopian, and French culture? And if the clothes I am presently wearing and computer I am currently using were both made in Indonesia, and if I can “buy the world a Coke” in every country in the world, then what cultural differences are we talking about? After all, even a cursory glance at the Old Testament of the Bible will reveal quite a lot of interaction among groups of people living in Palestine, Ethiopia, Babylon, and Egypt, and such relations were economic, political, and transformative. In other words, even thousands of years ago, one could not say that anyone had a determinate culture. There was too much mixture, and as even a cursory read of Bible shows you, that mixture was political and it was economic, not just cultural.

I’m not sure the intercultural comptency model addresses this historical interrelation because its two starting points are (1) an appreciation of the other’s culture, and (2) an appreciation that I also have a culture. In other words, at it’s core, this model avoids history. For instance, an “East meets West” or “North meets South” model of cultural communication imagines that they are meeting for the first time, when in fact, these cultures met long, long ago and have been dynamically interrelated for generations.

Even more importantly, what we must see that the rhetoric of intercultural competency often masks is something Fredric Jameson pointed out very clearly in his “Notes on Globalization as a Philosophical Issue.” And that is the economic conditions of both the differences between peoples and the commonalities they share. In a nutshell, the long historical process of globalization produces both — that it intensifies not only sameness (as in a McDonalds in every nation) but also intensifies differences (as in South Ossetia’s recent independence movement). And these seeming cultural differences are not trivial and arbitrary when they are accompanied by disparities in political power and economic wealth. And so, my problem with the phrase “intercultural competency” is that it celebrates the effects of a historical process but refuses to focus its pedagogic and ethical lens upon that process.

In addition to the many factual errors of the intercultural competency model, there are also some basic ethical paradoxes. The main ethical paradox is this: intercultural competency is both morally relativistic and morally absolute at the same time. It contradicts itself. It is relativistic because it posits that there is no universal culture — that each and everyone comes from their own culture, and each culture is valuable. However, if our cultural identities are so arbitrary and not grounded in anything universal, then why are they valuable at all? Why is any culture worth preserving?

A model that asserts that every culture ought to be valued and preserved allows little room for ethical and economic development. Why should I be so complacent about my cultural identity? If my country is oppressing another country, or if my country is exploiting the labor of another country, shouldn’t I be questioning my culture and not affirming it? Is there no standard by which I can judge the actions of somebody? If another culture is repressive of women, can’t I say so?

And in fact, although there have been movements of women across the globe for generations, one wonders how well an intercultural comptency model would enable a white, middle-class student in Minnesota to even recognize the very old forms of feminism in Japan or in Afghanistan or would give that student the tools to see how the feminisms in these countries are affected not only by factors internal to their “culture” but also by factors external to it — namely, in the particular case of both Afghanistan and Japan, the cold war between Russia and the United States from the 1950s to the late 1980s.

So, we can see that intercultural comptency is not really about comptency. It’s really about ethics, and a special kind of ethics that is deeply situated in a dynamic historical context.

I want to conclude with a final anecdote. I was listening to the radio news several months ago, and the journalist was talking about ethnic gangs in California — black, Latino, Korean, and Vietnamese — all of them competing for turf and control of the illegal drug market. Interestinglly, many of the leaders of these gangs demonstrated a high degree of intercultural competency. They knew each others’ languages, religious holidays, and codes of conduct. They even respected each others’ differences, so that a gang wouldn’t attack on the other’s holiday (unlike when George Washington attacked the British army on Christmas.) But that is all they knew. Their relationship was not exactly what we would call ethical, though it did follow a cross-cultural code of honor, and the gang members had no historical understanding. They were not fully conscious of the larger economic conditions that caused them to join gangs in the first place. I would hope that we want something more for our students than this.

October 2, 2008 - Posted by | global, race


  1. So what you’re saying is that being cultural competent lies in understanding the other culture, understanding the past history with it, and understanding both why that history occurred and what it’s done to relations between the two cultures in question in the present?

    But I see what you’re saying about blanket terms like culture and how we define the boundaries of cultures — Trade is a great equalizer on that level, as I’ve found out in Linguistics so far.

    Comment by Megan G | October 2, 2008 | Reply

  2. There’s more to it than that, Megan. Yes, you’re right, that trade is an equalizer sometimes, but it can also produce disparities and inequalities as well. Trade is neither moral or immoral. It simply is. But the people who engage in trade have the potential to be ethical, and so…

    Comment by steventhomas | October 2, 2008 | Reply

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