Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: August, 2015

Describing Switzerland

I am writing from Switzerland, where I live and work. This is a difficult place to explain to people in the Americas and Asia. To people in Europe it is familiar, perhaps a bit quaint.

This country is, you might say, a hole in the middle of Europe. It is not a member of the European Union. Up till recently, it didn’t even belong to the United Nations. Its policy has been abstentionist. It does things its own way. It is particularist, both to the outer world and within its own borders. It has four languages; these have dialects in every town and valley. Not only every canton, but just about every village gets to pass its own laws and run its own affairs.

All this, of course, makes Switzerland a microcosm of Europe. And the genius of Europe has always been its extreme diversity in terms of language, culture, and ways of doing things.

But in another way, Switzerland is two worlds. It is a landscape where there are two kinds of people: natives and tourists. They look at the same landscape, but they see it differently. They experience it differently. The tourists do not come to take part in the life of the locals. They come to do their own thing.

For the English in Victorian days, it was a place to climb mountains. That had never occurred to the locals. Later they did it, and all learned to ski too. But it wasn’t their idea.

Here in the Grisons, it is folkloric and homey, a place where Romansh is spoken, for instance. But to the great figures of German literature and thought who came here, Nietzsche and Hermann Hesse, Rilke and Thomas Mann, it was something else. It was a place where you could experience extremes, a sort of enchanted world where anything was possible. This imaginary world is totally foreign to the locals.

So this country is a place of physical adventure, and of mental adventure – but for the locals, it’s just home. Most of the time, the Swiss manage to behave as if the others weren’t there.

This is as true for people in the cities, as it is up in the Alps. Yet the cities of Switzerland are also the world of banks and finance and investment. When the Swiss author and revolutionary Jean Ziegler said to Che Guevara that he was sick of living in Geneva and was thinking of emigrating to Cuba, Che demurred: “Tu es dans le cerveau du monstre; c’est ici ton combat.” Meaning that he was in the brains of the monster of capitalism, so why should he go anywhere else to fight it.

Switzerland is indeed a centre for many things that have very little to do with the ordinary Swiss. It is not a centre but a hole in the centre of the Western world, which makes it all the more important.

So what is Switzerland? It depends. Anyone you ask that question, also ask them: “are you Swiss, or from somewhere else?” Because the answers will be different each time.


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A generic curriculum of intercultural communication

How do you teach intercultural communication ? Typically you will be dealing with pairs of cultures – for example, trying to teach Swiss to communicate with Japanese. This may involve learning the language, or it may not. But surely the inventory of points to be covered in a serious course will be the same for every pair of cultures, though the emphases will vary. No matter who is learning about what culture, they will have to learn “how to introduce themselves”, “how to shop”, “how to behave if invited to a meal in someone’s home”, and that kind of thing. So there can be a generic curriculum for teaching intercultural communication.

When I worked for the British Columbia ministry of education in the 1980s, we worked on a generic curriculum for teaching languages in schools. This had become possible with the adoption of the “communicative” approach to language teaching fostered by the Council of Europe. In this approach, which has since become widespread, you don’t focus on learning grammar but on communicating in the language: greeting, introducing yourself, asking for information, accepting invitations, and so on. These are called “functions”. There are also “notions” or topics to learn about, such as school, shopping, travel, family life, and so on.

At the time, we realized that there could be a cultural component to this generic language curriculum. For every function or notion in whatever language, there was a cultural aspect to be learned. How do you introduce yourself in Japan – depending on who it is you are talking to ? How are schools organised in France ?

Lately I have come to realize that the cultural component of a generic curriculum for language teaching could stand alone. It would, in fact, be a generic curriculum for intercultural communication. You could use this with students who needed to learn intercultural communication but were not learning a language. For example, American managers going to Australia, where they would be speaking English but dealing with a different culture. Or French engineers going to Francophone Africa, where they were not going to learn the local language but needed to learn the local culture. Or Swiss businesspeople going to Japan, where they would not have time to learn the language – they would try to talk to their hosts in English – but would still need some cultural coaching to stay out of trouble.

Obviously, such a generic curriculum for intercultural communication as I am proposing can’t be claimed to be universal. For one thing, it is written in a language. For another thing, it will reflect the cultural perceptions of whoever writes it, and it will be slanted towards the cultural needs of the intended learners. If I write a generic curriculum in English for the use of English Canadians, cultural slant or selectivity is inevitable. So there can be no universal curriculum, and the various versions of it that are made, and the specific versions for particular pairs of cultures that are derived from it, will all feed back usefully to the original. A generic curriculum will not, cannot be cast in stone.

Role for Sri Lanka’s Diaspora

The eyes of the world have been on Sri Lanka as the people go to the polls. In spite of everything that has happened, the island is a functioning democracy where the voters can make a difference – as we have seen now, more than once.

Is there going to be real reconciliation between Sinhalese and Tamils? Because that would be what Sri Lanka needs. It won’t happen, however, as long as there are traditional prejudices and nationalistic positions entrenched on both sides.

There has always been a temptation in such a situation for the majority to say “it’s our country, dammit!” and then “if the others don’t like it – they can go somewhere else”. Trouble is, look what happens. Louis XIV gave the Huguenots a shove, and they went – they went to other countries in Europe, settled there, and put all their work into developing new things. All the other countries profited, and it was France’s loss.

All around the world there is a huge (mainly Tamil) Sri Lankan diaspora that did not exist before. It is tough on them, tough on the families who saw them go, but it is a challenge in the positive sense, an opportunity – not only for them, but for Sri Lanka. Now it is up to the Sri Lankan diaspora in places like Canada to think of helping in rebuilding the country and solving the problems. Precisely they have something important to contribute, because they have got off the island, out of the entrenched mindset. They have seen the rest of the world, especially the younger generation who may have been born in exile. Of course, the temptation for them is to say “the hell with it – we have had enough – we will just build a new life for ourselves here”. Like the Huguenots did. But Sri Lanka deserves better. The country deserves a future.

Multiculturalism, or what?

In Quebec, there is renewed talk lately about the pros and cons of multiculturalism, and what stance to adopt with regard to cultural diversity in French Canadian society.

Multiculturalism is, as it happens, a very Canadian notion. It is a policy developed at the end of the 1960s by the federal government in Ottawa under Pierre Trudeau as an explicit contrast with the American “melting pot”. It was proclaimed that Canada had two official languages, but no official culture. Now, if you know anything about cultures and their relation to languages, this must sound like a highly dubious proposition. Yet multiculturalism became by default the trademark of Canada, and today English Canada is officially, self-designatedly, multicultural. The minority of people who do not buy into it are branded as rednecks (and usually they are).

Dissenting voices from Quebec have never been lacking, however. French Canadians, who are ethnically homogeneous, saw multiculturalism as an attempt by English Canada to dilute their identity. They tried to go their own way in dealing with the fact of immigration by coming up with an alternative approach, something they call interculturalism (meaning exchanges between cultures rather than cultures being interchangeable) and by designating French as the language of public communication between cultural groups. Language is much more of an issue for them than for English Canada, where people have the luxury of not worrying about the supremacy of English.

There, multiculturalism is a policy which has become an unquestionable ideology – that is not to say it is a reality on the ground. English-Canadian journalists, politicians and academics keep proclaiming that the country has “moved on” from its traditional French-English antagonisms and is now benignly multicultural. The less palatable reality is that immigrants have to adopt the English language and with it Anglo-Saxon cultural ways to the ultimate exclusion of their own. English Canada disguises its grey monolithic identity with the red herring of multiculturalism. The suspicion in Quebec that multiculturalism is part of a plan to undermine French Canada is not without foundation. Anglo apologists of multiculturalism often use it to disguise their antipathy to French Canada in an age when ethnic antipathies are no longer allowed to be expressed openly.

The problem is that multiculturalism is itself a cultural product, which makes sense in one society but not in the other. There’s no getting outside culture, even when you talk about culture.


Spolia (2)

Last week, looking at the spolia which are a feature of architecture in the Mediterranean world, I talked about how ideas as well as hunks of stone get recycled over the centuries and the millennia. When I reflect on this, I feel prompted to ask: is there not space for a new discipline that would specialize in recycling obsolete systems of knowledge?

The cue is given by Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game. In his novel of that name, he envisaged a future world in which all the intellectual content of the past, from East and West, would be expressed in a new formalism like music (or Chinese characters) and played like the contrasting themes and the variations in a musical composition. What is interesting is that he shows the possibility of adapting formal structures from one field of endeavour for use in another. The result is new insight, and a kind of beauty of form.

Now Hesse’s was a work of imagination. But spolia are also of practical value. Obsolete systems of knowledge often contain useful elements which are lost when a new theoretical orthodoxy establishes itself. As Kuhn with his perspective on “paradigms” made clear, the baby often gets thrown out with the bath-water. Today there is much talk of “research traditions” in the sciences of man, which have useful ideas in them that are forgotten when there is no-one to pursue them.

In the philosophy of knowledge, Karl Popper’s “World 3” is a world of propositions and theories (besides “World 1”, physical states, and “World 2”, mental states). Although World 3 content originates in the brains of particular thinkers, it is independent of individuals and thus potentially accessible to all. Popper pointed out that his World 3 contains not only true propositions, but also false ones, or partly-true ones. Indeed, he says, we can never know that propositions are true, and the chances are that they will be superseded sooner or later by something better. What Popper didn’t touch on was: what do we do with the obsolete propositions? Do they just gather dust, like books in a library that are no longer read? Surely something can be done with them.

In history, this has always been so. Great cultural leaps forward by nations in the past were not an accident; more often than not, they were due to traditions that were recycled in new ways. Often it was a religious tradition that was adapted to a secular context, but there are many other examples.

So let us not throw everything away whenever a new orthodoxy establishes itself. Let us diligently search among the rubble of discarded theories and find what we can use for new purposes. A fine old pillar in a palace can still serve as a pillar in a new cathedral. Or, even more interestingly, an architectural element can be reused for a completely different function. In the new building, it all somehow makes sense in a way that the original builder could never have dreamed of.