Towards Multiculturalism

By Parekh, Bhikhu | New Statesman (1996), October 16, 2000 | Go to article overview

Towards Multiculturalism


Parekh, Bhikhu, New Statesman (1996)


Our education is dominated by western ideas and beliefs. While this lasts, we cannot combat the cultural racism that permeates society.

The belief that only one way of life is truly human and should be adopted by all societies is a recurrent theme in the western tradition of political thought. It was first articulated by Plato, and further refined by Aristotle. It underlies the dominant Christian view that Christianity is the only true religion, others being false and their adherents in need of conversion. Liberalism reflects the same attitude, which is why it saw nothing wrong in justifying colonialism. Marxism, which rejected many liberal premises, shared the dominant view that all societies had an identical destination, which they reached by more or less the same route.

In spite of decolonisation and all that has happened since the Second World War, this belief continues to shape much of western thought and practice. It is widely assumed that western modernity is the only valid form of modernity and that liberalism represents its only authentic idiom, and all non-western societies are expected to imbibe its basic ideas, such as individualism, scientific rationalism, secularism and progress.

Because westocentrism is an integral part of our culture, with roots so deep that we are not even conscious of its influence, it is hardly surprising that it also dominates our education system, even at university level. It shapes our ideas of what forms of knowledge are valid, what methods of inquiry are legitimate, and determines what and how we teach. The limitations of such an educational system are obvious. It imprisons students within the dominant conceptual framework, fails to arouse their curiosity about others, and develops neither their powers of imagination nor self-criticism. Because students are encouraged to study other cultures and societies in terms of the categories of their own, and to judge them by their own standards, they understand them through superficial generalisations and stereotypes, and their self-understanding rarely rises above current prejudices.

Good academic education is dialogical in nature. It initiates the student in the art of participating in a creative interplay between different cultural perspectives on a given subject. Such education is essential in all social sciences, especially the study of politics. All political ideas are contextual in the sense that they arise out of reflection on a political system that is structured in a particular way. Although they seek to and can rise above their provenance, they invariably carry traces of their origins. Although they appear self-evident and universally valid, they are nothing of the kind.

If university education is to attain such worthwhile alms as the development of critical rationality, powers of imagination, a broad range of intellectual and moral sympathy, and the capacity for objective thought, students must learn to rise above cultural biases. They can do so not by moving to a "view from nowhere", but only by being exposed to other cultures, and by using each to interrogate and explore the strengths and limitations of others. Different cultures represent different systems of meaning and visions of the good life. Because each realises a limited range of human capacities and emotions, and grasps only a part of the totality of human existence, it needs others to understand itself better, to expand its intellectual and moral horizon, and to guard itself against the dangerous temptation to absolutise itself. A dialogue between cultures alerts them to their biases - a gain in itself -- and enables them to reduce such biases. The dialogue is possible only if each culture accepts others as equal conversational partners.

Take the deeply cherished idea of the individual in liberal societies. These societies take the self-contained individual as a fact of social life, see society as made up of individuals and conceptualise political life in terms of individual autonomy. …

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