Travel to learn or not at all

How limited is our own learning and understanding when working in other cultures? Calligraphy - Shaoxing China

How limited is our own learning and understanding when working in other cultures?
Calligraphy – Shaoxing China

“I fear the Greeks, even when they offer gifts”

Virgil Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes – The Aeneid

Between 1822 and 1846 a most remarkable English woman named Fanny Parkes lived and travelled in India. The wife of an official responsible for ice making working within the strictures of the East India Company, Fanny Parkes arrived in India confident in the superiority of European culture and customs and prepared to live the life of a typical memsahib under the protection of the British Empire. Hers could so easily have become a familiar story of a woman living a sheltered existence under the British colonial authority  that dominated the Indian sub-continent at this time, but unlike so many of her counterparts, Fanny Parkes came to respect the history and culture of the country in which she was a guest (when so many others felt they were there by right). The Scottish historian and writer William Dalrymple has lovingly collated Fanny Parkes’ papers and diaries and published them under the title Begums, Thugs and White Mughals* and in doing so provides readers with her personal insights into life in India during the early nineteenth century.

The reason I am so fascinated by the account of Fanny Parkes’ life is that at a time of repressive imperialism when not only British officials, but others from across Europe thought that their own form of “civilization” and life style was superior to that of other nations, she recognised that by respecting the cultural traditions of others it was possible to learn and understand that alternative interpretations of the world had much to offer. During her time in India Fanny Parkes travelled widely – a particularly enjoyable part of the book is her account of a lengthy journey by boat along the Ganges, but she also learned languages, studied Indian music including the playing of the sitar, art and cuisine and developed an appreciation of the intricacies of both Hindu and Muslim religious practices and their texts. Dalrymple, who is surely one of the finest European chroniclers of Indian history presents us with a picture of a lady who by showing respect for local people found that this was reciprocated. Yet she was derided by many of her English contemporaries who saw her as eccentric and failing to uphold the dignified aloofness expected of a representative of empire.

Fanny Parkes lived during an era when the imposition of western ideas and beliefs upon the rest of the world had become the norm. Fortunately the twentieth century saw a diminishing of the power held by previous colonial powers as countries  across Asia and Africa gained their independence and began to take greater control of their own destinies. Many of us now look upon the writings of Fanny Parkes and others like her, with admiration for the stance she took in trying to bring to the attention of others, the great histories and culture of peoples who had been looked upon as subjects to be shaped into the mould of Europeans.

I would suggest that the lessons we can learn by reading the accounts provided by Fanny Parkes and others of like mind are relevant to those of us working in education today. Not only does she provide us with an example of someone who demonstrated the importance of respecting tradition and culture, but I believe she gives us food for thought about the ways in which we conduct ourselves as teachers working within international contexts. Increasingly today we find international collaborations between individuals and the institutions they represent, with academics, teachers and researchers travelling to visit unfamiliar circumstances in the name of educational advancement. These opportunities are to be welcomed so long as we are clear about what it is that motivates action and have well established principles that guide the way we  work.

Universities in particular have adopted the language and behaviours of businesses operating in an international market place. Sadly I often hear and read these days expressions such as, “China is a growing market for education”, or “Brazil offers rich opportunities for the expansion of university activities”. Whilst it is certainly true that universities need to keep themselves abreast of opportunities for the recruitment of students and the development of knowledge on an international scale, there are potential pitfalls that need to be considered. Not least of these are the motivations for the work to be undertaken. If universities focus solely upon economic gain they will most certainly find that after a relatively short time they will fall out of favour with the countries that they are currently wooing.  It is important to ensure that international partnerships are developed in which all involved are equal partners. The days of educational benefice should be confined to the past as we move forward with an intention of shared learning and understanding.

This shared learning is, for me, at the core of what we should be aiming to achieve. In my own field of special and inclusive education I have seen too many academics from western universities and other institutions travelling like colonial missionaries intent on bringing the good word of European, Australasian or North American education to those in need of enlightenment. Such retrograde behaviour must be rejected and confined to the annals of history.

The principles which should govern our international partnerships need to be expressed clearly by all involved. A partnership of equals needs to be established, but with host countries setting the agenda and inviting the participation of outsiders. It must be the educationists in the countries where work is to be undertaken who identify the needs which are to be addressed and the outcomes that they desire to see. There surely must be an obligation on those who visit countries for work to learn something of the history, culture and context of the places where they will operate. In this way respectful partnerships may be achieved and all involved will be able to learn and work together. Those who believe that western educational practices can simply be transferred to other contexts are both naïve and disrespectful to the rich educational heritage that has often existed in those countries far longer than those in our own lands.

In her lifetime Fanny Parkes failed to convince many of her contemporaries of the need to understand the people and culture of India and other countries that were under British subjugation. Even today there are individuals and organisations that believe themselves superior to those whose traditions, religions, or customs are different from their own. As teachers we should be committed to rise above these spurious notions and strive to achieve partnerships based upon respect and dignity.

Above all, when we travel to teach we should recognise that we have a unique opportunity, to learn from the people with whom we work. This will only happen if we see ourselves as neophytes and recognise our responsibilities as guests in the places that we visit. Those who travel in the belief that they are in some way superior would be best advised to stay at home.

*Begums, Thugs and White Mughals: The Journals of Fanny Parkes. (2002) Edited by William Dalrymple Published in London by Eland. ISBN: 978 090787188-0

Begums