The digital threat to cultural diversity
The digital revolution has brought many benefits, but librarian Uma Shankar Singh argues it can also pose a significant threat to cultural diversity in an international school.
View from the library
If the cultural identity of students in any school (especially international schools) is valued, it is important to realize that it being undermined in a perhaps unexpected way – by the digital revolution. This phenomenon is being examined by librarians in a field that is becoming known as “socio-librology” that looks at how the integration of technology within a library is creating a globalised, assimilated culture (homogenisation) which threatens the very cultural diversity international schools so often proudly proclaim.
Technology integration, cultural assimilation and multiculturalism
There are three important definitions one needs to understand in order to delve deeper into the issue of assimilation and the way it undermines multiculturalism in international schools.
The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) defines technology integration as the infusion of technology with curriculum to provide an impetus to learning in a specific content area or multidisciplinary setting. Its objective is to help students obtain information in a timely manner and analyze, synthesize and present the information obtained in a professional way. So far, so valuable!
Cultural Assimilation, however, or the “Melting Pot” theory provided by J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur and Israel Zangwill states that assimilation is the process of intermixing and fusion of various cultural groups wherein the assimilated group comes to acquire the sentiments, memories and attitudes of the prevalent, dominant culture, leading to a dissolved common cultural life.
Lastly, Horace Kallen’s concept of cultural pluralism or multiculturalism (The Right To Be Different, The Pluralism Project) argues that there has to be a consensus amongst the various cultural groups to recognize and respect one another, to work together and to disagree peacefully in order to resolve their differences.
Even though educational technology continues to flood our lives with new apps, gadgets and devices for ‘better implementation’ of teaching strategies and instruction in classrooms, this upsurge seems to be impacting the role of libraries as social spaces and preservers of multiculturalism. To understand this argument better, let’s examine the phenomenon in greater depth.
Libby Larsen, a classical composer once exclaimed, ” The great myth of our times is that technology is communication”. It’s difficult to disagree. Even though educational technology has supported interactive learning, it has also resulted in decreased communication between students belonging to various communities, leading to an assimilated culture.
International schools, where students from various cultures and backgrounds arrive and then leave after a relatively short time, can create a vicious cycle of cultural shocks, wherein students are constantly involved in a race to “adapt” to new learning environments and “fit in” or “assimilate” into the new community. The result: the cultural identity of the child or student is being compromised to make him/her ready for a future assimilated culture.
EAL learners and assimilation
An example of this occurring is the EAL learner who is constantly trying to learn English because the medium of instruction being followed in their international school is English. The emphasis to adapt to the new language puts pressure on the mother tongue of the child, assimilating him/her into a culture which might recognize the child’s nationality as being different from the others, but does not accommodate the language the child brings with him/her. So how is technology a culprit in the creation of assimilated culture? Let’s examine the dynamics of technology in a library environment.
Libraries and cultural assimilation
Libraries have been great social hubs since medieval times, in which individuals would have discussions, share ideas and generate new perspectives and responses. In this modern age, however, I observe technology taking a toll on this role. Students no longer feel a need to communicate with one another, but rather they use the library as a space where they can silently play games or browse the Internet on their devices. They no longer exchange thoughts and opinions to create innovative ideas.
The cultural identity of the students seems to fade into thin air and technology seems to be turning them into slaves of an assimilated culture and technologisation. The students are seemingly engrossed in a digital world that unconsciously is driving them towards the extinction of their cultural identity.
Preserving diversity in a library
A great way to prevent the potentially tragic loss of multiculturalism is to inculcate in students a love of reading books not digitally but by visiting library spaces in schools. Mother tongue books are vital: texts from various cultures in the library environment can provide students with the opportunity to remain in touch with their own culture, beliefs, norms, folktales and customs.
Another excellent way to promote multiculturalism is through parents of various communities reading aloud to students in a library.
“It has become appallingly obvious” Einstein famously suggested “that our technology has exceeded our humanity” In the context of the digital threat, this resonates, or as the American comedian Carrie Snow put it: “Technology is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts on one hand while it stabs you in the back with the other.” Technology has many benefits but we need to be aware of its potentially detrimental impact on multiculturalism and counteract it.
Uma Shankar Singh
Uma is Assistant Librarian and Digital Literacy Coach at MiSK Schools in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
To contact Uma, e-mail him on firstname.lastname@example.org