2003-2004 Academic Year

Energizing Intercultural Understanding

November 14, 2003

If you attended Dr. Milton Bennett’s presentation at the Broad Center Performance Space on Nov. 13 expecting Culture, you probably left empty-handed. What he delivered was more along the lines of culture.

Dr. Milton BennettBennett made it plain to the capacity crowd that he does not advocate the use of history and artifacts to understand culture. In fact, reliance upon the objective, material aspects of culture often creates the assumption that a culture is more civilized because of the quality and quantity of such objects.

He challenged the audience to instead define culture in terms of patterns of behavior, beliefs, values, and, most importantly, the way people organize their experiences of the world. Such a definition, he said, is the starting point for the formation of an intercultural worldview.

In the end, Bennett confirmed what many at Pitzer already recognize: The College’s approach to the formation of an intercultural worldview is much more sophisticated than that of most colleges and universities.

“Pitzer is leading the transformation that generates better citizenship in a multicultural world,” Bennett said.

“Evolutionary pressure is flowing in the direction of what Pitzer is trying to do. A transformation is required to ensure fitness for survival or there is the risk of becoming extinct. The world is not becoming one culture, as many had feared it would in the course of globalization. In fact, cultures are increasingly accentuating their differences.”

Bennett used the universal language of humor to reach an audience that reflected the diversity of the College community. A glance around the room spoke volumes about the power of his presentation as people from many backgrounds joined in laughter as he broke down cross-cultural interactions in terms of cultural expectations and assumptions.

The first major assumption Bennett challenged was the idea that a liberal arts education leads to intercultural sensitivity.

“People expect a liberal arts education to lead to sensitivity but there is no correlation whatsoever. A liberal arts education does not lead to that outcome unless a conscious effort is made to that end,” Bennett said.

Bennett also assailed the notion that diversity is found in numbers. He argued that though numbers can bring about a reduction of prejudice through the crossing of cultural boundaries, the real results of diversity are derived from deepening dialogue between individuals from diverse cultures.

Drawing on the work of William Perry, an influential developer of a model that charts the intellectual development of students, Bennett outlined the four stages of a college education and how those stages affect intercultural understanding.

The first stage is dualism, which is characterized by seeing the world in terms of good and evil, black and white, right and wrong, with an outside authority working to set those terms in stone.

In the second stage, multiplicity, the learner questions the outside authority on matters of right and wrong and admits to multiple perspectives. The end result: an attitude best characterized by the expression “whatever.”

Bennett argued that many learners get stuck in either the first or second stage of development. The goal of education, he said, should be to push students into the third and fourth stages: contextual relativism and commitment to relativism.

A commitment to relativism, Bennett said, is a willingness to commit to a position based on an informed choice.

The overall goal of intercultural understanding, he said, is to see things in a cultural context before making a decision on what position to take on them.

One of the most important components in the creation of intercultural understanding, Bennett said, is the dynamic tension between unity and diversity.

Through mutual adaptation in cross-cultural contacts, a “virtual third culture” arises out of a climate of respect for diversity. The generation of this third culture is the measure of success of encounters and dialogue between cultures, Bennett said.

Ultimately, intercultural skills are not about kisses, bows, handshakes and etiquette. Rather, such skills come about through “learning to learn” strategies and the formation of a cultural framework that acts as scaffolding from which to see and predict conflicts and misunderstandings.