What on Earth: The Meaning of Intercultural Education during a Global Pandemic
Von Violet Kim
As the COVID-19 Virus has drastically spread around the world, so have xenophobia and racism. Instead of pointing our fingers and creating scapegoats on “Who is to blame?”, I argue that, as members of a global community, we need a more forward-looking response based on solidarity, respect, and tolerance in troubling times like these. According to The Guardian, there has been a rise in racist incidents and remarks tied to the fears of the coronavirus directed towards Asian-Americans in the United States. Unfortunately, in a similar manner, there have been numerous accounts from people of color, mostly from Asian descents, reporting racist acts of physical violence in Germany and Europe as a whole. As an ethnically Asian person born in Germany, I, too, recall feeling torn between safety and stigma over face masks in Heidelberg. Before masks became mandatory in parts of Germany, I felt humiliated and misunderstood for wearing my nose-and-mouth coverings in public settings. Though the difference in perception of the masks comes down, in part, to cultural norms, it is especially important to realize, in times like these, that racial scapegoating is never going to be the solution, but an acknowledgment of everyone’s humanity is.
Apart from the Coronavirus outbreak, one way of averting such racist attempts and addressing social cohesion is through the promotion of intercultural education. Endorsed by the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals and framed within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the study of interculturality emphasizes universality in human rights and respects cultural contexts as well. At present, however, intercultural education remains a pedagogic approach that is taken rather light-heartedly or is even degraded as a minor subject by teachers in some education sectors of the world (Banks & Banks, 2007). This article argues that the dissemination of universal human rights values is fundamental and relevant to all school sectors. In the following, I provide a glimpse of intercultural education in the Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of Korea.
Intercultural Education in the Asia-Pacific Context with a Focus on South Korea
One geographic area where intercultural understanding is especially relevant is the Asia Pacific Due to its great cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity, the Asia Pacific has always been a region that had to cooperate and find its ways of harmonious co-existence. Entering the 2000s, South Korea underwent a rapid transformation from a mono-cultural, mono-lingual, and mono-ethnic nation to a culturally diverse society (cf. Kim & So, 2018) with more than 2 million immigrants and minority ethnic groups. To respond to the changes in the Korean population, the South Korean government has made many efforts to establish a variety of multicultural policies, including the institutionalization of education for interculturality.
Introduced as a ‘Western’ subject, intercultural education was at first met with reluctance and with grudging tolerance by many South Korean educators (Kim & So, 2018). However, due to the rising population of migrant children from parents who are originally from Southeast Asian countries, the South Korea Ministry of Education had few choices but to urgently introduce courses on multiculturalism (“다문화 교육”) in schools. Furthermore, this is not to exclude the significant percentage of North Korean refugees entering South Korea. As of December 2019, the Ministry of Unification noted at least 34.000 North Korean refugees, who were officially registered and residing in South Korea. Hence, these trends have gradually shaped South Korea into a racially and ethnically diverse society, making intercultural education an important factor in the school sector.
However, there is a lack of emphasis on intercultural education in the South Korean national education plan. Several scholars have admitted that government-led multicultural education initiatives have only been scarcely offered and misguided (Noh et al., 2006). That is, intercultural education programs tend to be offered only as an “add-on” or as a supplementary lesson for minority students (Banks & Banks, 2007). In the case of the latter, teachers have taken an assimilationist approach that focuses on language skills for second learners of Korean and cultural adjustment rather than providing knowledge about intercultural understanding such as the protection of human rights concerning refugees and immigrants. Moreover, the hypercompetitive learning climate and the country’s notorious zeal for education fuels many students to excel in academia and correspondingly urges teachers to prioritize certain school subjects over others.
As a result, children of migrants and refugees continue to be treated as “Other” and suffer from stigmatization and marginalization (Kim & So, 2018). Such incidents disclose that effective intercultural understanding is urgently needed not only for the non-Korean groups of students but also for their South Korean peers. Intercultural education can broaden the students’ empathy and cultural lenses if it is fully implemented into mainstream education and offered as basic education for all students in the South Korean education sector.
Intercultural Education in the European Context with a Focus on Germany
The European Council’s Online Platform of References and Resources for Plurilingual and Intercultural Education describes intercultural education as a vehicle for the future because it contributes to learners’ preparation for community life, their involvement as democratic citizens, and their ability to participate in society.
When examining the outlook for the Federal Republic of Germany, education for interculturality is an important approach in the country’s current educational, political, and social situation. Conversations on interculturality came into existence as a result of massive labor immigration during the ‘60s and early ‘70s mostly to former West Germany. In response to the rising number of guest workers and immigrant children, the Federal Republic saw the significance of educating its citizens and younger generation on ways to cope with the “socio-cultural reality of present-day society and to become aware of social prejudice” (Reich, 1993, p.4). Similar to South Korea’s initiative, the practice of intercultural education was limited to German language acquisition and cultural assimilation only, making it less about social equality and intercultural dialogue. However, since the 1990s, intercultural education has been included in the general policy recommendations by the German conference of ministers of culture (KMK) and mandated as a transversal and overarching discipline directed to all learners within the German school system.
Despite governmental efforts to promote intercultural understanding, little progress has been made in the classrooms. For instance, the practical application of intercultural education is often misunderstood by teachers. Many educators believe intercultural education is necessary for migrant or refugee students only, associating this discipline with integration courses for second learners of German (European Parliament, 2008).
Throughout Germany, much like in South Korea, intercultural education is being degraded from a major to a minor matter in schools (European Commission, 2004). That is, the subject is only being briefly referred to in the social science subjects, such as history, politics, citizenship education, geography, or art lessons (European Parliament, 2008). Another concern among the German federal states is the educational focus, which is largely influenced by the country’s low performance in the PISA tests. In consequence, cognitive-based knowledge and competency-based learning dominate the discourse, which leaves teachers with few options but to reduce the time for less-cognitive focused subjects like intercultural education.
To respond to these gaps, there need to be better bridges built between theory and practice of intercultural education. Appropriate research, conducted not only at the macro-level (national) but also at the micro-level (classrooms), can disclose the everyday needs of educators and students in schools. Also, I argue that to implement more lessons explicitly addressing intercultural education, inclusiveness, and human rights education in the teachers’ initial and in-service education program is essential and should be done on an obligatory basis.
A Global Imperative
Taken together, the discourse on interculturality provides that both the Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of Korea are still in need of a stronger grounding for the conditions towards establishing an education for all culture of respect, peace, and tolerance. I believe that the awareness of interculturality is a global imperative, in which the voices of refugees and migrants should be better represented in the school sector as well as in the global community. I understand that my suggestions to embrace and exercise interculturality inside and outside the classroom may be considered as idealistic and too difficult to implement at first glance, especially given the challenges to overcome in both South Korea and Germany as outlined above. Nevertheless, my ultimate hope is that intercultural education can become a useful pedagogic approach for all students in both countries and beyond as a meaningful step towards producing tolerant and culturally sensitive individuals.
Finally, while there is much uncertainty about the changes that the pandemic will affect in the world society and in the international education landscape in the next months, one thing is clear: Fear is understandable during a global pandemic, but racism is not.
Banks, J. A., & Banks, C. A. (Eds.). (2007). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
European Commission (Directorate-General for Education and Culture). (2004). Integrating Immigrant Children into Schools in Europe. Retrieved from: https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/71aea6e1-7808-4906- 9d7f6ed44e668794
European Parliament (Committee on Culture and Education). (2008). Intercultural Education in Schools. Retrieved from: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document.html?reference=IPOLCULT_ET
Reich, H. H. (2006). Intercultural Education in Germany. European Journal of Intercultural studies 4(3): 14-24.
Kim, Jeong-Hee, and Kyunghee So. (2018). “Understanding the ‘Other’: Rethinking Multiculturalism in South Korea through Gadamer’s Philosophical Hermeneutics.” International Journal of Multicultural Education 20(1):102.
Noh, H., Hong, W.-P., Lee, J. S., & Kim, H. (2016, August 24). Effects and Limits of Multicultural Curriculum in South Korean Demonstration Schools for Multicultural Education. European Educational Research Association. Retrieved from