Appreciating Difference

Foreword

David Leech, the author a forthcoming book on the School’s founder, Vijayadev Yogendra, kindly proofed this article as part of his editorial assistance in the publication of the latest ENewsletter. He was moved to offer the following vignette which illustrates very clearly Vijay’s inspiring practice in ‘Appreciating Difference’ and provides a natural foreword to this essay.

Before the first School of Total Education opened in 1977 at 12 Chapel St, St. Kilda, Melbourne, a band of volunteers prepared the beautiful old Victorian mansion for the formal opening. A dispute arose amongst some workers about the front garden (human beings have an endless capacity for disputes). Some only wanted native trees and shrubs planted while others preferred deciduous, European and English  species; there seemed no compromise between these two sides. Vijay was made aware of the problem so he came into the garden to decide the issue. He immediately explained that in Nature there were no such disputes: the more diversity and variety in species, the more beauty and harmony. There was room for all in Nature. Gardens that were monotone lacked the glorious abundance of  colour and form. So too in human society, unity in diversity was the benchmark. The School was to be one family and the children were all our family. We were all flowers of one garden. It was about working together for unity and brotherhood.

Disputes and differences would vanish as we joined and embraced each other; the light of love and unity would shine.

Introduction

As an island nation, Australia can be more vulnerable to isolationist thinking than nation-states which are linked by land. The white Anglo-Saxon persona that originally typified our culture has been diluted somewhat by the post World War II migration from southern Europe. Further inroads were made through the refugee generated migration from Vietnam after the civil war conclusion in the 1970s. And again the more recent exoduses from Africa, central Asia and the Middle East have created a cultural melange which challenges our cultural stereotype. Still, however, the Anglo-Saxon identity is embedded deep in our psyche.

This piece is written, with a view to looking at how The School of Total Education approaches ‘Appreciating Difference”.

How to Create a Respectful Culture

In a rural community such as Warwick which has one of the highest Anglo Saxon profiles in Australia, the embracing of difference is consequently a little less natural and more challenging. What we have tried to do in The School of Total Education is to celebrate different cultures and religions through the different programs in the school. Examples include regular special days such as the recent ‘Asia Pacific Day’ and the twice weekly quiet time where the teachers will tell the primary children a story from a different culture or religion. This creates an environment where opportunities to further that exploration of a different culture can be taken because there is a platform of tolerance and respect already present.

We saw this occur when a family enrolled their five African and Asian children some years ago. The children were embraced by the school and their presence created many opportunities for learning by the whole school community.

More recently, initiatives such as the creation of an Aboriginal and Islander Studies Program and bringing in a cultural advisor for staff professional development has really opened eyes and hearts to the reality of underlying attitudes which are unhelpful in building a climate of acceptance and respect for our indigenous brothers and sisters. The indigenous studies works on a number of levels, from learning about our first people’s culture through to the subtleties of exposure to an indigenous person in a positive and respectful environment.

We have found that you can’t plaster on this application of difference, it has to be a part of the culture or created by inspiration.

Modelling Forgiveness Tolerance and Patience

Something the school does very well is to model the values we want to encourage in the children. This is the foundation upon which the acceptance of difference talked about above can be built. One sees it in action when a new child starts at the school. When coming from another school they might be defensive or reactive or waiting to be criticised. Gradually, they relax, realising that no one is out to get them or embarrass them. They come to see that it is in fact, the opposite. People only want the best for them. That approach and attitude is shown by the teachers and staff consistently, as well as by the other children in the school.

Exposure to Difference in a Positive Light

Looking at other current programs in the school, there is a richness in diversity of cultural learning happening in a very natural way from a variety of engaging and attractive sources including

  • our French language assistants on periodic exchange from overseas engaging with the students in many activities, not just French language classes,
  • our participation in the Asia Education Foundation’s India Bridge project which has generated teacher and cultural exchange with Venkatishwar International School, New Delhi
  • our partnership with the Warwick Peace Project last year to raise funds for the Nepalese earthquake victims through a concert and bush dance. This event saw the visit to the school of local Nepalese traditional musicians to perform for the community, simply to express their gratitude to our school for raising funds to help their country of origin.
  • The school providing the opening performance & welcome with Aboriginal elder Roger Knox to the migrant teams participating in Warwick District Football’s Multicultural Football Carnival during last September holidays.

These types of activities show difference in a positive light. They are also an opportunity to see the similarities between us as well. As Roger Knox said in his welcome “We are first and foremost human beings. We are the same.