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Back | Project: Racism and Public Policy

Abstract of Paper by Neville Alexander

  • Project from: 2000 to 2001

Language, Education and Race Relations
This paper takes as its point of departure two axiomatic propositions: (i) at the dawn of the twenty-first century, linguistic rights are inalienable human rights, and (ii) cultural diversity is an intrinsic positive value of a sustainable humane and civilized society.

In the introduction to the paper, I attempt to identify those approaches that may lead to the creation of social conditions in which these propositions can become a reality. This entails an analysis of the concepts of a ‘raceless society’ and of the social reality of race, as well as an understanding of the manner in which historical specificity impacts on social planning. Among other things, I contend that there can be no universal formula for bringing about situations in which potentially or actually conflictual ‘race relations’ can be permanently defused, and that without the redistribution of material resources, any claims about the attainment of the goal of a sustained equality of life chances is no more than palliative rhetoric. I contend, moreover, that the thin line that separates holistic social planning from manipulative social engineering can be maintained only through democratic transparency, one of the purposes of which is to enable citizens to make informed choices. Against this background, questions relating to the complex issues of social and individual identities, and to assimilationist as opposed to multicultural policies, are addressed.

The core of the paper deals with the central issues in language policy and practice in education, specifically with ‘mother-tongue education’, and with bilingual education as both the inevitable and desirable pedagogical norm in the era of ‘globalization’. I argue that the optimal approach in the current stage of development of human societies is one in which all efforts are geared toward ensuring that every child, or learner, is educated in the language that s/he has best command of, that a local or regional language of wider communication (vehicular language, lingua franca) be learned as a subject and/or as a language of teaching and learning, where appropriate, and that at least one global language be learned as a subject, if possible. This general approach, as intimated earlier, has to be adapted to the specific historical conditions in each country or locality.

Practical examples of attempts to implement this model, or something approaching it, are drawn from a number of countries, but mainly from South Africa, Ethiopia and Eritrea on the continent of Africa, from the European Union, especially Belgium, from Switzerland and Scandinavia, from the ex-USSR and ex-Yugoslavia, from Canada and the United States, and from India and Nepal. The few but significant successes and the many problems that have arisen, especially concerning lack of political will, hegemonic projects that overtly or covertly promote linguicism, and the alleged costs of bilingual education are explored in relation to their impact on inter-community relations in the cases concerned.

In the concluding section of the paper, I attempt to outline a framework, based on the (Draft) Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, within which relevant guidelines for the determination of a language policy in education calculated to enhance and consolidate a democratic order can be derived. A combination of effective pedagogy and political action by forces committed to the principles stated above at the international, national and local levels is suggested as one of the conditions for bringing about situations in which racist behaviour can be countered, or even eliminated. For, as Robert Miles reminded us:

[R]acism can successfully (although mistakenly) make sense of the world and thereby provide a strategy for political action for sections of different classes. It follows that to the extent that racism is an attempt to understand a specific combination of economic and political relations, and is therefore grounded in those relations, strategies for eliminating racism should concentrate less on trying exclusively to persuade those who articulate racism that they are ‘wrong’ and more on changing those particular economic and political relations (Robert Miles, Racism, London, Routledge, 1989, p. 82).