Learning and xenophilia.

Xenophobia is the fear of difference or the dislike of foreigners. Across Europe we have seen the rise in support for parties espousing xenophobic views. In difficult times, these parties play the blame game and tap into people’s suspicion and mistrust of those who are different to them whether ethnically or culturally, in terms of their religious beliefs or language. In responding to the challenge of racism and xenophobia there is too often an assumption that xenophobia is ‘natural’, a default state of mind that needs to be mitigated rather than countered directly. This is sometimes described as ‘being honest’ about the immigration debate for example. People are basically suspicious of foreigners, the argument goes, so instead of celebrating all the benefits of immigration, let’s tell them how tough we’ll be in keeping people out.

This acceptance of a xenophobic discourse only makes things worse by reminding people to find the easiest scapegoat for their troubles and look no further. Using phrases like ‘feeling swamped’ adds to the problem itself by creating a siege mentality. When offering solutions, using words like ‘tolerance’ only serves to emphasise the perceived threat posed by the ‘other’. To tolerate is to put up with something we basically dislike.

If we really want to take on xenophobia, we need to tap into our equally strong potential for xenophilia; the love of the ‘other’, the foreign or the unfamiliar. Being xenophilic requires us to see the stranger as having much in common with us as well as being different. As an impulse it is about finding the ‘other’ interesting because of our differences and not despite them.

It means being curious about what we don’t know about someone while building on what we have in common, which is, at the most basic level, being human – although there is usually more: shared interests, shared experiences of childhood, play, love, grief, parenthood, work and social relationships. We choose to spend time with people we have something in common with, this is comforting and helps us build our identity. But we don’t have everything in common with anyone and it is by understanding and exploring our differences that we will develop most as human beings.

This means going towards difference, reaching out to the stranger and standing alongside them in solidarity rather than turning away and avoiding them in incomprehension or ‘tolerating’ them from a distance. Tolerance is like charity, it is offered conditionally from a perspective of superiority. Solidarity in contrast is an expression of equality and starts with no conditions and allows for the possibility of a change in perspective. Contrary to the assumptions of some politicians, poor and vulnerable people with much to be anxious about in their lives are just as capable of xenophilia as anyone else.

Xenophilia is also the springboard for effective learning. To learn well we need to be attracted to the unknown, to be curious and ask questions about it, to enter into dialogue with it and to treat it with respect and humility. We need to be prepared to bring it close and find out what we can about both how it resembles and differs from what we already know. While the familiar is comforting in its security, it is in the encounter with the unfamiliar that we will learn most. To be useful, what we discover needs to connect to existing schemata within our mind as we construct a better understanding of what was previously unknown in order to make it known.

Intellectual xenophobia makes us shy away from the unknown, the unexplained and the difficult to grasp. If we only seek comforting, repetitive and unchallenging tasks and limit our aspirations by building walls around our knowledge we are leaving important connections unmade and we miss out on the best of what learning can do for us.

If learners need to be xenophiles, teachers need to be its highly accomplished advocates; champions of xenophilia, venturing far and wide, whether physically or metaphorically, to find the unknown and help their students make some sense of it.

About Eddie Playfair

Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London. Blogging about education, politics and culture in a personal capacity. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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