In December, I was in awe of enthusiastic 4th graders working in groups to highlight international holiday celebrations. At their special event, I enjoyed delicious holiday treats from all around the world, and played games to salute the winter holidays—game traditions that came from many diverse cultures. The kids were excited and were taking real ownership of their group projects; I couldn’t help but feel inspired.
“What a great idea!” I told the teacher, then asked, “Who came up with it?”
“Why, the kids of course!” she answered. “I just let them run with it.”
I thought to myself, What is at play here? I wondered what had inspired nine-year-old kids to want to learn about and understand cultures beyond their own. Then it hit me: One of the six C’s of 21st century education—cross-cultural understanding—is alive and well at High Point.
Now, I grew up with an encyclopedia and a typewriter when life seemed slower and more certain. So, it is difficult for my 49-year-old mindset to understand Generation Z (or Post-Millennials) who were born in the early 2000s to the 2010s, are being raised on the Internet, and communicate via social media. Their only certainty is rapid change and uncertainty. Their world is diverse and richly multicultural, whereas I grew up in a country that was largely Caucasian: in 1960 85% of the US population was White, 3.5% was Hispanic, 11% was Black, and only .6% was Asian, according to US Census figures. But Post-Millennials are the most culturally and ethnically diverse generation in our nation’s history: as of 2011, 47% of the US population is White, 29% is Hispanic, 13% is Black and 9% is Asian.
That rich diversity is very personal to me. Two years ago, my then 12-year-old twins went online to complete their 7th Grade applications. When they got to the part where they were supposed to identify who they are, they stopped cold: there was only one box available for them to check. But they went down the list, looking for the entry that would apply to them. Caucasian: check (my Eastern European Jewish side of the family). African-American: check (my wife’s side of the family). Native American: check (Cherokee, also on my wife’s side of the family). East Indian from Asia: check (again, my wife’s side of the family). Without realizing it, my Post-Millennial twins were the new poster children for cross-cultural understanding! And where kids in previous generations had to accept that everyone must fit into a single check-box, my twins proudly refused to deny any aspect of their heritage. They embrace it all.
All of which brings me right back to High Point where, in January, we will be celebrating International Day. The theme of that day will be to share our own special, cultural stories. For the truth is, here in this melting pot of cultures we call America the Beautiful, each and every one of us has a unique and powerful story to tell. Mine is the story of Eastern European immigrants escaping poverty and prejudice. It is the story of penniless immigrants arriving at Ellis Island with little from the old country, yet a land of unknown promise stretching before them. As a boy, I can recall my grandfather telling me that as a newly arrived 19-year old immigrant, he believed that the streets of America were paved with gold and opportunity.
What is your story?
Sharing our own individual stories is so important because the very first step in developing cross-cultural understanding is to affirm our own identities and heritage. Only when we do this are we then able to appreciate and understand the identities and heritage of our friends and peers. From there, we can branch out and develop an understanding of all people and cultures across the globe—an essential 21st century life skill in a globally transformative world.
Here at school, through this cross-cultural “C” of the “six C’s” process, we know that “We are the world at High Point.” We are a rich mosaic of cultures, ethnicities, languages, and backgrounds. We embrace this rich mosaic. We embrace every aspect of who we are individually. We share and celebrate our unique stories. And in doing so, we foster the essential 21st century skill of cross-cultural understanding. We realize we are all united by common values. We are unified not by the color of our skin, the faith that we observe, or the heritage that we embrace, but by the very richness of diversity of all of these aspects and—most important of all—by the content of our character.
Yo-Yo Ma, a French-born American cellist and United Nations Messenger of Peace, once observed that “our cultural strength has always been derived from our diversity of understanding and experience.” Our post-millennial students at High Point intuitively appreciate this principle. They understand that, above all else, character counts. As parents, educators and community members, it is up to us to help empower our students to lead the way in promoting cross-cultural understanding as they move through our halls, out our doors, and into the world and their lives beyond.