Bridging Separate Realities:
The Predicament of Intercultural Education

Dieter Bartels
University of Leiden

The Story of Hannah and Ingrid

About a year ago, the following incident occurred in a school in Assen during a lesson in a civics course whose theme was Moluccans in the Netherlands.1 The Dutch teacher had read to the class the story of Batu Badaun2 in which the heroine of the story is devoured by a rock. A Moluccan student, Hannah, exclaimed afterwards, "That really happened!" Ingrid, a Dutch girl, immediately countered with saying that this was nonsense. "A stone which eats up someone? Nothing, but superstition!"

The teacher, in turn, asked if "we Netherlanders" also have superstitions. Several students cited examples and some admitted that they believe in it. The teacher tried to draw a parallel between these Dutch superstitions and the "fanciful" Batu Badaun story in order to make Ingrid accept Hannah's convictions.

But, Ingrid, getting ever more aggressive, still insisted that the story is nonsense and eventually burst out, "Yeah, you can call everything belief, including the matter of the train!" —alluding to the hijackings. The class reacted strongly to this statement with many of the mostly Dutch students heavily attacking her. Eventually, Hannah shut off the discussions by saying to Ingrid, "I really don't care how you think about the story, but I demand that you respect the things I believe in."

The incident caused some bitterness and anguish among the Moluccan students, alleviated only by the stout support of the teacher. It can be assumed that it was a serious setback to one of the main goals of the course, namely to create a better mutual understanding between Dutch and Moluccan pupil-a goal that until then seems to have been quite successfully pursued as it becomes apparent by reading the rest of the course report of the teacher.

Pitfalls of Intercultural Education

This episode shows some of the pitfalls of Intercultural Education3 in general. Success or failure depend very much on how well the students of different ethnic groups have been prepared to accept and, as Hannah as aptly state, respect one another's culture. This requires that the teacher has good overall understanding of the cultures in discussion and is able to communicate the differences and similarities.

In other words, culture, in our case Moluccan culture,4 must be first of all presented as a system juxtaposed to Dutch culture as a system. Only, if the students grasp both cultural systems as wholes will they be able to put specific aspects of either culture into the proper context and to understand and appreciate them.

The danger with Inter/Bi-Cultural Education in its present state is that by selectively discussing merely some of the more "exotic" aspects of Moluccan culture rather than its overall framework, stereotypes and prejudices are reinforced rather than eliminated. Small wonder, if Dutch students walk away from a course about Moluccans in which they have been exposed to such "weird customs" as honoring ancestors, dancing the cakalele (traditional war dance) or even pela alliances, all taken out of the overall cultural context, thinking that Moluccans are even more bizarre and outlandish as they thought before they attended the class.

Equally harmful, Moluccan students, still in the process of forming their own identity while already under enormous stress of normative influences from the dominant Dutch culture, may become even more insecure of their own culture and defensively withdraw into their own isolated world. The fact that Hannah took the pain to state that the Batu Badaun story is really true, even before anyone in the class claimed otherwise, shows that she felt threatened in her beliefs by those of the majority culture which she of course also has internalized. Thus she already was struggling with internal conflicts and in this light, her statement must be seen as a desperate attempt to get confirmation about the validity of her own beliefs in front of a mixed audience.

It is doubtful that Hannah was left unscathed by the reaction that followed. the psychological harm done to her, and to other minority students in similar situations, is difficult to estimate. Not only could their relationship to the majority permanently be disturbed, but incidents like this could also have reinforced an already negative self-image. The cumulative effect of such incidents would be detrimental to the emancipation of minorities and to minority/majority relationships. In the precarious Dutch/Moluccan relationship this could be particularly calamitous.

Finally, looking at the situation from Ingrid's perspective, it was also precisely because aspects of Moluccan culture had been presented in a rather haphazard manner rather than within a holistic framework that I want to defend Ingrid's reaction to the story as perfectly normal. She had not been prepared to place the story into a Moluccan context and could only judge it from her positivistic western point-of-view. In her reality people are not swallowed by rocks. Period. Even her uncalled and hostile reference to the hijackings seems understandable. What she had learned previously in the course about Moluccans had confirmed rather than contradicted her seemingly deeply harbored prejudices.

Separate Realities

The quarrel of the two girls is the result of a clash of two separate realities. Moluccans often state that they are forced to go back and forth between two worlds. We all live in the same world, but the way we experience it varies often considerably from culture to culture. Studies of anthropologists have amply shown that different peoples look even at the physical world with somewhat different eyes. Just to give a random example, even such mundane and "obvious" things as colors are not uniformly seen in the same way by all human groups. Some, e.g. the Navajo of the American Southwest, break down the color spectrum quite differently from Europeans. They combine colors Europeans separate and separate some Europeans combine. This seems to be at least partially the case with Malay speakers, among them Moluccans, have no native word for 'brown' but classify various shades of this color under such categories as 'hitam' (black), 'merah' (red) or 'pirang' (blond), or by the loanword 'coklat' (from the Dutch 'chocolade'). Thus while Europeans would generally refer to the skin color of Moluccans as 'brown', Moluccans themselves use 'black'. Brown sugar becomes 'gula merah', i.e. red sugar and brown rice can be called in the Indonesian archipelago either red or blond rice.5

Differences in perceptions also extend to human relationships. On the surface, there are many similarities between Moluccan and Dutch social institutions. However, the underlying philosophies are often quite apart and some differences seem to be merely one of style than philosophy as it may seem by comparison of Moluccan and Dutch weddings. However, by focusing on external similarities, the often wide differences in the underlying philosophies may easily be missed. Allow me to illustrate this by using another random example. 'Sibling rivalry' is known in both Dutch and Moluccan society. Yet, while it is generally assumed in western societies that 'sibling rivalry' is part of "human nature", Moluccans consider it to be 'unnatural". For them, it is "natural" that siblings are very close, always supporting and protecting one another.

Admittedly, it is not always easy to detect the differences from a world view, particularly since some differences have become blurred because of the adaptation of selected Dutch customs and institutions by Moluccans, creating the impression that the two cultures are even more similar as they really are. It is because of these seeming similarities that many misunderstandings between member of the two groups arise. If Intercultural Education focuses only external manifestations, such as structural differences, it easily might lead to a perpetuation of those misunderstandings.

Underlying thought processes and emotions have to be brought out not only of Moluccan, but also of Dutch culture. There is the temptation that the teacher assumes that minority students understand the dominant culture, which may be a serious fallacy. For that matter, it can't even be assumed that Dutch students really know their own culture. By clearly formulating the ideological foundations of Dutch institutions, such as the family or the wider kinship system, the teacher gives the Moluccan students an opportunity to compare the Dutch system with their own point by point. Drawing on their own experiences, they will then be able to bring out the differences, benefiting the whole class.

Now, when we move from the physical reality and human sphere into the realm of the supernatural, Moluccan and Dutch perceptions alter even more radically. This is even true in terms of Protestant Christianity, a religion which many Moluccans and Dutch share. Again, there is the danger to take something for granted just because it carries the same label. Here I want to suggest to those who may think that I have been exaggerating in stressing the differences between Moluccan and Dutch realities, to scratch below the surface to test my assertions.

When moving further into the world of ancestors and magic, the Moluccan perception becomes incomprehensible to non-initiated outsiders. And, it was precisely in this area of belief where the communication between Hannah and Ingrid, but also between Hannah and her teacher, broke down.

Suggested Solution

The teacher, admirably rising immediately to Hannah's defense, obviously did also not understand the complexities of Moluccan reality. Otherwise, he would have never presented the Batu Badaun story out of its context in the first place. But having done so and then being confronted with Ingrid's attack, he too was trapped in his own western reality. Had he used a holistic approach, he would have been able to evaluate the story within the context of the socio-cultural system in which it occurs, i.e. he would have been able to take a perspective of cultural relativism. Instead, he judged the story by his own cultural standards, thus taking an ethnocentric perspective. In doing so, he automatically drew the unfortunate parallel with Dutch superstitions.

Moluccans have their own extensive set of superstitions and Hannah may also believe in them but in this case, the teacher mistook a truly religious belief for "superstition".6 Had he really understood Moluccan beliefs, he would have realized this and tried to find a comparable belief his Dutch students may share in the area of religion. The common denominator is the bible and he could have chosen such examples as Moses parting the Red Sea, Jesus turning water into wine or being resurrected from death. The closest parallel may be the story of Jonas being swallowed by a whale and spit out after several days. To believe in these bible stories, one needs at least as much faith as hannah has in believing in the truth of the Batu Badaun story. If Ingrid is a Christian, drawing this parallel should alleviate her acceptance of the Batu Badaun story as a different kind of truth. Should, however, Ingrid's thinking be purely empiricist, a short discourse on science as a "belief system" besides being a method of investigation should be most enlightening. It could be pointed out that science is not infallible and that many of its "facts" are based on belief. Thus, not too long ago western scientists were convinced that the earth was flat and the center of the universe, and that many current scientific beliefs will be classified as fiction by future generations.

By taking such an approach, the teacher could also have demonstrated that it is really irrelevant whether or not the rock really ate up the woman. As Max Weber pointed out, religious beliefs are irreducible, i.e. they cannot be argued about since they can be whether proven or not. Important is to give the students a feeling of tolerance and respect for each other's convictions, not whether or not those convictions are true.


In conclusion, I suggest that the primary lesson drawn out of the Hannah-Ingrid incident is that Intercultural education is a too sensitive and too complex field to be left to chance and improvisation. For many teachers involved in it, it is still a peripheral part of their job-a sideline. Not properly prepared and still lacking basic background information, they are forced to improvise and to rely on Moluccan students for information, the very students they are supposed to teach about their own culture of which they often know preciously little themselves.

Two areas where improvement is urgently needed can be pinpointed out as professional training and teaching aids. As far as the former is concerned, new courses in anthropology and area studies will have to be designed to properly prepare the teacher for his task. In case of the latter, some very useful materials have been produced in the last years in the field of Moluccan studies, including the recently published Marilah collection of Moluccan stories.7 However, what is needed now is a general description of Moluccan culture and society which helps teachers and students to place the already available materials into context.8

As long as Intercultural Education remains an ad-hoc affair, the danger of back-firing, as in the case we discussed here, will remain. Downgraded to the teaching of quaint customs and folklore, it is distorting and belittling Moluccan culture rather than contributing to an improvement of inter-ethnic relations. Such a development would only aid the proponents of assimilation and in the long run, endanger the whole concept of pluralistic education.



1) A. Meijer, 1984. Verslag lessen maatschappijleer Jan Lighartschool. Thema Molukkers; 19 januari tot 12 April 1984. Assen: unpublished Manuscript. Return ^

2) Published in Eekhorst Bulletin 115/16: 6-57 (July 1980). Return ^

3) In this paper, 'intercultural education' is defined as consisting of a curriculum in which courses are offered in which cultural aspects of a minority and of the dominant group are compared and attended by a mixed student group consisting of members of both the majority and the minority. Bicultural Education is defined as courses about a minority culture taught to students of this minority only, in addition to the regular curriculum of a school. Return ^

4) For simplicity, I have chosen to use the term"Moluccan(s)" throughout this paper to stand for "Protestant Christian Central Moluccans in the Netherlands", which is the only group of Moluccans I am here concerned with. Return ^

5) Perhaps the reader may appreciate the following anecdote: A young Moluccan informant with whom I discussed the color question, insisted that I was wrong. Only moments later, we passed a shopping window and my informant referred to a shirt made up of various browns from light to dark as a "black shirt". I pointed to a medium brown jacket, asking what its color was. "Bruin!" (Dutch for 'brown') came back his answer. Indeed 'bruin' is part of Ambon-Malay. Even today, 'bruine bonen' (Dutch for 'brown beans') are called in the Moluccas, 'bruine bonen'! Return ^

6) I am referring here to Nunusaku-Religion (Agama Nunusaku) which includes Christianity also indigenous religious beliefs. For a discussion of it, see Bartels, The Invisible Mountain, 1977: 313-323. Return ^

7) Marilah 23 Molukse vertellingen incl. Bronnenboek. (Nov. 1984). Return ^

8) Materials about Moluccan culture in the Moluccas are available. A general description of adat can be found in F. Cooley. 1962. Altar and throne in Central Moluccan Societies. New Haven: Yale University. Moluccan religion is extensively discussed in D. Bartels. 1977. Guarding the Invisible Mountain. Ithaca: Cornell University, pp. 278-323. See also D. Bartels. 1976. Magicians and Politicians: Power, Adaptive Strategies and Syncretism in the Central Moluccas. In: Proceedings 5th Conference on Indonesia, Madison, Wisconsin. July 29-31, 1976. Return ^

Paper presented at the Studiedag over bikultureel onderwijs op V. O.-scholen De Eekhorst, Assen 8 March 1985