Cultural Assimilation Versus Cultural Fusion: Which is best for our classrooms and curriculum?

I have posted a number of blogs defending inclusive and diverse curricula in schools, especially as empirical evidence suggests that these types of curricula have benefits for pupils from all backgrounds. However, it would be disingenuous of me to ignore studies that argue against multicultural integration (as opposed to multicultural separateness), so I will give a very short overview of the “cultural assimilationist” view before comparing it to an “integrationist view” and, finally, the idea “cultural fusion theory”. Over the recent half-term I have read around this subject and my thinking is basically outlined below – in case anyone is interested.

What is cultural assimilation?

Assimilation describes the process in which a minority group becomes socially, culturally and politically part of a larger, more dominant culture and community. The term assimilation is often used in reference to immigrants and ethnic groups settling in a new “host community” or country, but it is also applied to second or third generation children of immigrants being “absorbed” into the culture of an “indigenous population” from their culturally separate diaspora (Collier, 2013, p.42). Importantly, studies have shown that assimilation can have positive effects. For example, research has suggested that non-English speaking immigrants who arrive in English speaking countries before the age of nine eventually speak English at a similar level as those from the host communities, whereas those that arrive after nine do not – on average – speak the language as well (Bleakley and Chin, 2010). Moreover, research also suggests that children of immigrants who adapt through assimilation are more positively regarded by their peers than those who live culturally and socially separate lives (Deaux & Verkuyten, 2014).

However, most studies looking at cultural assimilation are largely focused on socioeconimics, language acquisition, geographic location and intermarriage; these measures are meant to indicate how well immigrants fit in (Waters & Jiménez, 2005). This research only goes so far in telling us how cultural assimilation affects children and young people in education. Although some academics, particularly economists, champion assimilation over multiculturalism (see, for example, Collier, 2013 ), many of their studies rely on quantitative data and the “voices” of the people they are studying, especially when it comes to schooling, are largely absent. These voices often tell a different story (see, for instance, Olusoga, 2016; Akala, 2019; Hirsch, 2019; Joseph-Sailsbury, 2020). Here, I would suggest that recognising aspects of multiculturalism (in the sense that various cultures might be represented in a classroom), or at least acknowledging that there is more to some pupils’ heritage than the dominant culture of the “host community”, does not necessarily mean pupils do not need to be taught the common norms and values that allow the host community to function.

Cultural assimilation and the curriculum

Advocates of cultural assimilation claim that liberal society will never achieve neutrality on questions of cultural inclusivity and diversity (Bushnell, 2009). They suggest that public institutions, including schools, “will always be partial to the culture from which they arose, even if this just takes the form of favouring one language over another, or one holiday over another. And this partiality is essential to the value of nationality” (ibid, 94). Here, schools should be neutral in their treatment of cultural groups and practise the “strict separation of state and ethnicity” (Kymlicka, 1995, 107). This echoes the “deracialised assimilationist” position criticised by Troyna (1994) in my previous blog and is mirrored by the views of other thinkers, such as the late Roger Scruton in the UK (ibid.). 

Although British curricula before the 1970s were largely assimilationist in terms of social diversity, a good example of assimilationist policy in practice is the 1992 White Paper and the 1993 Education Act: Choice and Diversity: A New Framework for Schools. This framework stated that “…proper regard should continue to be paid to the nation’s Christian heritage and traditions” (cited in Shain, 2013, p. 72). Although I think our curriculum should explore this heritage and these traditions in some depth, I don’t think it should be at the complete expense of referencing other faiths, cultures and heritage. Nonetheless, many studies have shown this to be the case (David, 1993; Ball, 1994; Apple, 1999).

Moreover, the assimilationist view has appealed to some of our recent education secretaries. For instance, in a speech to the Conservative party conference in 2010, Micheal Gove attacked the then approach to history teaching, claiming that it denied children the opportunity to learn about “our island story”. He stated,  “Children are growing up ignorant of one of the most inspiring stories I know – the history of our United Kingdom. … Our history has moments of pride and shame, but unless we fully understand the struggles of the past we will not properly value the liberties of the present” (Gove, 2010). These reforms, whilst well-meaning, have arguably lead to an overtly nationalistic and ethnocentric National Curriculum (Gillborn, 2015; Richardson, 2015) Indeed, many government ministers have since backed this up and some have even suggested that pupils spend to much time learning about racism and sexism.

Too much of a “good” thing?

Hieronymi (2005) argues successful migration implies an element of assimilation, but that this loyalty towards, and good citizenship within, the host community also means many people will have multiple identities. Hieronymi goes on to suggest too much cultural assimilation will have negative consequences for both the immigrants and host communities. Here, the eradication of “… differences and the imposition by force of language, culture, values, customs and world views… is counterproductive and as a rule leads to the rejection of what had been imposed by force. In fact, forced assimilation implies not only a “superiority” of what is being imposed (language, values, etc.) but also oppression by those who impose it” (ibid.).

Although Hieronymi’s work focused on central and eastern Europe, Harding (2020) suggests that France’s heavy handed approach to cultural assimilation (or, rather, “dogmatic secularism”) has had disastrous results and has – arguably – lead to extremism amongst a minority of its immigrant population who have become – through policy – increasingly alienated from the rest of society. Of course, cultural assimilation has a long history and is not a recent phenomenon. Pauls (2019) gives examples that include the Spanish Inquisition in the late 14th and 15th centuries, which resulted in many Muslims and Jews responding to religious persecution by voluntarily converting to Roman Catholicism . She also cites the fact that millions of Europeans who moved to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries often had to pass themselves off as Anglo Protestants in order to avoid conflict with the dominant culture of the time.

In relation to education policy, whilst I would admit that the majority of assimilationist views are often noble in their intention and are not seeking to foster discrimination in anyway, their champions often use value judgements from assumptive philosophers and public intellectuals as opposed to empirical evidence gathered from pupils in schools by social scientists and educationalists (again, see this previous blog). In this sense, the academic grounding advocating assimilation through taught content in the classroom is more ideological than real and also ignores the lived experiences of minority groups. 

Integration, not assimilation

According to the IOM (2011), cultural integration is the process by which migrants become accepted into society, both as individuals and as groups. Unlike cultural assimilation, cultural integration is also a two-way process of adaptation by migrants and host communities. This includes the mutual acceptance of rights and obligations; of access to different kinds of services and the labour market; and, lastly, the respect for a core set of values that bind migrants and host communities in a common purpose. 

Perhaps the early years of the New Labour government best exemplify an attempt at an integrationist education policy.  Here, Consterdine (2017, para. 7), suggests that Tony Blair’s Labour was all about change, which included “…modernising, equality through free markets, the so-called third way; privileging the individual whilst emphasising communitarianism”. Consterdine goes on to argue, “[New Labour] was a bold and, whilst based on a calculated vision of a globalised economy including a flexible labour market policy, possibly the most progressive immigration policy the Western world has seen. It changed Britain, forging it into a truly multicultural state” (ibid., para. 11). This was arguably mirrored in education policy where there was – initially – a proactive attempt to promote “community cohesion” as schools, colleges and LEAs were meant to comply with the 2000 Race Relations (Amendment) Act and the 1998 Human Rights Act. This was complemented by the creation of a new subject, citizenship, which sought to champion community cohesion in schools and, by default, the wider society. Here, the DfE (2006) stated:

“Citizenship education is key to building a modern, cohesive British society. Never has it been more important for us to teach our young people about our shared values of fairness, civic responsibility, respect for democracy and respect for ethnic and cultural diversity. […] [it] remains a dynamic subject which responds to issues concerning society and how these come about.”

As a teacher trained in citizenship, and as a trainee nerdy enough to read into the subject, the syllabus appealed to me. There were schemes of work on social diversity, respect, democracy and human rights; these recognised – in fact, celebrated – other cultures whilst acknowledging the importance of the rule of law and basic humanistic values, such as individual liberty and self-worth. It also stressed the importance of justice and the rule of law too (for more, see DfEE/QCA, 1998) . 

However, some researchers have argued that the Blair and Brown governments reverted back to assimilationist policies and watered down references to cultural inclusion in schools (see Back et al. 2002, 452; Gillborn 2001, 19), especially through the initial formation of “British Values” – which quietly claims some general cross-cultural values as “British” (I actually have no issue with this per se). Furthermore, Kieth Ajegbo’s Diversity in the Curriculum (DfES 2007), which was a review written by the headteacher of Deptford Green School in Lewisham, claimed that “issues of ‘race’ and diversity are not always high on schools’ agendas” (Ajegbo, Kiwan & Sharma, 2007, p. 34). One of the issues with New Labour’s later position on multicultural citizenship was that policy makers were to quick to react to a populist backlash and didn’t follow through on the promise of promoting the virtues of social diversity.  Unfortunately, after 2005, the political motivation for promoting community cohesion waxed and waned and today it is hardly mentioned at all. Furthermore, citizenship – without the political will – has essentially ceased to exist in most schools.

Integration as “cultural fusion”

Perhaps the answer to building cultural “bridges” and integration amongst different social groups is through cultural fusion. This was briefly suggested as an alternative to assimilation by Paul Collier in his book Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century (2013). Collier suggests that fusion lies between assimilation and multiculturalism, bit not in the latter’s cultural separateness form. As Collier explain, “… there is some presumption that the new blended culture will be predominately indigenous , so migrants should be willing to accept a larger cultural adaption than the indigenous” (ibid., p. 100). However, “Unlike assimilation, it readily affords equal dignity to the migrant as she is and to the indigenous. There are no hierarchy of cultures but rather excitement and creativity of cultural blending. Fusion places demands upon both migrants and the indigenous to be curious about other cultures and to adapt to them” (ibid., p. 99). Here, we can still teach “our island story”, in the English language, but with plenty of reference to other stories too. Not only does this make our classrooms and curriculum more inclusive, but our pupils will be more worldly too.

In a similar vein, Kramer (2019, p. 1) explains that cultural fusion theory is the “…process of integrating new information and generating new cultural forms.” Cultural fusion theory, therefore, recognises the world as “a churning information environment of cultural legacies, competing and complementing one another, forming novel cultural expressions in all aspects of life, including music, cuisine, pedagogy” etc. The latter point is important as cultural exchange – through teaching, learning and interaction in the classroom – can support pupils of all backgrounds find common purpose, accept common norms and recognise common values.

Importantly, Kim (2001) suggests that through a process of cultural fusion “…the dynamic process by which individuals, upon relocating to new, unfamiliar, or changed cultural environments, establish (or reestablish) and maintain relatively stable, reciprocal, and functional relationships with those [host] environments” (p. 31). Moreover, the so-called host community can benefit as, “Cultural fusion is a process of mixing and accrual, the process of a person and society gaining in complexity by adding new repertoires of arts, styles, and practices accumulated via exposure to ‘others’” (Kramer, 2019, p. 18). I would be interested, over the next few months, to see what my own pupils make of this. Do they see their interests as essentially monocultural and homogeneous or do they comprise an already eclectic mix of tastes, ideas and interests? More importantly, what do they prefer? The former or the latter?

Brief conclusion

My own view is that culture is not static. We are constantly learning new things, adopting slightly different norms and adjusting our values. Regardless of multiculturalism, we could well argue that Britain in the 21st century would still have been different to Britain in the 10th, 15th or 19th centuries. Similarly, our religious beliefs have, in many ways, diversified as society has become more secular and socially diverse. This is also true of history, in that our understanding has changed as we have learnt more about the past and voices in – more often than not – once bypassed minority literature have become more readily available and signposted. In this sense, according to cultural fusion theory, no one escapes change, which is why cultural assimilation is probably the wrong way to approach cultural diversity in our classrooms and in our curriculum.

One caveat here, especially to those who may accuse these sentiments as “woke zealotry“, is that everything is proportional. The majority of our shared cultural values remain the same and “our island story” still matters, however, there is also more to our history than the events on this one island, especially considering the impact it has on the rest of the world – for better and for worse.


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