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  • Human Rights Research Center

Unbiased Education as a Bridge for Intercultural Competence

Author: Shirley Lin

November 30, 2023

[Image source: University of Illinois Chicago]

Education is a fundamental human right that empowers people to lift themselves out of poverty (United Nations). However, education can be a double-edged sword used by differing sides of political conflicts or wars to drive social inequality. In these cases, the curriculum is censored or changed to fit either side’s narrative to emphasize a clear cultural divide among children. However, in a post-war or post-conflict scenario, children must have access to unbiased and unaltered history to bridge connections between communities and allow children to ask constructive questions. Two authors were able to prove this true in the case of Northern Ireland’s political, nationalistic, and religious conflict. Bernadette Hayes and Ian Macalester ran a study in Northern Ireland that shed light on how integrated schools motivated children to be more willing to connect with others on varying sides of the religious divide and facilitated cross-community contact between the sides of the religious divide. In continuation, a project in Rwanda led by Sarah Warshauer Freedman, Harvey M. Weinstein, Karen Murphy, and Timothy Longman has shown the difficulty of establishing unbiased history due to the influence of both the government and politics. However, the difficulty does not mean this case and project had no effect. Instead, we saw that introducing unbiased education was relatively successful at reminding students, teachers, and policymakers that history holds importance.

It is important to emphasize that unbiased education and intercultural competence play a prominent role in bringing awareness to diversity; Sesame Street proved just this point with its goal of pushing the next generation of children to see less division in their communities. In post-conflict environments, unbiased and unaltered history serves as a foundation for widening diversity and creating greater acceptance of diversity, which emphasizes social reconstruction, the bridging of divides between communities, and contributing to a more informed and united society. Decreasing the tolerance level for social inequality taught in the classroom is the first step toward ensuring all children have a fair shot at lifting themselves out of poverty with the proper resources and support.

As a case study, Northern Ireland presents a fascinating front for exploring how education socializes children to believe certain negative connotations about groups their communities may consider “other.” The religious conflict in Northern Ireland began in the 1960s and persisted until 1998 through the finalization of the Good Friday Agreement. Students experienced segregation based on religion and would either attend Protestant schools or Catholic schools depending on social background or access. Within Northern Ireland, “religious and cultural segregation is bound up with a long history which placed education at the center of a struggle between the English state and the Catholic Church in Ireland” (Smith 1995, 168). The English enabled this religious segregation as a form of social exclusion that persists today. The separation further details how schools used to separate certain groups from one another to polarize citizens. In this scenario, schools are not held accountable for teaching the truth, and somewhat false depictions and information detailing each group can be weaponized. Without integration and truthful history, diversity is not present to help all children of different backgrounds lift themselves out of poverty or towards better opportunities due to the suppression of opportunities and resources by each group. In this case, children are socialized to notice differences and internalize hatred for groups they consider “other.”

In recent years, parents have seen the effects of segregation on the biases that children hold and have been the driving force for introducing integrated schools. These integrated schools offer opportunities for children to learn about both sides of the dividing conflict that plagued Northern Ireland for over three decades. Within the case study run by Hayes and Macalaster to discover if integrated schools had any effect on bridging divides between the two religious communities, they found that the “individuals…are significantly more likely to have friends and neighbors from across the religious divide and these friendship networks translate into a more optimistic view of the future community relations” (Hayes et al. 1999, 1). This study brings awareness to how children pick up on the ideologies that their communities hold. Once children experience integration, they are more likely to see varying sides of the conflict with more sympathy and can even ask questions in a constructive environment.

On the other hand, politics and the government often get intertwined in re-educating students with unbiased education. A project requested by the Rwanda Ministry of Education explored the link between the many political processes and governments’ decisions when deciding on school curricula. The team aimed to reduce propaganda while promoting unification among the dividing sides. They also aimed to teach history to maintain the student’s national identity while teaching them the gravity of retaining ethnic identities while unifying educational curricula. Within this project, the team concluded that “when one identity group has power, and others are subject to that group’s policies and practices, history reform becomes an almost impossible task” (Freedman et al. 2008, 22). In other words, re-establishing unbiased education frequently falls victim to the party in power. When one party dominates political and societal ideologies, they often push back to maintain the power of the majority, ensuring they can influence the curricula children learn. As the project faced influence from the government, one of its successes was that it re-introduced the importance of history back to communities within Rwanda after history had ceased to be taught for ten years. It can be said that the goal was never to heal the community of its cultural divides but rather to remind the differing communities of how suppression exists in the teaching of history.

Often, it is the case that children do not intentionally exclude others but rather do it because of unconscious biases. A study by Pavel Barter in Northern Ireland on the success of Sesame Street in increasing awareness of diversity for the next generation shows that “children were picking up the habits of their community, but at the age of three, they did not understand the meanings. By the age of six, one-third of children recognized the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and saw themselves as part of one group and not another. One in six were making overtly negative statements about the other community” (Barter 2010, 1). When children learn that others are considered less than them, they may not have outside factors to help them rationalize why this train of thought is incorrect or may contribute to the suppression of minorities. These ideologies enforce systematic inequalities that benefit some children in accessing educational resources that generate economic growth. However, those who do not benefit from education due to suppression have difficulty generating the same economic growth and opportunity.

Intercultural harmony can also occur through the use of education. Education does not only serve as the bedrock for lifting one out of poverty but may also reduce future intercultural conflicts that may result in the abuses of human rights. In order to reach a level of intercultural harmony that reduces future conflict, children need to learn that “people tend to look and judge each other from the perspective of a group to which they belong” (Pimonova 2017). With a greater understanding of how culture impacts one’s view of self and others, there can be greater acceptance of diversity and the many factors that contribute to diversity, such as ethnicity, religion, life experiences, Etc. With greater intercultural competence, participants of various cultures can find commonalities that drive conversations and constructive feedback on how to prevent future conflicts from occurring.

Children are the future in that their intercultural competence will drive inclusion and diversity that fosters tolerance for many religions, ethnicities, and people from all walks of life. Although television shows may not solve all racial inequalities, it is the start of addressing the need for the dissemination of unbiased knowledge that can go on to equip children with a further understanding that systematic disparities exist within the world. As children begin to notice the social inequalities around them, they may urge the use of intercultural competence to be more sympathetic to one another. With more advocacy, there can also be more equal resources for education, and a donation of resources between communities may occur to help one another lift out of poverty. The teaching of history without filters has more significant implications outside of Northern Ireland and Rwanda; it is even more critical today to teach knowledge from all perspectives as conflicts are on the rise. By building greater sympathy in class, children can see similar attributes of themselves in others, increasing their sense of wanting to contribute to humanitarian aid.



Barter, Pavel. “Sesame Seeds Grow.” The Times & The Sunday Times: breaking news & today’s latest headlines, November 18, 2010.

Burkholder, Pete, and Dana Schaffer. “A Snapshot of the Public’s Views on History: National Poll Offers Valuable Insights for Historians and Advocates.” Perspectives on History, August 30, 2021.

Duncan, Pamela. “‘We Have Allowed Segregation to Happen.’” The Irish Times, February 24, 2015.

Freedman, Sarah Warshauer, Harvey M. Weinstein, Karen Murphy, and Timothy Longman. “Teaching History after Identity‐based Conflicts: The Rwanda Experience.” Comparative Education Review 52, no. 4 (2008): 663–90.

“Good Friday Agreement: What Is It?” BBC News, April 3, 2023.

“The Irish Times View on Schools in Northern Ireland: Segregated Classrooms.” The Irish Times, February 18, 2022.

OHCHR. “International Standards | OHCHR - UN Human Rights Office.” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Accessed October 31, 2023.

OHCR. “Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education | OHCHR - Un Human Rights ...” United Nations Human Rights. Accessed October 31, 2023.

Pimonova, Sofia. “Intercultural Competence to Reduce Intercultural Conflicts.” Terminology Coordination Unit, January 30, 2019.

Smith, Alan. “Issues: Education: Smith, Alan. (1999) Education and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland.” CAIN, April 6, 2023.

Tuomioja, Erkki. “How Can Historians Contribute to Conflict Prevention and Resolution?” EuroClio, June 3, 2020.


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