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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Learning Journal 30: Last (of the Semester) Reflections on Cultural Learning

When I first enrolled in IAS 360R, I thought it would be a class about how to survive in the wilds of Ghana and Mexico and Tonga, and thus would apply to my field study very little. I figured that since there was so much similarity between American and English culture, I would have little problem assimilating into the culture, other than understanding British accents and learning words like "nappy" and "bobby." I also thought that because I was studying history and literature rather than living people, I could just hole myself up in libraries and museums all day long and spent my field study in an ivory tower.

In short, I was very wrong.

Although the field study class has taught me countless of important concepts and practices, like gaining entry, appropriate reciprocity, and safety in a foreign country, the most important idea that I have learning this semester is respect for other cultures. I think that as members of a technologized, industrialized, "forward-thinking" culture, it is so easy for Americans to look down on other cultures. Sometimes this can come out in vulgar phrases like, "Why do they do that? Its inefficient and stupid," or "That's really weird/gross." But many times, we don't even notice that we're looking down on other cultures. This happens all the time, when people comment on how simple and happy other cultures are, or how they are so quaint and picturesque, or how we are so amazed that they can survive without modern technology. We don't mean to insult other cultures, but because we've been raised in our culture, we naturally find it superior.

As I discussed in the previous post about my book review, I've been able to apply this concept to different geographic cultures (modern London) and also different historical cultures (Tudor London). Just like we believe we are superior to other cultures, we also tend to believe we are superior to other eras. I've heard all of the vulgar phrases in the paragraph above asked of historical peoples as well. Earlier this semester, while discussing Medieval love poetry, the students in one of my classes kept mocking the author of the poem for his silly, girlish tendencies. I made the point that gender was viewed differently back then, and it was common for men to be just as sappy, if not more so, than women. While I thought this was an important piece of information to share, I guess my class thought I was joking, because they laughed at me. Even though I protested that it was true, they said things like, "that's ridiculous!" or even worse, "how gay!" While people tend to be more aware of negative cultural criticism (even if they are guilt of it), I'd guess that most people don't even think that negative historical cultural criticism is possible. After all, they're all dead, so they can't take offense, and everybody knows that humankind is constantly improving because of technology.

This view of history is exactly what makes people close-minded and simple. Like misunderstanding geographical cultures, people assume that people cannot possibly be as diverse as historians or anthropologists report. They think that everyone, if they had the choice, would like in a nice house close to the mall and their office job. Maybe it's hard for the human mind to comprehend diversity, or maybe we're a little uncomfortable with so many differences. Either way, I'm infinitely grateful that I took IAS 360R because it helped me exercise my capacity for tolerance and understanding, and learn how to represent a culture fairly. I hope that through my project I will be able to educate others about treating cultures fairly, whether across time or across space.

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