Thursday, October 04, 2007 • 9:51 AM Post a Comment

Teaching World Cultures

posted by Steve Cohen

Writing after Rachel is fun. Her story about reading Hersey’s Hiroshima with that third-period class brings the reality of teaching to the surface. That seems to me to be very rarely done when curricular mandates are launched. It is, I think, all well and good to ask our teachers to help our students understand “world cultures.” But what does that really mean? “Culture,” is, by itself, a loaded word. In his short, but provocative book, Keywords, the British critic, Raymond Williams, suggests that “culture” is one of the hardest words to define. In fact, we find that it is used in many ways. High culture, pop culture, school culture, the culture of poverty, the poverty of culture, even the Culture Club make my head ache.

What does it mean to teach “world culture?” I think we know what the desired outcome is. We want our students to appreciate the diversity of our world. We want them to see that underneath our common humanity there are a variety of ways in which people have created their societies and expressed their feelings about the places in which they live. Surely, art, literature, music, drama, dance, and sport are elements of those human creations. Traditional Japanese drawings are not identical to African ones. The Vietnamese created objects and styles and social structures different from those of the Incas. Those insights and observations are enriching and exciting, but I have never gotten the feeling that most students in “world culture” classes have felt the same way. I know that I didn’t when I “took” that course back in ninth grade four decades ago.

About twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to take part in a program that met at Harvard, under the leadership of Professor Vito Perrone. He is a marvelous teacher, thinker, and scholar, and it was a privilege to meet with thirty or forty other teachers for a couple of years to think about how to teach “world history.” We heard terrific speakers, read challenging books, and even toyed with ways of teaching this subject.

At the end, however, I was more struck by the immensity of the task than by a recognition of how to proceed. In fact, I don’t really think that we can successfully meet the mandate to teach “world cultures.” The planet is just too damn big and human creativity is too impressive. What we are, I think, better off doing is working with our students on a less grandiose expedition. Pick a part of the world and find ways to understand it in a semester. Look at as many aspects of that place as you can. Avoid the “if this is Tuesday, this must be Belgium,” syndrome that was satirized in the movie of that name many years ago. Jumping from India to China with a brief layover in Thailand results in a jumble of images and a confusion of names and dates. Ted Sizer is, I think, right once again. When it comes to understanding “world cultures,” less is, indeed, more.

--Steve Cohen, Professor of Education, Tufts

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