The debate about teaching Fairfax County ninth-graders about non-Western cultures holds particular interest for me. For the past several months, I've been developing a course in Third World History at a local high school, so I've been thinking a lot about why or if secondary students will benefit from such instruction.
What we blithely refer to as "appreciation" or "broadening our cultural horizons" doesn't come easily. Appreciation of another culture requires more than a passing acquaintance with it. Students need to learn enough to acquire respect and admiration as well as a fair dose of humility about their own culture. Understanding that other people don't have one's own values, expectations or presumptions can be a sobering experience for students.
I suspect that we really don't appreciate ourselves enough and that students sense this when we teach our own history. If we move to instructing students in other traditions without first understanding and appreciating our own, we're bound to encounter problems. Other cultures are simply that -- outside our tradition, hence perplexing and contradictory. Analogizing is invariably difficult, either because we force a comparison that may not exist or because we throw up our hands and conclude they're just too "otherworldly," and won't they just quit it already.
Explaining sati (ritual widow burning) to American students, for example, is daunting. On the one hand, it can sound like an episode from the theater of the absurd, designed to titillate; conversely and perversely, it also can sound like a rationalization for murder, suggesting that murder is acceptable under certain conditions. The lesson gets really twisted when students learn that the British ended the practice in 1829 as an act of compassion but that their decision also probably was one of history's best examples of Western misunderstanding, impatience and outright intolerance of other cultures.
Inevitably it seems, students move to the conclusion that the rest of the world is inhabited by funny, little people, who live in funny places, where they do funny things all day. This is not what I call "appreciation" but cultural arrogance and misunderstanding -- certainly not the goal teachers of non-European history set out to reach.
Students can more readily understand the complexities of other cultures if they already have worked out some of these ambiguities in a more amenable cultural setting -- their own. They need to be taught that they too are a part of a great historical tradition, that they share in its achievements and bear by association the blame for its mistakes. They can laugh at its idiosyncrasies, express impatience with its shortcomings and dream about its future only if their teachers show them how.
I can't expect students to marvel at the geographic extent and philosophical unity of Asokan India unless they appreciate the Pax Romana or Madison's startling assertion that a republican form of government is the best means of uniting large, diverse political areas. Nor can I expect them to confront with sensitivity Rajput infanticide in India without summoning in them certain feelings regarding the Roman's rationale for infanticide, or worse, the sinking suspicion that Roe v. Wade has created a similar dilemma today. Students need to come to terms with the fact that American colonists burned "witches," that capital punishment is systematically leveled against certain segments of our population and that a Western "demon" conceived of the Holocaust.
I teach them these things not to scare them and not to suggest that all civilizations are flawed and therefore morally bankrupt. My intention is not to make them cynical. I teach them these things so that they will listen more eagerly when I describe the Marshall Plan as an unprecedented policy of generosity, or the Peace Corps as the best combination of restless Western energy and idealistic philanthropy or the space program as the latest chapter in a centuries-old scientific quest.
Done successfully, instruction in several of the world's great historical traditions develops the rich appreciation that is the goal of all education. Done poorly, it only perpetuates ignorance and impatience, not only of the rest of the world, but sadly of ourselves as well.
Thomas J. Leckey
teaches at St. Anselm's School in Washington.