Acting and Reacting as an Agent of Culture — Moi?

December 21, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

A long time ago I heard Margaret Mead speak, and one of the only things I remember her saying was this: “A society has to teach its cultural ideas to its children in terms so clear that even a social scientist can understand them.”

I am, allegedly, a social scientist, but only an encounter with something very unusual can jar me into seeing my own culture. Like most people, I usually take it for granted, like the air we breathe. That was the point of the previous post, where a psychologist was urging dog owners to give their dogs more choice. It took this extending of human culture to canines to remind me of the great emphasis American culture gives to individual independence and choice. All those times that I had heard parents, me included, ask their kids if they wanted Cheerios or Chex, it had never occurred to me that we were drilling a particular American value into the minds of our little tots. I thought we were just being parents.

I had a similar cultural-blindness experience a few years ago. A student born and raised in Turkey came for his obligatory meeting with his advisor — me. He was a grown man in his forties. “What courses I should take?” he asked. I explained about the core requirements and recommended he take the first in the sequence. “And then there are the electives” I said and showed him the list.

“Which courses I should take?

I explained that these were electives. He could take any of the ones we were offering that semester. If you’re interested in family, you could take that course, I said. If you’re interested in religion, we have that elective.

“Yes, but which ones I should take.”

I found it incredibly frustrating. What was so complicated about the concept of electives? It did not occur to me that our differences were cultural. I was so thoroughly an American I that could not imagine anyone rejecting the freedom to make their own choice of courses. Who would not seize that opportunity? Only someone who did not understand.

In retrospect, I now think that he did in fact understand. He just didn’t think it was such a great idea that the choice should be made by him rather than by a professor — department chair no less — who knew much more about the courses and the instructors. Maybe he was right.

There’s something else to be said for his approach. It creates a personal link between the advisor and the student in a way that the independent-choice model conveniently avoids. When he was asking me to choose courses for him, the thought crossed my mind that I could tell him to sign up for some of the low-enrolled courses that were in danger of being cancelled — courses students were avoiding because of the reputation of the course, the instructor, or both. That certainly would have made things easier for me as department chair. But I now felt that I had to look out for his best interests as well. I felt an obligation that was different and perhaps stronger that what I would feel towards other students.

As I say, when all this was happening, I didn’t think about the underlying cultural differences. I just felt uncomfortable. I will leave for another post the time when he presented me with a large assortment of almonds, figs, pistachios, etc., while I tried to explain to him the university rules about gifts.

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