A Plea for Crosscultural Consciousness in Education
from an Indian Educator’s Perspective
In his monumental, though somewhat flawed, study The Closing of the American Mind, published by Simon & Schuster of New York in 1987, Professor Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago lamented over the closing of the American mind. This intellectual sclerosis, as it were, was argued to be the outcome—paradoxical though it might seem—of too much “openness.” As the Chicago philosopher pointed out, American students enter college with a “flat soul” (p. 134) and live in a barren present without an understanding of their past and vision of their future. They are open to all kinds of beliefs equally and are oblivious of the fundamental fonts of the culture that created a common human civilization by obliterating the diversity of race, religion, and national origins of peoples.
Professor Bloom’s gloomy spectacle of the American academe calls for careful consideration. The primary reason for Bloom’s despair is the current indifference to the humanities, particularly the Classics, in the US school and college curricula. And, without doubt, this anti-intellectualism is cause for genuine concern. Yet it must be admitted that Western culture is neither completely Western nor absolutely and universally efficacious by itself. In the first place, it is a composite of three great cultures—Greco-Roman, Christian, and Islamic (and, as some scholars have argued, indirectly Aryan or Hindu). Secondly, it needs to be complemented, indeed enriched by the insights and wisdoms of other and more ancient cultures of the world. Arguably, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Newton, Mill, Jefferson, and Thoreau, to name a few, are the perennial fonts of human civilization. Nevertheless, the fruits of the labors of these personalities of the Western world cannot ignore the contributions of the Orient such as the Bhagavatgita of the ancient Aryavarta, the Books of Chilam Balam of ancient Yucatan, Mazdak-namag of ancient Persia or the Analects of Confucius of ancient China. Hence Bloom’s prescription for opening up the American mind by concentrating on the great Classical culture of the West is in fact a recipe for its further clogging. For the pluralistic society of the United States of America, we must endeavor to develop a balanced perspective, that is, a cross-cultural perspective, in education with a view to refreshing and reshaping our flattened soul.
But multiculturalism in education must not be construed as mere ethno centrism or what the historian Arthur Schlesinger has seen as “the disuniting of America””—the degeneration of the great American ideal of e pluribus unum—by glorifying pluribus and grinding unum. The most serious misunderstanding stems from the fact that some scholars, notably and unfortunately including some of the most respected among them, equate cultural diversity and tolerance with anti-nationalistic ethnicity—the corrosive solvent threatening to dissolve the great “melting-pot” and destroy the “American creed” [ideals of liberty, equality, justice, and fairness] which Gunnar Myrdal had once celebrated (American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. New York: Harper & Bros, 1944). “The cult of ethnicity,” writes Professor Schlesinger, “exaggerates differences, intensifies resentments and antagonisms, drives even deeper the awful wages between races and nationalities. The end game is self-pity and self-ghettoization” (“The Disunity of America,” American Education, Winter 1991).
To an extent these charges are sincere, if not altogether true. In his analysis of I, Rigoberrta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (1983. New York: Verso Books, 1985), one of the books used by Stanford University in its innovative freshman course Cultures, Ideas and Values (CIV), Dinesh D’Souza, author of Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: Free Press, 1991), illustrates what he calls “bogus multiculturalism.” The Stanford text describes the experiences of a young Guatemalan woman who has renounced marriage and motherhood and turned a feminist, socialist as well as a supporter of gay rights, and who goes to Paris to attend socialist conferences discussing the plight of the oppressed peoples of the world. As D’Souza observes, young Rigoberta does not, by any stretch of the imagination, represent the poor people or the peasants of Guatemala, even though she claims to speak for her oppressed country people. Perhaps she speaks for the political prejudices of some Stanford professors and students, D’Souza concludes (Lecture at the American Federation of Teachers’ QUEST Conference, July 1991). Politically motivated multiculturalism of Stanford variety has also resulted in historical engineering in the New York State University curriculum or in the Baseline Essays being adopted by the Portland (OR) school system (Albert Shanker, “Multiculturalism: Don’t Sacrifice Accuracy,” On Campus, vol. 11. No. 4, 1992).
First, a la D’Souza, we must recognize that “multicultural education is too important...to leave to multicultural ideologues and activists.” This recognition is all the more imperative in view of the fact that the decade of the nineteen-eighties had seen an influx of Hispanic and Asian populations in the United States—a trend that might well continue through the twentieth century and beyond. As we are told, “gone, or going fast, is the concept of the melting pot, of the United States as the paramount place in the world where people come to shed their past in order to forge their future….Instead there is a new paradigm that emphasizes the racial and ethnic diversity of American citizens, of the many cultures that have converged here, each valuable in its own right and deserving study and respect” (Paul Gray, Whose America?,” Time, July 8, 1991). There has been a nationwide attempt at incorporating the study of various non-Western cultures in the school and college curricula with a view to correcting hitherto unchallenged Eurocentric explanation of the world.
At the same time, multicultural campaign has been so politicized that it has become “political correctness” seeking to suppress thoughts and statements deemed offensive to women, blacks, or other groups. This emphasis on political correctness has resulted in tactical and artificial tolerance of ethnic and cultural diversity and not in rational conviction or moral recognition of the validity of cultures other than the dominant one. Or worse still, it has inspired “a primitive romanticism of the Third World,” as D’Souza has observed in respect of the Stanford CIV program (Illiberal Education). Such is, alas, the fate of any measure that is imposed by fiat—social or political—and implemented for strategic reasons, that is, to keep all ethnic groups satisfied in a pluralistic society.
I feel that a proper multicultural education must help open up the mind and elevate consciousness to the level where an awareness of one’s own ethnicity will not militate against the need to belong to a greater community that transcends ethnic and cultural pluralities. In other words, multicultural awareness need neither fragment a nation nor debase a national culture and political identity. In this respect I am in full agreement with the American Federation of Teachers resolution on multicultural education:
The United States is one of the world’s most diverse multicultural societies. To appreciate this inheritance and all who contributed to it, our children need a multicultural education….[W]ithout knowledge of the many streams that nourish the general society, the “mainstream” cannot be properly studied or understood. This is why our children need a multicultural curriculum, one in which the contributions and roles of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Americans and other minorities are fairly and accurately depicted, and one in which the history of non-Western societies is part of the required curriculum (American Educator, Winter 1991).
The above comments of mine on the American situation are equally germane to the Indian context, too, as both countries are equally vast and vastly multicultural. In order properly to tolerate and respect different cultures without losing a foothold in one’s own at the same time, we need first of all to impart cultural literacy. In order to illustrate this point let me cite an ancient Hindu myth—the story of “The Hunter and the Sage.” In this wonderful myth, an ascetic tells a hunter how he entered the head and consciousness of a dreamer. The sage inside the dreamer dreams of the same things the dreamer was dreaming of and becomes a householder like him—with wife, son, servants et cetera (Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, Other Peoples’ Myths: A Cave of Echoes, 1988. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). The hunter in this story is the person who cannot get inside other people’s head and so is fated to be born over and over again to experience different lives. But the sage, who can get inside other people mentally, experiences countless lives mentally without ever having to be reborn. Hunters and sages represent two types of people—those who must experience everything physically in order to understand it and those who understand things cerebrally. The hunter represents the group of those who practice multiculturalism for the sake of political correctness and the sage represents those who are culturally literate, aware of their own culture as well as the cultures of others through mentation.
What, then, is cultural literacy? There is a vast literature on this subject that cannot be dealt with within the scope of this essay. It would, however, be enough to define cultural literacy and reflect on its possible uses for crosscultural awareness. According to Herbert Wilson, “cultural literacy is being aware of one’s ethnicity, and possessing the skills of transcultural communication” (“Cultural Literacy Laboratory,” McGill Journal of Education, vol. 9, no. 1, 1974). Cultural literacy stems from a critical awareness of the cultural assumptions that exist at a taken-for-granted level. This critical consciousness is an essential foundation of maturity which “has to do with the nature of the response the individual makes to…characteristics of his own existence, and in particular whether the response is shaped by social pressures or by a more inward process that reflects a greater degree of personal authenticity” (Chester A. Bowers, Cultural Literacy for Freedom: An Existential Perspective on Teaching, Curriculum and School Policy, Eugene: Elan Publishers, 1974. See also Narasingha P. Sil’s review of this book in Journal of Educational Thought, vol. 10, no. 2, 1976).
Cultural literacy can ensure true education that leads to the liberation of the mind: liberation from the myths of cultures, from the tyranny of peer groups, from the controllers of society, and from immaturity. In other words, cultural literacy leads to what Immanuel Kant had recognized as the Aufklarung [Enlightenment]. Several experts have written at length about how to infuse cultural literacy in high school and college curricula. The Multicultural Education Center at the University of Arizona has developed a literacy laboratory. Paul Nash’s article “Education 2000 A.D.” in the Journal of Education (vol. 45, no. 4, 1974) and the University of Oregon professor Chet Bowers’ monograph cited above made a number of concrete suggestions in behalf of a cultural literacy curriculum.
A critical awareness of one’s own cultural assumptions has the advantage of seeing them as products of a particular socio-economic-political milieu and hence valid in a specific context. Long ago, a very witty Yankee, the redoubtable Mark Twain, had pointed out with uncanny accuracy that “the only very marked difference between the average civilized man and the average savage is that the one is gilded and the other painted” (Albert B. Paine, Mark Twain’s Notebook, Hesperides Press, 2006). An understanding of culture as something socially constructed enables the individual not to think of his own culture as something universally valid and in need of imposition on others. Hence, a multicultural curriculum informed by a program of cultural literacy will enable us to learn “the best that has been thought and said” in Western as well as non-Western cultures and “then arrive,” as D’Souza has suggested for the US, “at a sensible basis for the norms according to which we would like to live our lives and shape this multicultural society.” This is perhaps the best way to keep Walt Whitman’s America, as much as postcolonial India, each “a teeming nation of nations,” to borrow his expression (Leaves of Grass , Preface) intact. What is then required is a dialectical combination of floodlight and spotlight consciousness—an awareness of pluribus as well as unum. This is what Whitman’s younger near-contemporary, Rabindranath Tagore, reiterated in his celebrated poem “Bharattirtha [India the Land of Pilgrims]:”
Pashchim aji khuliyachhe dvar, setha hate sabe ane upahar,
dibe ar nibe, milabe milibe, yabe nap hire—
Ei Bharater mahamanaber sagartire.
[The West has opened its doors, and everyone brings its gifts (home),
to exchange and to assimilate, and no one left out—
on the shores of this Bharat, a mighty ocean of humanity]
— (Sanchayita, Kolkata: Tuli-Kalam, 2002).