On Teaching Culture and Culture Tourism

My work developing “culture” lessons for my co-teachers assignment from the school district has me thinking a lot about what it means to teach culture.  I remember when my co-teacher asked me to do the lesson plans in the beginning, my first reaction was, “what the hell am I going to do with American culture in ten lessons?”  So I asked him what he specifically wanted and he said the normal kind of thing.  Holidays, fun things, idiosyncratic cultural things.

So I did.  I was fairly broad in my collection, I wanted to make sure there were many different types of culture represented.  I started with holidays (thanksgiving, Halloween, MLK day and 4th of july), then did sports (baseball, football), then came music (pop, indie) and then economic culture (black Friday, garage sales).

Something keeps bothering me about this project though.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until a few days ago when my 2nd grade students were given the task of reading a short essay on “cultural differences”.  Here is what they read:

 While traveling around Europe, I found out that every nation has one thing in common that their people most like to do.  For example, people in France love talking about women.  They talk openly about any woman’s appearance.  In the street, people sometimes stare at a woman and discuss how beautiful she is.  On the other hand, eating desserts is a common pastime in Switzerland.  Swiss women often go to cafes and eat ice cream or a large piece of chocolate cake.  They do this “just for fun.”  In England, standing in line is very common.  The English love to wait in lines, even when it isn’t necessary.  One time I went out to buy a theater ticket, and I was standing next to a gentleman.  He turned to me and said, “There is a line here, sir.” “Where?” I asked with surprise. “I am the line,” he answered politely.

It’s amazing how many mythical cultural stereotypes you can fit into such a small amount of space.  As the students read this aloud, I was, and still am, amazed that such a piece of work would be given to students without some form of clarification, or question/answer section that talked about stereotypes or how to relate these ideas to the students own culture. (e.g. “how do we speak about women?  Do you think the French are being rude?  What kinds of things do you think French people say about women? How is this similar to how we talk about women?”).

Tiger Mom

Stereotype can be fun too!

This kind of culture education is what we call “Tourist culture education”.  Meaning, let’s not worry about developing empathy and eliminating our biases against those we deem “other”, instead, we’ll tour the world, see “exotic” places, meet “quaint” people.  Obviously the intention is not malicious.  Like the essay above, the writer is trying to show a human universal: All cultures have ONE thing that EVERYONE likes to do.  The idea is simplistic and naïve, sure; but more importantly, it doesn’t quite get the student to question their own biases.

Instead, telling students about the “strange customs” of England and their love of lines may actually embed in the students a new cultural stereotype and bias.  When my co-teacher explained this part about England to the students, he tried to make it a joke (after a fashion).  The students, when they understood what happened all gave a slight exasperated sigh and a shake of the head like, “Those weird English people”.  And that was it.  No going on.  No questioning. Nothing.  So now, not only are the students not practicing empathy or learning the skills of operating in a multicultural society, they are actively being given NEW biases.

As Lousie Derman-Sparks has noted in the collaborative work Rethinking schools: An Agenda for Change:

This “tourist” approach doesn’t give children the tools they need to comfortably, empathetically, and fairly interact with diversity.  Instead, it teaches simplistic generalizations that lead to stereotyping rather than understanding.  Moreover, “tourist” activities do not foster critical thinking about bias, nor teach children to oppose bias. (pg 20).

We combat tourist cultural education by asking ourselves as educators, “what is the purpose of teaching culture?”  The answer certainly isn’t to “get a taste” of the world.  It is because in most places around the world, we live in a multi-cultural society and children need the thinking tools necessary to perform and navigate in that society.  Students need to be given the critical thinking skills to see through bias and actively empathize with someone who is different.

Going back to my lesson plans on culture.  I can admit that I have, in part, created and participated in culture tourism (I especially cringe at the Black Friday lesson).  In my defense, I did attempt to make the lessons relateable to Korean culture.  I think I did this well with the music lessons, where students could engage in American culture via their own culture and see how American music influences Korean music and now vice-versa.  For the lessons on Independence day and Thanksgiving, I tried to make it clear in the description that these celebrations have Korean counter-parts that can be used to ground the students understanding.  Asking the students to examine how they feel during their own National holidays and the pride and patriotism they feel and extending that to another culture.  This allows everyone to be proud of where they are from.  It also allows the teacher to discuss unhealthy patriotism, or zealotry.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I was able to do enough to stress the multi-cultural aspects and empathy.  Particularly in classrooms where students are used to getting fun-size essays that emphasize stereotypes.

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