Rex’s “recent post”:/2006/05/02/seminal-juxtapositions/ has led to an interesting discussion in the comments section about the ways in which teachers and professors expose students to cultural practices that deeply threaten their assumptions about morality, propriety and the nature of life itself. The Sambian practice of male initiation through insemination via fellatio is used as an example of something that best be kept for when students have been exposed to practices that are less threatening to the average North American (dare I say Western?) or North American-raised (ibid) student so that there is a gradual exposure to cultural variation in worldview and practices. In other words, it is suggested that it would be wise to move slowly from things that are “different” but that do not break taboos to things that challenge hardcore, unquestioned assumptions about values and morality so that we don’t A) scare them off completely and B) reinforce racist stereotypes.
I think this is an extremely interesting and valuable discussion to have and would like to share how I deal, at least partially, with this issue in my intro courses. When I started teaching, I had a hard time getting students to recognise their own ethnocentrism. They understood the concept intellectually, but would usually think that they were immune to it because they had gone to high school in Montreal with people from all over the world, or because they “just aren’t like that”. I felt that I had to find a way to get them to recognise that they were not immune to the effects of enculturation and all the assumptions that come along with growing up in a particular cultural framework.
I therefore developed an exercise in recognizing cultural assumptions in which I try to make students see the difference in their own reactions to things that fall along the spectrum of practices that is mentioned above: from mildly “different” but not morally challenging to highly morally challenging. Basically, I get them to experience ethnocentrism right there in the classroom so that we can work on examining their assumptions. I have a chart that I put on acetate. The first column has a list of three cultural practices or behaviours. I start with a description of the technology of a foraging society such as the Ju/’hoansi, then I discuss the Navajo Nadleeh. Finally, I tell them about Tibetan fraternal polyandry. In each case, I give a bit of background on the people in question, their way of life and so forth and then I describe the practice in question.
The second column has empty space to note their gut reactions. I tell them to be honest in telling me what their reactions are. What do they think of these people? The third column is for recording how they would feel if I transported them over them and left them there so that they had to live there.
Every time, the reactions go from fascination to mild disdain to extreme disgust. With Ju/’hoansi technology, they tend to say that the people in question are either primitive or that they’re very smart for being able to survive in their environment. Most of them would freak out a little bit if they were trapped there but mostly out of boredom (No cell phones?!? No cars?!?) In the case of the Nadleeh, I get some raised eyebrows, mildly homophobic comments (since a Nadleeh might marry someone of the same biological sex) but also some comments such as “well, they’re like us . . .we have transsexuals and stuff.” Reactions to being trapped there range from fascination to the resolve to avoid these particular individuals. Now, fraternal polyandry gets some interesting results. Once in a great while, I’ll have a sexually assertive female student who’ll grin and comment on how cool it would be to have sexual access to several men. But for the most part, both male and female students react with disgust and comments about how this practice is an affront to the value of love and marriage. Many are quite indignant and comment about the violation of human rights, particularly women’s rights and so forth.
When we’re done, we talk about cultural assumptions, where they’re from, how they’re shaped and why their reactions were so different from one case study to the next. This is when I bring up the idea that they are more outraged about things that call into question the moral values with which they’ve grown up. We talk about how many assumptions about what is right, natural and normal such as gender categories or marriage based on love between two people are never questioned unless we are confronted with something that challenges them.
In the end, this all leads to discussing the idea of ethnocentrism with the basis that the exercise has forced them to admit that they, like everyone, are ethnocentric. Having experienced ethnocentrism in a very real way helps them internalise the concept at a deeper level and allows them, in some cases at least, to see the purpose of learning to use cultural relativism in their approach to learning about cultural practices that differ from their own. I think this is very important because if they don’t see the value of learning something, they will either not learn it at all or they will only learn the definition. This, as we know, is not conducive to an adequate understanding of any of the anthropological material they will learn later nor is it conducive to them being able to catch themselves having judgemental attitudes toward people that they encounter in their daily lives or read about in the news. In my case, since I teach general social science students in a Cégep and very few of them will go on to student university-level anthropology, the latter factor is where I put most of my energy. If they graduate from my course being able to recognise how their own ethnocentrism can be a hindrance in their future careers or social lives, I’m happy.