The report that was posted here on March 10, 2004 ["Teaching culture, communicating about others: an It/Thou Paradox"] was published in late January 2005 in Academic Exchange Quarterly, retitled "Culture teaching and learning: an It/Thou Paradox"
Teaching culture, communicating about others: an It/Thou Paradox
English 416 (Language and Society)
March 10, 2004
Copyright © Tim Nall 2004.
All Rights reserved.
Do not copy without permission.
KEYWORD - CULTURE
Ethical concerns have been raised regarding explicit presentation of cultural differences in the classroom, since this may lead to "othering" or essentializing the cultures studied. Examining this viewpoint in the light of Buber's distinction between I-Thou and I-It relationships suggests that such criticisms have a degree of validity. Further consideration of the goals of education and the necessity of dialog, however, lead to the conclusion that eliding the topic of culture is counterproductive, and culture is an indispensable element of the educational experience.
Philosopher and educator Martin Buber spoke of a "narrow ridge where I and Thou meet." For him, the dialog or communion of I to Thou, "...spoken only with the whole being" (Buber 1958: 24) was the worthwhile half of a two-fold reality that humankind universally faces: an I-It reality, and an I-Thou reality. The I-It reality is discrete, repeatable, reliable, measurable, describable to others:
Only concerning it may you make yourself 'understood' with others; it is ready, though attached to everyone in a different way, to be an object common to you all. But you cannot meet others in it." (Buber 1958: 32).
The I-Thou relationship, which presents the only way for one to truly encounter another human being, differs at all points from I-It (Buber 1958: 32-3):...[This relationship] is unreliable, for it takes on a continually new appearance... It cannot be surveyed, and if you wish to make it capable of survey you lose it... You can make it into an object for yourself, to experience and to use... [However, y]ou cannot make yourself understood with others concerning it.
This dialogical core of Buber's thought is often summed up with his statement that "All real living is meeting" (Buber 1958: 25).
Teaching, however, is to a large extent a process of capturing concepts, skills, beliefs, facts, feelings and opinions and making them understood, transferring them unilaterally or sharing them communally through space (and perhaps across time) to and with others. The teacher wishes to make selected portions of human experience available to (and hopefully understood by) learners, for them to "experience and use." This presents us with a paradox when we wish to teach or learn about culture. Our definition of teaching seems to encapsulate an I-It relationship, since I-Thou relationships are intensely immediate and personal, and essentially non-transferable. If an I-Thou relationship is the only meaningful way to encounter another human, but a teacher can only present knowledge to learners within an I-It framework, how then can we teach meaningfully about other people? More to the point, how can we do so without doing violence to students' understanding of the uniqueness of each individual? We see then that teachers communicating about others are trapped between the scylla and charybdis of an It/Thou paradox.
This truth can be confirmed by a moment's reflection. Even the most touching or absorbing life-stories leave the true self of a person undisturbed, unknown and unknowable; at best essentialized, at worst misrepresented. We need not even appeal to the author's inherent perspective or bias to account for the relative poverty of this medium of knowing. The wholeness and uniqueness of any person are necessarily sliced away when individuals are transformed from people to propositional bits of information - even when the information presented is both verifiable and meaningful. This loss of life is a casualty of the It/Thou paradox of teaching. Despite the abilities of the teacher or learner, Buber's "narrow ridge" cannot be captured for examination. It can only be traversed by personal experience.
The practice of teaching culture can admittedly be a rough ride and a messy business - like drinking soda pop on a roller-coaster. There are many potentially grievous pitfalls inherent in the contrastive analysis of culture, all of which are some variation of the fact that there are no shortcuts in the process of understanding identity. As an expression of natural curiosity about the world, we want to understand the hearts and souls - the identity - of people who may look, speak, and in some ways act differently than what we are familiar with. In our attempts to get at identity, we short-circuit the process by using culture as a proxy.
The first problem is that the layers of abstraction that lie between us and other people as viewed under the I-It paradigm (reducing them to thinghood) are compounded geometrically when we begin considering and discussing entire cultures. We try to subsume individuals into higher order categories, and the "narrow ridge" sinks further and further from sight, becoming an unseen particle in the whole, a drop of water in the ocean. The original goal of understanding people via classroom discussion, never really attainable, enters such an endless loop of paradox that it has ceased even to seem rational.
A second problem is the ease with which generalization can be mistaken for discovery. Students spend their academic lives accepting information offered within an I-It paradigm as received truth. There is value in this; it is a sufficient and perhaps even necessary paradigm for many kinds of learning. Areas in which an I-Thou relationship is the only viable path to understanding, however, suffer greatly under this practice. Truth itself, diffident under even ideal circumstances, is all too easily supplanted by an answer that merely satisfies the learner. The value of learning in an I-It manner is that it increases our knowledge. The value of learning in an I-Thou manner is that it changes our lives -- sometimes remarkably, sometimes subtly -- by adding a new facet to our own identity. Generalizations about culture must not be confounded with discoveries about identity, just as increases in knowledge must not be confounded with the changes that come when we take a small part of someone else into ourselves.
Unfortunately these problems are further compounded by the fact that all teaching is also a matter of rendering things distinct in one way or another from the known or expected. Since nothing has a unique identity or separate existence unless it is somehow different from other things, teaching must converge to the practice of presenting what cannot be assumed from first principles or inferred from appeal to common humanity. Teaching the identity of an object, a person or an entire culture is teaching how it is somehow different from other things (or people), holding it apart somehow from all other reality. Even when, as at times is the case, the teacher deliberately draws parallels between the lives of learners and the reality of the person or people being considered, it is only to quell unfounded expectations. It is in fact another example of drawing distinctions: in this case, between reality on the one hand, and the learners' anticipated beliefs or expectations on the other. The I-It way of knowing, the only transferable way of knowing, is a beast fleshed out from differences and distances.
Buber certainly knew this. The I-It paradigm, as Smith (2000) notes, "... involves distancing. Differences are accentuated, the uniqueness of 'I' emphasized". The more one strives to capture the essence of what is teachable about an individual, the more one becomes entangled in the It/Thou paradox of teaching. As that happens, individuals slip from our grasp and subside into the unknowable, even as they seem to become better known: "Every Thou in the world is doomed by its nature to become a thing or at least to enter into thinghood again and again" (Buber 1958: 69).
Consequently, some warn that examining cultures in contrast with one's own is dehumanizing, serving "...to 'essentialize' and 'exoticize' [the differentess of] this 'Other'" (Guest 2002:154). This perceived practice or outcome has come to be pejoratively referred to in academic literature as "Othering". In a critical look at the practice of teaching culture contrastively in the classroom, Michael Guest (2002:155,160) presents a distressingly long list of the potential pitfalls and hazards:... it is questionable whether cultural 'knowledge' can be accurately or meaningfully reduced to a propositional level...heterogeneous groups can easily and readily become stigmatized... contrastive analysis is... regularly employed by employed by nationalists, racists and other extremists... can lead to cross-cultural paralysis... teachers may unwittingly be endorsing questionable (and potentially dangerous) stigmatizing, monolithic predications about 'the Other'Guest is far from alone within academic circles in his misgivings about contrastive analysis of cultures. Some educators are averse to such discussions even for their own purposes, let alone presenting such an analysis to students. As an illustrative example, consider Leki's (2000:103) observation in the context of needs analysis that:
Contrastive Rhetoric is... anathema to some L2 writing researchers because of its propensity to essentialize cultures...partly through its static representation of their written products and its implication that L2 writers too are little more than products of a static culture.
Certainly our discussion so far agrees with Guess' first point. Yet still culture is taught daily in classrooms all over the world, with perfect sanity and sangfroid. How can this be so? Should we not stop these teachers in mid-lecture or mid-discussion, and tell them that you cannot teach learners meaningfully about other individuals (much less other cultures) without dehumanizing the ones being discussed? Guest believes we should. Advocating only "covert and indirect introduction of culture..", he continues, "...I question whether it is worth introducing overt, direct cultural content to ESL/EFL learners at all" (Guest 2000:160).
There are several problems with this advice, all of which are some variation of the idea that addressing cultural differences head-on is more appropriate than apprehensively dropping the curtain of grace over the issue. On a surface level, Guest's suggestion may leave ESL/EFL learners vulnerable to wholly avoidable cultural gaffes and other pragmatic errors. On a more meaningful level, to avoid culture as an explicit topic is to leave unmarked the gaps and holes in our knowledge, inviting the very ethnocentrism that the literature against 'Othering' so keenly decries. The central rationale is this: are not the concepts of cultural relativity, the multifaceted nature of identity and the unknowable depths of one's fellow man or woman extremely germane to the educational experience? Are these not things we wish to teach? We can never fill all the gaps in our knowledge. The realization that those gaps exist, however, is a profound and beneficial form of wisdom.
It is also patently true that wherever there are human beings, culture is inescapable. Learners are already being bombarded with cultural messages, both inside and outside the classroom. We can agree with Kramsch's (1993:1. As cited in Plastina 1999) observation that:
Culture in language learning is not an expendable fifth skill tacked on, so to speak, to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. It is always in the background, right from day one ... challenging [the learners'] ability to make sense of the world around them.
Culture does not cease to exist if we cease to discuss it, but opportunities for education do.
More generally, we should not be unduly daunted by Guest's analysis or others like it, even though it is potentially correct. The idea that stereotypes can potentially be inaccurate or harmful to others' self-esteem is valid, and it is important to note this. However, the extension of that idea into a hesitancy to address broad cultural differences would significantly interdict the process of learning about the world around us. All generalizations need to be approached judiciously, but by the same token they cannot be consigned to the educational scrap heap: "A stereotype need not conform to reality [in the particular case]; rather, it offers people a rough and ready characterization _with all the attendant problems of such characterizations_ [my emphasis]" (Wardhaugh 2002:143).
In Danling Fu's brief and accessible gem of a book, "My Trouble is My English," both the value and the danger of generalization across cultures is evident. Comparing her own upbringing in China to studies that generalize about Asian culture, she states:
Many studies...have shown that quietness and withdrawal are typical of Asian students. Their silence is attributed to their culture. As an Asian myself, I do, to some extent, agree with these findings... [However, n]eglect of the complexity and subtlety of human qualities results in many minority students' being forced to live up to those stereotypes... Even from the same family, my four [Laotian] informants are different...They have much in common, yet they are different in many ways because of each of their personalities and life experiences. (Fu 2000:197,200,212)
This leads us to a second paradox, both the more practical and the more optimistic of the two. The goal of teaching culture is not to help learners understand people from other cultures. That would of course be difficult, if not impossible. To offer an admittedly simplistic example, you cannot bring students who are not of Chinese descent to understand their Chinese teachers, neighbors or classmates by reading a brief sketch of Confucian thought and eating pot-stickers with chopsticks. What classroom discussion about culture which includes generalizations may accomplish is helping learners understand that if an individual from another culture comes out in a different position on a given issue, they may have proceeded logically from a different starting position - a position that may echo back generations or even millenia in the shared understanding of that community. Perhaps most important of all, you may help them understand that whatever facts they know about a culture really offer only a necessary set of ground-rules for the absolutely essential dialog; a mere starting point on a long interpersonal journey. There is no shortcut to understanding identity - not even culture.
The gap between Guest's analysis and this one may not be as wide as I have made it seem. He too seems to stress the multifaceted nature of identity: "...focus upon culture teaching should rather emphasize pragmatic and linguistic universals, and psychological/social typologies...". He also admits there is (limited) room for dealing in generalities. Perhaps the difference is simply one of attitude. Recalling Leki's characterization of Contrastive Rhetoric as "anathema to some...researchers," I would draw a parallel between cultural education and sex education: it may have elements that are uncomfortable, and expose vulnerabilities that can be abused. However, there is beauty to be found there as well, and there is some danger in scrawling "here there be dragons" across the topic before shoving it in the dark recesses of some dusty filing cabinet.
The daily practice of teachers all over the world of addressing culture in their classrooms probably implicitly assumes all of the above. Perhaps most of all, it stems from the knowledge that that job of teachers is to teach, not to abandon their students to the daily flood of information that confronts them from nearly every direction.. This would be leaving learners to fend for themselves, unwarned and unguided. Teachers must teach propositional, knowable facts about the universe, venturing at times into the realm of generalities. They might conceivably fail by teaching culture inaccurately, and will certainly fall very far short of teaching it adequately. However, by no means can they succeed at any positive goal by neglecting to teach culture at all. Teachers must emphasize the unknowable nature of many things, the inevitability of differences, and the necessity of dialog. If students are made cognizant of these facts, they are better prepared for the messy but rewarding reality that awaits them.
Buber, Martin. 1958. I and Thou. 2nd ed. Translation: R. Gregory Smith. Edinburgh: T.
& T. Clark.
Fu, Danling. 1995. My Trouble Is My English. Portsmouth, New Hampshire:
Boynton/Cook Publishers, Heniemann.
Guest, Michael. 2002. A critical 'checkbook' for culture teaching and learning. ELT
Journal 56,2. 154-161.
Kramsch, C. 1993. Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford
Leki, Ilona. 2000. Writing, Literacy, and Applied Linguistics. The Annual Review of
Applied Linguistics, Volume 20. 99-115.
Plastina, Anna Franca. 1999. Teaching Culture in Literature in the ESL/EFL Classroom.
The Internet TESL Journal VI, 3. As retrieved on March 8, 2004 from
Smith, Mark K. 2000. Martin Buber on education. As retrieved on March 8, 2004 from
Wardhaugh, Ronald. 2002. Sociolingustics. 4th ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers
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