Thursday, July 22, 2010

"Culture" comes to the Naval Academy

Last month, the Naval Academy department then known as Department of Language Studies quietly changed its name to Department of Language and Cultures.
It hardly registers as big news. But to Clementine Fujimura, the lone anthropology professor at the Annapolis campus, the change is "huge."
Why? "Because it's acknowledging that the Navy is accepting that we need to be teaching about culture," she said.
 Yeah, well, I'm not so sure that this is the "huge news" Dr. Fujimura thinks it is. But first, I have a question:
The Naval Academy only has one anthropologist on faculty???  WTF?!?
 Moving on. Here's why I think that this may not be something to celebrate. When academic departments outside of anthropology teach "culture," they generally have in mind a sort of dumbed-down, laundry-list approach to culture:  Look at the exotic foods these folks eat, or their clothing, or the gestures they use for "come here" and "good-bye."  They rarely, if ever, apply the insights that anthropology has developed into the nature and structure of culture as a human adaptation.

Perhaps Dr. Fujimura is happy with this, but she shouldn't be, unless she happens to count herself among the "postmodern" "interpretivist" cultural types who have participated in the trivialization of the culture concept over the last couple of decades.

Here at UNF, our World Languages department (a fine name, I think) has proposed a name change to the "Department of Language, Literature, and Culture." As a group, we in the anthropology program saw this as outlandishly over-reaching (wouldn't the English Department have to be absorbed?), as well as a usurpation of what is, traditionally, the academic domain of anthropology. Since we are now in the middle of summer, we don't know whether World Languages' quest for this name change will be picked up in the fall or not, but there will certainly be some opposition.
And by the way, toward the end of the full WaPo article there is this:
...anthropologists have ever been wary of the use to which their profession might be put by the military, whose purpose, of course, goes far beyond the passive study of other cultures.
Excuse me. Anthropologist have never really been "passive" in their study of cultures.  The central research method of cultural anthropology is not called participant observation for nothing. And E. B. Tylor (1832-1917) referred to anthropology as "essentially a reformer's science... active at once in aiding progress and in removing hindrance" (quoted in Marvin Harris, Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times (p. 62), Altamira Press 1999).

1 comment:

  1. So, "passive" has come to mean that anthropologists try not to kill the people they are studying? That's unfortunate.

    I don't want to outright condemn the Naval Academy. It's my understanding that if a service member needs to learn a foreign language/culture for the job, the branch will send him to a place like DLI (which is a few minutes from where I live actually). The students at the Naval Academy who are learning a foreign language are taking those courses the same way I might have taken French in college--as an elective or to satisfy a requirement. Now, my assumptions could be dead wrong. Again, I'm under the impression that DLI employs native speakers only and offers much more comprehensive education about foreign languages than any 4-year college.

    This is not a defense of the Naval Academy either. It never ceases to disappoint me that our military spends so much time, energy, and money on the physical aspect of war but not on the long-term problem-solving aspect. I know they do make efforts (as evidenced by the existence of DLI), but for every effort towards understanding, there is another effort towards distancing ourselves from the human aspect (such as UAVs).


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