Wednesday, December 28, 2011

No rest for the cranky!

This morning, via campus email, we received a message from our university president.  Here's the first paragraph (my emphasis added):

Last week, representatives from CNN visited our campus to determine if we had the capacity to hold a Republican presidential debate.  The representatives from CNN were  impressed with our campus and would like to hold the internationally-broadcast event in the Lazzara Performance Hall of the Fine Arts Center the evening of Thursday, Jan. 26. More than four million people are expected to watch this debate in the United States alone. In addition, it will air on CNN International, CNN Radio and Armed Forces Radio, giving UNF the domestic and global exposure we simply cannot buy. Student groups are particularly excited about the event and have asked UNF to work with CNN. I have agreed, as I would for any other major event that brings this type of prestige and publicity
Publicity, maybe, but prestige?  Really?  We want our university to share in the prestige emanating from this gang of serial hypocrites and abusers?

We're all doomed.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

New blog: "Evolution/Revolution"

Some of my colleagues in Sociology and Anthropology at the University of North Florida have started a new blog called Evolution/Revolution.  We expect that this will be a place for us to post some of our research notes, as well as social science-informed commentary on happenings in the world around us.  Come on over and have a look!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Shouldn't get no respect

Just now (Sunday morning, ca. 9:00 am on the East Coast), on CNN, the editorial editor for the NH Union Leader explained his endorsement of Gingrich over Romney: Romney "wants to be liked," but Gingrich "wants to be respected." Whatever happened to "deserves to be respected," which applies to none of the Rethuglicans?
And his second choice is Perry! He sounded like someone who should never be allowed to operate a keyboard connected to an editorial page.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Mrs. Cain: Herman "totally respects women"

In an interview on NBC's Today show this morning, GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain's wife Gloria told the interviewer that he "totally respects women."

Uh huh.  I guess that explains his calling former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "Princess Nancy" in the GOP presidential debate over the weekend.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Random thoughts about US individualism

I have mentioned before that we can explain much of US culture in terms of the distinction between two modes of enculturation: independence training (IT) and dependence training (DT). These concepts were used by Chinese-American anthropologist Francis L K Hsu to help understand differences between his native Chinese culture and US culture.  Briefly, Chinese enculturation fostered a willingness to value ties among people among people that included reciprocal rights and obligations, while in the US enculturation tends to stress the autonomy of individuals and their rights at the expense of the obligations.  The result, in the US, is a relative lack of a value of social responsibility, at least beyond the nuclear family.  It's hard, though, to pin down exactly why the US is like this, instead of like something else.  And as in most areas of the human enterprise, there probably isn't one simple answer.  So, some semi-random thoughts pulled from an email I wrote the other day in which I tried to get at the issue from several perspectives:

One reason the US has such strong IT compared to other cultures may be that we are still in our adolescent phase of becoming a society, we haven't figured out how to be mature in the world.  We are, to paraphrase (I believe) Shakespeare, wanton children swatting at flies.  Self-centered, complacent, even arrogant, in our willful ignorance.  And fully, religiously, certain that our lack of social responsibility toward our fellow humans is natural, the way things should be.  If this sounds a bit like the old national character studies of Benedict and others, ok, as long as we don't take it too far.

A little story, which I think I got from Pete Seeger (who in turn I believe got it from Woody Gurthrie): Way out in the lonely west somewhere, a farmer rests on his porch after a hard day's work.  A lone rider approaches, and says "Is this your farm?"  The farmer replies "Yes."  Stranger: "Where'd you get it from?"  Farmer:  "From my father."  Stranger:  "Where'd he get it from?"  Farmer:  "He took it from some Indians."  Stranger:  "Well, I'm taking it from you."

We can trace some of this back to when the Europeans encountered "America" and began their ethnocentrism-driven regime of raping and pillaging. Often, in those earliest days, it literally was one person, or a tiny group, with little or no support, who wandered off into the wilderness.  Other culture heroes: Andrew Jackson, killer and abuser of Native Americans; Teddy Roosevelt, advocate for clearing the land of indigenous peoples to make room for the "Germanic-speaking" bearers of civilization (Hitler approved of course).  How much have we outgrown this middle-school playground mentality, really?

The rise of capitalism of course also feeds into our original Individualistic Narrative: the "self-made man,"  the wealthy person who cobbles together a fortune somehow without any help whatsoever from anyone on the planet.  Capitalism has encouraged isolation, fragmentation, of workers and their families, and at the same time discouraged, often with violence, attempts by workers to reconstitute a social fabric.  This is an important part of our national mythology.  Think of one of our culture heroes, Ayn Rand, a vicious psychopath masquerading as a "philosopher" who happens to be the darling of the Tea Party movement.

And of course, over-population and crowding stress just further exacerbate the problem.  A lethal concoction:  IT and crowding stress, with few if any cultural mechanisms in place to lower the resulting pressure.

Something about IT that's important to remember is that it doesn't just apply to individual persons/organisms.  It applies at whatever level is appropriate.  It gives us corporations as "individual persons."  It sets the US, as a corporate entity, against the UN, the World Court, the Geneva Conventions, etc.  Because we are, still it seems, the adolescent bullies on the playground.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Irritable vowel syndrome

This is the sort of thing that makes my head hurt.

This morning while looking through some old files I came across a "language arts" exam given to middle school students in Carriacou (Grenada) in 1983.  The very first question:
Put a ring around the word that has two vowels
(a)  man     (b)  pet     (c)  gram     (d)  boat
Okay, now, we all know what the expected "right" answer was, don't we?  Of course.  It was (d) boat.  Because the word boat has two vowels.  Except that it doesn't, really.  The word boat, pronounced in Grenada as [bot], has one vowel (some speakers produce something like [bʷot] with a very brief labiovelar glide- still not two vowels, though).  The oa spelling of this vowel is an artifact of the convoluted history of the English writing system, not an accurate reflection of the present underlying phonology of English.

Of course, what's going on here is the perpetuation of the ancient language = writing meme, by which any question about language is assumed to refer to the writing system, not the actual spoken language.  Indeed, here in the US of A young people spend their K–college years attending "language arts" and "composition" classes that almost universally focus on writing (spelling, punctuation, etc.), not language.

Anyway, that was 1983.  My head is hurting now because yesterday, in a guest lecture on language, I asked the 100+ students in the lecture hall how many vowels are there in English?  And after all these roughly 25 years of teaching about language, the question still works: they still fall into the language = writing trap.  Their universal answer: five, maybe 6 (a, e, i, o, u, sometimes y).  I then astounded them by pulling out my twelve vowel sounds, as in the following words:
beat                     loot
bit        bird         look
bait                     coat
bet       bud         caught
bat                      cot
A part of me enjoys tricking students in this way, semester after semester.  And it's so predictable.  But another part of me bemoans the fact that I can still do it so easily.  Students in the English-speaking world simply do not, apparently, receive substantive instruction on the nature of language, or the nature of English.

Will they ever?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Florida Governor Scott says we don't need anthropologists

Florida Governor Rick Voldemort Scott wants universities to turn their backs on the liberal arts and sciences and focus on useful things like, you know, engineering and computer science.  Op-ed cartoonist Jeff Parker at Florida Today captures the governor's worldview very nicely:

In addition, Jeff writes:
Instead of a well-rounded, competitive, educated populace, Scott seemingly prefers to develop "foot soldiers for capitalism" as Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce puts it. The Governor appears satisfied with the idea of turning our universities into VoTech centers.
Plus, all that critical thinking and problem solving, nurtured by a liberal arts education, just gets in the way of ideological agendas like Scott's.
Nicely put.  I'll save my own rant for later.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

It's cults all the way down (and back up!)

Anthropologically speaking, the recent brouhaha over whether Mormonism is a "cult" is amusing, and it offers one of those teachable moments we all live for.  Robert Jeffress, a pastor at the Dallas, Texas, First Baptist Church, referred to Mormonism as a "theological cult" in an interview with reporters at the Values Voter Summit on Friday, October 7.  You can watch him defend his remark on Fox News here.

The whole thing is amusing because, in the US Folk Model, the word cult is to religion roughly what dialect is to language.  A variety of religion (or language) is tagged as non-standard, perhaps a bit weird or undesirable, the property of some minority or other that isn't quite inside the pale.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary has these as the first three definitions of cult (my emphasis added):

1: formal religious veneration: worship
2: a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also: its body of adherents
3: a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also: its body of adherents

Note that the third definition, the one Pastor Jeffress presumably had in mind, is the negative one.  The first two reflect the history of the term, which has the same root as culture (Latin cultus) and referred to the set of beliefs and behaviors associated with the worship or veneration of a god, saint, etc.  These definitions are not what most people have in mind when they use the term cult, and I would argue that to reflect actual usage in US society Merriam-Webster have these in the wrong order.

At least some anthropologists, following Anthony F. C. Wallace, continue to use cult in this broader, neutral sense to refer to any system of beliefs and behaviors involving the supernatural in some way.  Wallace identified four basic types of cults: individualistic; shamanistic; communal; ecclesiastical. Individualistic and shamanistic cults are most characteristic of small-scale societies whose subsistence is based on foraging or horticulture.  In these cults there are no full-time religious practitioners and most of what needs to be known to manipulate the supernatural is available to all, though especially talented individuals (shamans) may be consulted.  Ecclesiastical cults, typical of large-scale, stratified, state societies, have full-time practitioners who control access to the knowledge and also the performance of rituals.  Historically, the bureaucracy associated with these cults was frequently intertwined with or even equivalent to the state bureaucracy.  Communal cults appear as a bridge, but are most obvious in some pastoral societies such as the Maasai, where for example all males in an age-set undergo the ritual that transforms them from warriors to elders.

Religious cults conceived in this way form an implicational scale, so that for example people whose lives are centered on an ecclesiastical cult nevertheless also have beliefs and behaviors that reflect communal, shamanistic, and individualistic levels of organization.

So, anthropologists might use the word cult to describe Christianity as a whole, or at any level; the same with Islam, Judaism, or any other set of beliefs and behaviors.  Haitian Vodoun is a cult, and so is Jeffress's Southern Baptist Convention.  Everything is a cult, or nothing is a cult.

We can play the same game with the term dialect.  Appalachian English is a dialect of American English, which is a dialect of English, which is a dialect of West Germanic, which is a dialect of Germanic, which is a dialect Indo-European, which is a dialect of Human Language.

It's dialects, and cults, all the way up and down.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Essay on Ebonics

Anyone interested in the current status of African American English, or "Ebonics," might enjoy checking out my essay just posted on the American Anthropological Association's online Anthropology News web site.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

State-sponsored murder

According to Amnesty International, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles has refused to intervene in tomorrow's scheduled execution of Troy Davis, despite the overwhelming evidence that there is more than "reasonable doubt" that he committed the crime he was convicted of.

It's dismaying, but not that surprising.  As a core part of the Old Confederacy, Georgia is (at least) a crypto-fascist state.  State-sponsored murder, otherwise known as "execution," is a way for such states to demonstrate their absolute power over their citizens, including the power to decide whether they live or die.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

I didn't write anything for 9/11

Well, I didn't.  I did spend both yesterday and today actively avoiding mention of 9/11 on the TV, so as to be reminded as little as possible of the Tuesday ten years ago when our Marine son, Tommy, stationed at The Pentagon, was out of our reach for nearly the whole day.  I watched Ivan Reitmann's silly science-fiction comedy Evolution (David Duchovny, Julianne Moore, etc.), and I watched the first two parts of Lord of the Rings (the extended version!).  I also managed some of Avatar.  I played banjo. I walked with Tinker the Terrier.  Whatever, anything to avoid what I was sure would be the grotesque "commemoration" of an obscene event (I'm pretty sure I was right).

But inevitably, in checking my usual news and information sources on the web, I did come across several essays that come as close as I could, without doing it myself (which I didn't feel like doing), to expressing the swamp of ideas and feelings I have about 9/11 and its aftermath.  And not just the aftermath, but also the run-up.

The first is an essay by Tom Engelhardt titled Let's Cancel 9/11: Bury the War State's Blank Check at Sea.  One of the salient paragraphs from this essay is this one:

Ask yourself this: ten years into the post-9/11 era, haven't we had enough of ourselves?  If we have any respect for history or humanity or decency left, isn’t it time to rip the Band-Aid off the wound, to remove 9/11 from our collective consciousness?  No more invocations of those attacks to explain otherwise inexplicable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and our oh-so-global war on terror.  No more invocations of 9/11 to keep the Pentagon and the national security state flooded with money.  No more invocations of 9/11 to justify every encroachment on liberty, every new step in the surveillance of Americans, every advance in pat-downs and wand-downs and strip downs that keeps fear high and the homeland security state afloat.
A second essay titled Generation 9/11: History will be embarrassed by us, is by fellow anthropologist Greg Laden, and appeared on his blog The X Blog.  Greg's essay contains this, which spoke nicely to my own thoughts:
And now might be a good point to ask the question, “What has risen from the ashes of the 9/11 attacks?” There was much talk at the time, and since then, and again today, about how great America is, how great Americans are, and how we will move forward and become better and stronger and so on and so forth. But it is just talk. What has happened instead is something entirely different.
And what happened has been a social and political disaster, as Greg points out:
The Tea Party and things like the Tea Party. Strongly held anti-social illogical destructive beliefs with no hope of critical self evaluation, in a large and organized part of the population. It is obvious why this happened in the Republican Party and not the Democratic Party, but people on both sides of the political aisle have contributed. Literalist, libertarian, paranoid, self-centered, easily frightened, reactionary, sub-average in intelligence, deluded in self worth and unmovable in conviction and belief despite all evidence to the contrary.
Moving on.  The last is from one of my favorite online essayists, William Rivers Pitt, who posts at  His essay, called The Children of Aftermath, focuses on the fact that there are children in the 5th grade now who have known no other country, no other world, than the one 9/11 gave us:
All across America, there are classrooms filled with fifth graders who only know the World Trade Center from pictures. They have achieved the final perfection of George Orwell's vision - we have always been at war with Eurasia - because they have never known a world where their country has not been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I hope you will read these essays.  Meanwhile, I'm waiting for 9/12/2011.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Guest blog: People of Wisconsin: Rethink recall. Rethink. Recall

Now that we are past the Wisconsin state senate recall elections, we need to take a cold, hard look at what needs to be done in 2012.  The people of Wisconsin are “energized,” as the pundits say, but we need to be realistic about where we focus our energy and how we allocate limited time and financial resources.
Quite apart from any possible recall elections, here is what we have to look forward to in Wisconsin in 2012 (not in chronological order, but in my rough order of importance):
  • Presidential election
  • Municipal and school board elections
  • Election of a new US Senator
  • Elections for all eight Wis. congressional districts
  • Election of half the members of the state senate
  • Elections for all members of the state assembly
  • Probable Republican and Democratic primaries for US Senate
  • Republican presidential primary
  • Other possible primaries
Keep in mind that for these elections the district lines have been redrawn, and new voter ID requirements will be implemented, so there will be plenty of room for confusion.  We are a 50-50 state when it comes to statewide races.  But the new Republican-drawn districts mean that there will be fewer 50-50 districts.  With close races likely we need to pick our battles carefully. Voter turnout will be crucial.
So even though I have a “Recall Walker” sticker on my bumper, I am reluctantly advocating that we put aside that goal in favor of the following:
1)  Educate people about the new voter ID requirements and new district lines, and get out the vote.
2)  Give Scott Walker a Democratic legislature to work with.
3)  Focus on electing a worthy successor to Herb Kohl.
4)  Elect more progressive Representatives to Congress.
So I am rethinking my bumper sticker.  I will leave it on the car, but now it does not mean recall as ”remove,” but rather as  “remember.”  In every one of those four goals, people need to “recall” Walker.  Recall the damage done to middle-class, working class, and struggling citizens.  Recall the damage being done to public schools and the environment.  Recall the voter suppression policies put into effect.
And recall what Wisconsin was like before the Walker era.  Recall worker rights and responsibilities.  Recall treating people with respect.  Recall cooperation.  Recall consultation with those affected by legislation.
That is my rethinking of the recall of the Governor.  Recall Walker without recalling Walker.  We have a lot of work to do.  We need to use him and recall his record to rally and motivate voters.  2014 will be here soon enough.
Jim Oakley lives in Ashland, Wisconsin. Jim is a fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served with me in the Eastern Caribbean in the early 1970s.  Since then Jim has been teaching Spanish in the Wisconsin public school system.  Jim is, naturally, heavily invested in what's been going on in Wisconsin, and he writes about it.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Another August 6th

Once again, the anniversary that affects me more than almost any other has rolled around.  On August 6th, 1945, just shy of a month after I was born, the US dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.  This was, at the time, the most deadly use of a weapon of mass destruction ever inflicted by humans on other humans.  A few days later, on August 9, we repeated the experiment with a newer and "improved" bomb dropped on Nagasaki.  At least 150,000 and more likely over 200,000 people were either killed immediately or died from injuries caused by the explosions.  In later years, many people suffered from the aftereffects of radiation exposure; this includes birth defects.

Apologists for the bombings claim that they were needed to bring Japan to an earlier surrender than might have happened otherwise.  Such an action taken today would without doubt be considered collective punishment under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and thus a war crime.

To be reminded of the effects of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have a look at these photos at  Some are disturbing enough to be accompanied by a warning, but anyone who thinks that the bombings were justified should have a look, and ponder.

Friday, August 5, 2011

"Isn't US foreign policy typically and historically made up of about the worst possible crap anyone could imagine?"

The title of this brief post comes from a friend and anthropology colleague, and the answer to his question is "Yes."

The latest evidence of this comes from a Wikileaks release of documents related to the US's dealings with Haiti in general and, more specifically, former Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide.  As reported in The Nation:
The secret cables, made available to the Haitian weekly newspaper Haïti Liberté by WikiLeaks, show how the political defeat of Aristide and his Lavalas movement has been the central pillar of US policy toward the Caribbean nation over the last two US administrations, even though—or perhaps because—US officials understood that he was the most popular political figure in Haiti.
The friend and colleague, by the way, is someone who has researched and written about Haiti from an anthropological perspective for many years.  He adds that "US foreign policy is eventually deleterious both to US foreign relations and US domestic tranquility. In other words, it is completely stupid and self-defeating."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


A colleague recently sent out a link to the Postmodernism Dictionary, which has an entry for the term Objective:
Being objective means to have no bias or distortions; to see things [as] they actually are. It assumes the individual is able to bracket their subjective perspective, biases, and prejudices. Postmodernism, in general, questions the degree to which we can obtain objectivity.
 This is not a good scientific definition of objective; it is, rather, a straw argument, set up as a convenient wall against which to play intellectual ping pong.  Lest I be accused of setting up my own straw postmodernism, let me call your attention to Schultz and Lavenda's textbook, Cultural Anthropology: A Perspective on the Human Condition (Oxford 2012).  This book is written largely from the perspective of non-scientific, postmodern, and interpretivist anthropology.  On page 44, they define objective knowledge as:
Knowledge about reality that is absolute and true.
This is no better.  It reduces the notion of objectivity to a cartoon of itself.  But before I offer something more, er, realistic, let me explain why I am so incensed by these kinds of definitions.

I take anthropology to be a social science.  This is relatively uncontroversial; here at UNF, we're even located in the Social Sciences building (but then, so is the Dean's office!). It is true that we often say that anthropology as a discipline overlaps with the "sciences" and the "humanities" (history, philosophy, world languages, literature, etc.), as if these were normally non-overlapping magisteria, to borrow from Stephen Jay Gould. Scientific method applies here, but not over there.  (I disagree with this divide, I think it's an artifact of a particular cultural history, but that might be another post.)
In any case, the business of the sciences is to develop what I am going to call, after Lett, objective synthetic propositional knowledge. A synthetic proposition is one that's not simply an identity. For example, the proposition "bachelors are unmarried men" is not synthetic, it's analytic, because it's simply a definition.  On the other hand, the proposition "all bachelors are unhappy" is synthetic, it's not a definition but rather a proposition that can be tested and shown to true or false.  I don't want to go any further with these terms; the object of this post is to talk about the notion of objective.
Now, organisms need to be able to acquire knowledge of the world around them to survive, multiply, and prosper.  The knowledge of the world that any organism can acquire and make use of is contingent upon the sort of organism that it is. The contingency is defined by the complexity of the organism's nervous system, and also by the needs of the organism- what it has to "know" to make it through its world.  No organism takes in, processes, and acts on raw data; all organisms "filter" incoming data through their senses, which have been shaped by natural selection.  Frogs, for example, have a visual system that is tuned, by evolution, to make them aware of those things around them that they need to "know" about in order to prosper.  Specifically, frogs' visual system consists of the following sorts of "detectors" (Lieberman 1984: 54-55):
  • Edge detectors identify boundaries of objects.
  • Bug detectors identify small convex moving objects.
  • Event detectors identify sudden movements.
  • Dimming detectors identify falling light intensity.
  • Blue detectors identify bodies of water.
Having knowledge about these aspects of the world allows frogs to eat, sit by the waterside, and leap into the water when a potential danger appears.  Frogs need to "know" these things (and some others) about the world if they're going to live long enough to reproduce.   This is as true for humans as it is for frogs, although humans, via culture, can manipulate to some degree the contingencies that apply to them.  So, although we have evolved to be able to perceive and respond to narrow (compared to what the Universe makes available) ranges of light and sound, we can create technology that allows us to see and hear beyond the limits of our native visual and auditory systems.  We can do a lot "better" than frogs, in the sense that our visual system allows us to develop more fine-grained visual knowledge of the world around us.  But we, and frogs, are both constrained by our natures; neither of us can develop knowledge about the world that is "absolute and true."
So, back to objectivity. A scientific definition of objectivity as it relates to the construction of propositional knowledge might go something like this (Lett 1997: 46):
[A proposition] is objective in the scientific sense of the term if it is both publicly verifiable and testable.
Example:  I tell students that the Aymara word for 'your house' is utama.  This bit of knowledge is objective not because it's "absolute and true," but because my students can go to Bolivia or Perú, or nowadays even email an Aymara speaker, and ask them how to say 'your house', and the answer should come back utama.  It's publicly verifiable and testable.
Subjective knowledge is about me: The Aymara language sounds beautiful. Not publicly verifiable, not testable.  Objective knowledge is about us, working together, to develop an understanding of the world: The Aymara language is Head-final (heads of phrases follow their complements).  That proposition can be publicly verified and tested.  And that's what science is about.

Lett, J. 1997. Science, Reason, and Anthropology: The Principles of Rational Inquiry. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Lieberman, P. 1984. The Biology and Evolution of Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Schultz, E. and R. Lavenda. 2012.  Cultural Anthropology: A Perspective on the Human Condition. Oxford University Press.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Stop the stoning!

Today is the International Day Against Stoning; it may sound like a Monty Python sketch, but it's deadly serious.  The International Committee Against Stoning has a petition, and it needs as many signatures as it can get.  As they write:
As you know Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is still languishing in prison. The authorities recently mentioned her case saying that no final decision had yet been reached on her stoning sentence and that Sakineh must remain in prison. Falsely accused of murdering her husband, her only crime is that she is a woman in Iran. Her lawyer, Sajjad Houtan Kian, also remains in prison for having had the courage to defend her and other women with stoning sentences in Tabriz prison; he has been sentenced to four years imprisonment, been put under a lot of pressure and lost 20 kilos (44 pounds) as a result.
The campaign to Save Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani has been an important one. It has spoken out in defence of humanity, and against the barbaric punishment of stoning everywhere. It has mobilised immense pressure against and condemnation of the Islamic regime of Iran from millions across the globe. These are accomplishments we must all be proud of.

On 11 July 2011, the International Day against Stoning, let’s once again step up the pressure to demand Sakineh’s immediate release and an end to stoning. Join us by either standing in a city square with a photo or poster of Sakineh, tweeting, or by organising an act of solidarity or a flash mob to raise awareness and attention. On 11 July, in 100 cities worldwide, let us once again raise the banner of humanity against one of the barbarisms of our time.
Here's a direct link to the petition.

Friday, July 8, 2011

It's only "fraud" if you are poor?

In response to an online petition I signed yesterday, I just received an email from Florida Senator Bill Nelson.  The petition asked senators not to "balance the budget" on the backs of seniors and the poor.  The email included this [my emphasis]:

     While I support reasonable cuts to discretionary spending, it is clear that we cannot balance our budget through discretionary spending cuts alone. That’s why I am pressing my colleagues to support a comprehensive approach to deficit reduction that not only eliminates duplicative programs, but also reduces extraneous procurements and phases-out unnecessary and outdated tax breaks that only benefit a few large corporations. Furthermore, we must continue efforts to curb the fraud that plagues programs like Medicare and Medicaid, which costs taxpayers billions.

So, wait. The term "fraud" is applied to the elderly and the poor, who are the major recipients of Medicare (I am among them) and Medicaid.  Meanwhile, "large corporations" are only guilty of taking advantage of "tax breaks," which are presumably at least legal?
This is why I am not a registered Demoncrat.  Very few of them are significantly more moral than the Rethuglicans.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sometimes, students get it!

So, I taught a section of our Peoples and Cultures of the World (a junior-level course for non-majors) in the Summer A term; we met twice a week for six weeks, three and a half hours per session, and there were 45 students in the class.  I treat this course as an introduction to cultural anthropology, with a rich variety of "peoples" and "cultures" to illustrate the concepts.  The peoples we met included the Aymara (Central Andes), Yanomama (Orinoco Basin), Baka (Cameroun), Maya (Yucatan, Mexico), Maasai (East Africa), and of course Carriacou, where I've done fieldwork.

The final topic of the course, as I teach it, deals with globalization and the culture of capitalism.  For this subject matter I like to bring the students back to themselves, by including "us" as one of the "peoples and cultures of the world."  One way that I sometimes do this is by showing them the first 30 minutes or so of the John Sayles film Matewan.  This true story of the May 1920 Matewan Massacre deals with the culture of capitalism by showing how West Virginia coal miners in the early 20th century had to deal with exploitative coal operators, dangerous working conditions, and the threat of violence on the part of "agents" hired by the coal companies to prevent the miners from organizing themselves into unions.  It also touches on globalization, by showing coal company owners attempting to replace striking miners with African Americans and immigrants from Italy.

This time, I got an unexpected reaction to this bit of film.  A student, in her final reflexive essay, wrote this:
Also, I wanted to thank you for showing the video about the West Virginia coal miners. I am from West Virginia and came from a family of coal miners. I don’t think people in the United States understand how dangerous coal mining still is today. My Uncle was a survivor of the Sago Mine explosion that happened about 4 years ago and it hit my family with the realization that something can happen at any second. Even though devastating disasters like this still exist today, the mines do not take all the safety precautions to prevent explosions from happening in the future. I hope that this video has opened the eyes of some of the people in class to realize that the coal used to heat their homes, is mined in dangerous working conditions. 
 Unfortunately, I didn't read the essays until the course was over, and thus I could not go back into class and try to generate some extra discussion.  But at least there is satisfaction in knowing that something in the course was deeply relevant for at least one student, and that's a good feeling.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Tonight's evening sky

I just watched the International Space Station go overhead. It came out of the northwest at 9:16 pm and headed toward the southeast, a very bright point of light with a slight orange color due to the recently-set Sun. It was visible for about four minutes.  Balanced against it nearby was the bright crescent Moon.
Pretty cool... If only we could do more of this kind of thing, instead of waging wars.

The day after the 4th of July

Ok, so I didn't write anything on the 4th; I was busy starting the job of cleaning out our horribly overcrowded garage, which I did after walking 4 miles with Tinker the Terrier.  I worked on the garage until it got too hot, and then got busy with some other things.  So, I didn't get around to writing a 4th of July post.

And anyway, last year's post is still valid.  We still labor under the same misconceptions about what our country is really about, the same disconnect between what we say we are and what the evidence suggests that we actually are. No need to rebelabor the points.

I will say that it continues to frustrate and disappoint me that our President, the one we elected under a banner of "hope and change," continues to behave pretty much as a Bush Lite on two major points:
  • Our ongoing and never-ending wars.  Not only do continue massive troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, but now we've added Libya and Somalia to the list of countries we are either occupying or terrorizing from the air. I wrote about our national war-addiction back in May, so I won't repeat it here.
  • The continuing absence of punishment for war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by former "president" Bush and his administration.  President Obama and his DOJ continue to acquiesce to claims of immunity on the part of members of the Bush administration who suggested, allowed, ordered, justified, and otherwise participated in Bush's Torture Regime.  People who should be in jail by now are walking the streets, enjoying their retirement from what can only be called the most immoral administration in the history of the United States.
One thing I am pretty sure of is that things are not going to change much between now and July 4, 2012.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

To laugh or to cry?

I had a student this morning who came to class with no paper or writing implement. He wrote his answer to our in-class activity on his cell phone, then sent it to me as an email.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Che's birthday

Today, June 14, is the birthday of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a complicated historical figure if ever there was one.  Back in 2009 I wrote a brief note about the irony that emerged from his execution in Bolivia.  Follow this link to a longer essay on Che in historical perspective: the good, the bad, and the ugly.  The author, David Glenn Cox, is not an apologist for Che's revolutionary violence, but he does show that although Che, as a revolutionary, was violent at times, his violence was more than matched by the violence committed by George Washington, our own revolutionary exemplar.  And by the bankers who have treated us so savagely in more recent times:
You see, I am not trying to justify Che’s violence as much as to explain it and to understand it. Ten million homes foreclosed equal more than forty million men, women and children ejected from their homes. They live their lives under threats and under pressure, searching for a decent job when there are none. This is no accident, this is violence done in the name of profit. This is revolution by the pen and the freedom to be manipulated and ordered out for the benefit of others. Forty million people is the largest peace time human disenfranchisement in human history. The bankers who profited from this crime have not been punished but have been rewarded and are receiving their annual bonuses again.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Blog: Carriacou 1968

Bill Cameron was a VSO (British version of Peace Corps) teacher on Carriacou just before I arrived.  He was there for the 1967-68 school year.  He has a blog with some of his very nice photos from then, as well as commentary, all worth checking out if you have an interest in that part of  the West Indies.

Monday, May 30, 2011

More thoughts on Memorial Day

The parades, concerts, and other activities associated with Memorial Day in the United States can be loosely grouped under what some anthropologists refer to as rites of intensification.  A typical definition of these rites is that they are "rituals intended either to bolster a natural process necessary to survival or to reaffirm the society's commitment to a particular set of values and beliefs" [my emphasis].

What are the "values and beliefs" that we reaffirm on Memorial Day?  To answer this question, we have to make a distinction between folk (or, roughly, emic) and analytic (roughly, etic) ideas.   The folk model answer must include values such as patriotism, freedom, democracy, glorification of military service, the extension of that service to all parts of the world, and, especially, the honoring of those who have lost their lives in that service.  The omnipresent symbol that represents all this is the national flag, visible through the window as I write this, flying in a warm breeze in front of both our neighbor's houses.

But there is a dark side to all this, and the dark side is our national war addiction. We are so addicted to the warm, fuzzy feelings invoked by the parades, the hot dogs and hamburgers and apple pie,  the returning military people surprising their families with an unexpected homecoming, the Skype calls between wives and husbands, and so on, that we are compelled to sacrifice our people and wealth to satisfy this addiction by the almost uninterrupted perpetration of violence in far-off places.  We are not a happy people unless we are at war.

What, you say?  How can this be?  Have a look at Wikipedia's listing of US military operations from 1775 to the present.  Or, if you don't trust Wikipedia, check out this chronicle of military interventions since 1890.

One important thing to notice on both of these listings (there are many others, just Google "us military interventions" is that it really is hard to find a stretch of time lasting more than a year or so when the US has not been engaged militarily, either domestically or internationally. If we focus on just the period between the end of WWI and the start of WWII, we find these :
1919   Honduras
1919   Yugoslavia
1920   Guatemala
1920-21   West Virginia
1922   Turkey
1922-34   China
1924-25   Honduras
1925   Panama
1932   El Salvador
1932   Washington, DC
Several of these, in particular in Guatemala, West Virginia, Honduras, and Panama, involved the use of troops against unionized workers or workers attempting to unionize.  Others involved the suppression of popular revolts against autocratic leaders.

How weak are the folk values of "freedom" and "democracy" in which we are supposedly enculturated.

Another song for Memorial Day

For Memorial Day last year, I posted Pete Seeger's "Bring them Home."  This year, I give you his "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," which he sang on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on February 25, 1968 (he had sung it on an earlier show, but CBS censors cut it).  It was aimed at the Vietnam War then, but it's still plenty relevant.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Blog: Anthropologists for Justice and Peace

There is (or will be shortly) a link on the left to a relatively new blog, Anthropologists for Justice and Peace.  Here's how they describe themselves:
AJP joins the academy to building non-state and non-market solutions to social injustice.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

We're still here!

Looks like the Rapture didn't happen yesterday after all.  Either that, or only the heathens are left behind; come to think of it, the neighborhood was pretty quiet this morning when I took our dog for a walk.

Incidentally, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, which seems pretty reliable, the word heathen, is from Anglo-Saxon hǣðen, meaning "not Christian or Jew."  The word may have originally referred to people who lived on the heath, i.e. non-farmers, wild people (the word pagan has a similar historical origin).  Old English hǣðen underwent the usual vowel changes, which is why we now pronounce it [hiːðən].

The whole "rapture" thing reminds me of a story about the late Sir Eric Gairy, former Grenadian political leader and a sort of mini-Papa Doc.  During one of his campaigns in the 50s or maybe 60s, he told people that he would prove his power by walking on the water of St. George's harbor, which is actually the partly submerged rim of an extinct (?) volcano.  On the appointed night he was rowed out to the middle of the harbor.  He stood up in the boat and started to step out onto the water, and then dramatically stopped and looked up, cupping his ear with his hand as if listening to something.  He sat back down in the boat and they rowed him to shore.  There he told the onlookers that just as he was about to walk on the water, he received a message from God who told him it wasn't the right time.

And here's the sad part: a lot of those people on shore believed him.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

New link: Linguistics in the Classroom

I have added a link to a blog titled "Linguistics in the Classroom," written by Ann Evans at Montclair State University.  Ann's description of the site follows:
This blog is meant to help teachers show their students how language is constructed, how meaning is made, and what the role of language is in our lives.  It contains information and exercises to illustrate linguistic ideas and principles at the word, sentence, and paragraph level, and within language communities.  Each point and exercise is introduced simply, with examples, and is usually meant to take ten minutes or less.

This  blog is the continuation of an article published in the Spring 2011 issue of the Duke University journal Pedagogy.
Ann Evans is an Adjunct Professor of Writing at Montclair State University.  She has an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from Montclair State, and an M.A. in English from New York University.  Besides English, she speaks French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Greek.
If you are looking for exercises and linguistics-oriented explanations to share, especially with writing-troubled students, check it out.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sherwood, Tennessee

My old friend John Lynch has produced (and narrates) a short film on the history of his hometown, Sherwood, Tennessee.

He asked me to record some banjo music for the sound track, which I did.  And we can all thank him for the tasteful way in which he put it well into the background.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Time is relative

Louisiana Governor Booby Bobby Jindal, interviewed on NBC's Today show this morning, told Matt Lauer that President Obama is "our most liberal president in modern times."

Really?  So for Jindal, presumably, "modern times" includes only this millennium?  We have to write off Bill Clinton, who was far more liberal than Obama?  What about Jimmy Carter?  What about Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson? Hell, on some if not most measures, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower was more liberal than Obama.  All these presidents except FDR served after the end of World War II.

I was born during World War II.  Does this mean that I was born in pre-modern times, but I now live in modern times?

Jindal really is spectacularly stupid.

Monday, April 11, 2011

I eat, I digest, I poop; therefore I am a gastroenterologist

The Jamaica Gleaner has an online article today with the headline A Waste of Time to Teach Patois- Seaga.  In the article, former Prime Minister Edward Seaga tells the Gleaner that: would be a waste of the country's educational resources to teach Patois in schools.
"There is no standard way of spelling a particular word in Patois," Seaga said. "If you want people to be able to talk to one another in Jamaica and outside of Jamaica, it does not make any sense."
Also in the article, the current Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, chimes in:
According to Golding, teaching Patois would be akin to saying, "We have failed to impart our accepted language of English, so we are giving up. This one can't work, so let us find another one that can work."
Here is what bothers me about this: neither of these people is a linguist. What they know about language as an object of study they picked up in their years in language arts and English literature and composition classes.  But despite this, they are perfectly willing to challenge real linguist Hubert Devonish, a professor of linguistics at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, and others, who are in favor of bringing Jamaican Creole (Patois) into the schools as an enhancement to early education and especially early literacy.  Just back in January many people concerned about this issue met in Jamaica to convene a Caribbean Language Policy Conference that addressed these and other issue pertaining to the ecology of "standard," creole, and other languages in schools, government, the work place, etc.

But because they can talk, Seaga and Golding get to disagree authoritatively with linguists.  It's as if because I eat, digest, and poop, I am qualified to lecture on gastroenterology.

When do we get to charge these people with practicing linguistics without a license?

Friday, April 1, 2011

The view from Wisconsin (2)

Here is the rest of my friend Jim Oakley's writing (to date!) on the assault on teachers and other working people taking place in Wisconsin and around the country.
Greetings, all --

I have waited a while before compiling this follow-up to my commentary, "Which Side Are You On?"  Now it's time.  I have gotten lots of feedback  --almost all complimentary-- by word-of-mouth, phone, email, etc.  I appreciate all of it.  Some people sent articles or referred me to links, some of which I will share now.

One article expressed a contrasting viewpoint, titled "A Union Education".  It comes from the Wall Street corporate perspective, echoing the effort to divide public and private workers, misreading the Wisconsin situation, and blaming public workers for increased state and local spending.  Someone like Robert Reich or Paul Krugman could probably take it apart point by point.  It gives you an idea what we are up against.  As the friend who sent it to me said, it is "food for thought for ALL of us."  Here's the link:

Another friend sent a link for an article about a teacher in Maine that is really great.  Here it is:

My commentary was published in the Ashland Daily Press  (  There have been no on-line or in-print comments there as yet.

But there were several comments when it appeared in the Ashland Current (, including a correction.  Apparently the Lincoln Day dinner only cost $25.  I wish I had verified the cost. (Good thing I am not a journalist.)  But one of the comments read: "The cost of the meal isn't really that important."  Or as one of our slogans goes, "It's not about the money."

Another link that was sent to me gives a pretty good summary of our Wisconsin situation:, by someone called TheBadgerMom.

One more link that I will share is a New York Times column by a UW-Madison prof, Bill Cronon, who is now being harassed by some Republican state legislators:

Also from James Fallows, on the harassment of Cronon:

Now, just a few additional comments of my own:

1)  Some folks seem to think that unions have outlived their usefulness, and now we can have all the good stuff without collective bargaining.  This seems naive at best.

2)  I continue to notice a certain disdain for educators, for other public employees, and for education in general.  Compared to other societies, we do not value education.  Our culture values sports, but not physical education.  It values entertainment and competition more than cooperation and science.

3)  Some of what comes from the Tea Party types sounds almost socialist.  Apparently if one earns a living as a public employee, that money is not his/her own.  It's communal taxpayer money.  Sure, the governmental entity collects taxes and uses some of those taxes to pay for services which the employees provide, but they earn that money.

4)  We have a growing disparity between the very, very rich and the rest of us.  Call it class war, if you must, but the inequities are growing, and the attacks on unions and on medicaid recipients are scapegoating, not budget balancing.

5)  The governor and his allies are changing the rules in the middle of the game --without consulting the other players.  Public workers and local governments, school boards and teacher unions, are made of people who have learned to work together, respecting each other's roles in the system --a system that was not broken.  Everyone realizes that economic times are rough.   But where is the shared sacrifice?  Are the corporate bigwigs doing their part or just getting theirs?

6)  Finally, we need to step back and look at this in perspective.  We are not Japan or Libya or Haiti.  And in many ways we have been forced into a distraction that diverts us from issues that ought to have more of our concern:  the environment and climate change, global economic concerns, health care, real improvements in our education system, war and peace.

Please vote on April 5.


The view from Wisconsin (1)

Jim Oakley is a fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served with me in the Eastern Caribbean in the early 1970s.  Jim and I got to know each other in 1971 while rooming with a wonderful Barbadian family during our training before we were sent off to teach Spanish in different parts of Grenada.  Since then Jim has been teaching Spanish in the Wisconsin public school system.  Jim is, naturally, heavily invested in what's been going on in Wisconsin, and he has written about it. Below is part 1 of his thoughts and observations; Part 2 will follow shortly.

Which Side Are You On?

By Jim Oakley

I was proud to be part of two big demonstrations of democracy recently, one
in Madison and one in Washburn (aka "Madison North").

On Saturday, February 26, in Madison, we marched for workers' rights and
for other changes in the "budget repair bill." It showed Wisconsin at its
best. As one of the chants went, "This is what democracy looks like!" I
had never before been part of such a large group of people. It was
peaceful, organized, civil, and positive. And unlike the view of State
Senator Glenn Grothman (whom I know well, having previously lived in his
district), not a single "slob," union boss," or "thug" in sight.

Crowd estimates varied from 70,000 to 100,000. I do not know how one
estimates crowd numbers, especially in this case since people were moving
around all the streets and sidewalks adjacent to the capitol, plus they
were inside the building and on some of the nearby streets. And some folks
were leaving the area as others were arriving. I heard there was a Tea
Party counter-demonstration in the area. I did not see them, but I hear
they also were peaceful and civil.

I am dismayed at the intransigence of our governor. If he has his way
Wisconsin is in a race to the bottom --in education, health, environment,
and human rights. As one of the signs said, "If you think education is
expensive, watch what stupid will cost!" I cannot imagine any previous
governor --including Republicans Dreyfus, Thompson, and Knowles-- acting in
such a dictatorial manner as Mr. Walker. The politics of division and "us
versus them" are not worthy of Wisconsin.

The 2,000-plus people gathered in Washburn on March 12 displayed a similar
sense of community, determination and respect. They greeted Governor
Walker and others attending the Republican dinner at the Steak Pit
restaurant with a strong message of people power. There was not a single
untoward incident, for which we can be grateful to the local and guest
police, the organizers of the rally, and everyone who volunteered and
pitched in to do what needed to be done.

I have been trying to reconcile two apparently contradictory notions in my
mind. One is the concept of compromise, including the common good and the
politics of inclusion. The other is expressed in the old union song "Which
side are you on?" which was sung both in Madison and Washburn.

Our society values both concepts, but in our political system, the latter
is currently dominant, and the politics of division is rampant. Our
governor and his enablers seem bent on destroying the Wisconsin we know and
love. I wish I could say --as I have in the past over other contentious
issues-- "Oh, I'm sure they mean well." Nope. They seem to see value in
dividing different groups of public workers against each other, and trying
to pit public employees against private workers. I don't think it's working.

Basically he has declared war on public unions --and thus on the middle
class. It is clearly a "war of choice". As a teacher, I feel personally
attacked every time a union is attacked. My grandmother worked in rural
Iowa almost a hundred years ago. She was dismissed from her teaching job
as soon as she married. Years later when she was in her 90s it rankled her
still. In the 1960s and 70s my mother served on the school board in Beaver
Dam, Wisconsin. When she began, women teachers were paid less than men,
single men were paid less than married men, and no teacher had collective
bargaining. By the time she left the school board they did.

No institution is perfect -- no union, no political party, no church, no
family-- but they all have valid roles to play in civil society, and I
believe that in the marketplace of ideas the common good should rise to the
top, no matter who has more money.

There are many types of rights, and of course the Bill of Rights of our
Constitution is where the most essential ones are enshrined. There are also
basic rights promoted by the United Nations --including the right to form
unions. But of course, governments can grant and take away rights. That
any rights exist is because at some point people banded together and fought
for them; it never has been automatic. But the general trend in most
societies has been toward greater rights, not fewer, and toward respectful
inclusion and cooperation.

The price of rights is eternal vigilance. That is why the latest
initiatives of our current governor have struck a nerve. Wisconsin has
enjoyed fifty years of labor peace. The collective bargaining process has
been a major factor in the quality of life we enjoy in Wisconsin. Our
education system continually ranks in the top ten states. I do not believe
in worshiping test scores, and we are not perfect, but we regularly
outperform the so-called "right-to-work" states.

People deserve more rights, not fewer. If public employees enjoy benefits
gained through collective bargaining, so also should all other workers.
Public workers deserve strong unions. So do workers in Mexican sweatshops
and Chinese Wallmart suppliers.

I consider myself a person of faith. And people of faith often agree to
disagree respectfully. As I was watching the people on the streets of
Washburn and the cars arriving for the dinner at the Steak Pit, I asked
myself a few WWJD questions, which now I will ask you:

Would Jesus have marched in support of teachers and other public workers?
Or would He caucus with the Tea Party folks?

Would He pay $200 for a Lincoln Day dinner with the Pharisees? Or would He
help cook for the volunteers who kept the rally safe for everyone?

For that matter, what would Lincoln do? Of course he was not perfect. Even
FDR has been quoted as not favoring collective bargaining for public
employees. But given a choice between oligarchs and their minions on one
side and public servants on the other, where would Lincoln or Roosevelt
(Teddy or Franklin) come down?

Which brings me back to that old union song, "Which side are you on?" While
there is still room for compromise and still hope for the common good, the
governor has forced us to choose. When we have our regular elections, and
possible recall elections, you decide: Which side are you on?

By the way, "Which Side Are You On?" is a union song written by Florence Reece.  You can hear her sing it here, probably recorded in the 1940s.

Florida "lawmakers" seek to end tenure in the state colleges

This is a comment I just posted on Valencia Community College Computer Science professor Lisa Macon's blog devoted to discussing the attempt by the Florida legislature to end the tenure system in the state colleges:
... I don't think that the central concern of these folks is either cost-cutting or "bad teachers." I think the heart of the matter is that they hate education at all levels, but especially higher ed. This is where students are supposed to learn to observe the world around them and make critical, rational analyses of that world on the basis of evidence. The right-wing goons know that they were elected precisely because we have not done this as well as we should have, and they also know that if we ever do teach people to think critically they will never be elected to anything again. So, they want to destroy this aspect of higher higher education and turn everything into training colleges turning out good, compliant carbon-units for predatory capitalism. If they are successful with the state colleges, they will come for us in the universities next (they've already begun, actually).

The view from my office window


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Measures of US inequality

Mother Jones has a nice set of easy-to-read graphics that highlight economic inequality in the US.  Here are two of the more interesting; the rest can be found here

The first graph contrasts the average income of the bottom 90% of US families with the average income of the top 0.01% of US families.  The top families (in yellow) average over 27 million dollars, while the bottom families, in blue, average just over 31 thousand.  The balloons on the right (representing income) contrast with the square on the left, which represents numbers of families.  Note that while blue nearly fills all but one row of the square, the blue balloon is tiny compared to the yellow and orange balloons, which together represent the income of the top one-tenth of one percent of families.

The second set of graphs shows average household income and change in average income over time, 1979-2007. Things to take away:  (1) The average income of the top 1% of families has soared from around half a million to nearly 2 million dollars;  (2) the top 20% made a very modest gain; but the lower 60% of families have not changed at all;  (3) the lowest 80% of families has actually suffered a decrease in their share of national income, while only the top 20% has seen an increase.  The biggest increase in share of national income has been enjoyed by families in the top 1% income bracket.

If you happen to be among the top 1%, this must all look pretty good.  Otherwise, you should be pissed off, especially when any politician suggests that anyone other than those in the top 1% should be asked to "sacrifice" for the sake of the economy.

Monday, March 14, 2011

US teacher pay in international context

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has put out a table comparing teacher pay to GDP in a number of countries.  Imperfect as it might be, I think it says something about the priority that teacher pay receives in these countries.  In any case, the US does not show up well, which is not surprising since "education" is not highly valued here, despite the lip service it receives.

Notice that Finland, cited as a "top performing nation," is not far above the US.  Still, Finnish teachers probably receive far more benefits (health care, education, retirement, etc.) than US teachers do.

[Thanks to PZ Myers at Pharyngula for linking to this table, which is posted here.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Linguistics at the center of Everything

Actually, so is anthropology, but this makes the point nicely that linguistics is not a marginal subject area.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Distinction without a difference: “Foreign Culture” and Cultural Diversity”

Currently at the University of North Florida, we have courses that students can take to fulfill “cultural diversity” (CD) and  “foreign culture” (FC) requirements. The CD requirement applies across the university to students in their first two years, while the FC requirement applies to students in the College of Arts and Sciences and is satisfied by a number of junior and senior level courses.  Neither of these categories is tied to a specific department: CD and FC courses are located across a wide range of academic fields.

The rationale for these requirements is that students need to be taken out of the cultural context they are familiar with and exposed to “others.”  I agree with this, and as an anthropologist, I might go so far as to say that the students need to be taken out of their comfort zones and then brought home again, hopefully to understand in a new way their own cultures.  But I have a problem with the distinction, as it is now drawn, between CD and FC.  CD courses are about “cultural diversity” as it exists within the US.  FC courses are limited to “cultures” outside the US, hence the term “foreign culture.”

This distinction ignores the fact that there are “cultures” within the US that are just as “foreign” to most of our students as many of the cultures they might encounter outside the US.  Consider:  Cherokee, Hopi, Navaho, Inuit, Lakota, Mikasuki, Cree, Omaha, and many other Native American cultures. Or African American cultures, such as Gullah/Geechee and Afro-Seminole. Or the Amish and Mennonites.  Or isolated Appalachian communities.  What about the Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and other Asian communities within the US?

And what about native Hawaiians?  Hawai’i is in the US, technically, but….  And where does Puerto Rico fall in this scheme? The people are US citizens by birth, but their first language is mostly Spanish, so do they represent “cultural diversity” or “foreign culture?”  What do we do with the Cuban and Haitian communities in South Florida?  Or American Samoa?  And to turn the question around, what might be wrong with considering the cultural diversity of a “foreign” place like China or India?  Does only the US exhibit “cultural diversity?”

Why does any of this matter?  It matters because CD and FC courses nearly always fully enroll, because they meet requirements that students have to fulfill.  Departments that are able to offer these courses can generate nice pots of tuition money for the university. And for faculty who teach them, especially in anthropology but likely some others as well, they represent the one chance we have to offer a course on our geographical foci (the Caribbean, West Africa, Mexico, etc.) without worrying that the course won’t attract enough students.

The problem is that the strict delineation between US-based CD and “foreign” FC means that any anthropologist who specializes within the US may have a tough time getting to teach their specialty. The Foreign Culture Committee, which bestows the label “foreign culture,” recently denied FC designation for an anthropology course on peoples and cultures of the Southwest on the grounds that “the southwest” is part of the US.  Such a course, as taught by our resident expert in this area, would give students beyond anthropology an entry to some pretty exotic cultures, including for example the Hopi, Apache, and Navaho, among others.  At the same time, the designation would ensure that the course is available for anthropology students.

My interim solution would be to keep CD courses as a designation for lower level (frosh and sophomore) courses that teach about “cultural diversity” within the United States, and then to expand FC to include upper level courses that examine the cultures of coherent communities within the United States that differ significantly from the mainstream, European-based, unmarked one that most of our students come from.

Any quest for change will face the inertia of a somewhat powerful College committee; but this is a fight worth having, I think.