Definitions and Discussions of Culture

The Culture Debate in the U.S.: Whose Culture Is This, Anyway?

Part of the debate about culture revolves around issues of perspective andownership. Within a nation such as the United States—a nation whose culturalheritage includes elements from every corner of the world—there are agreat many perspectives coexisting and intertwining in the cultural fabric.When we all ask ourselves as individuals, "what belongs to me,to my culture?" we are rewarded with a spectacular variety ofresponses; in this way, different perspectives and ownership of differentcultural traditions enriches everyone. But when we ask "what belongsto us, to our culture?" we ask a much harder question.Do the people of the United States, or of any culturally complex human society,necessarily share common cultural elements? If so, who gets to decide whatthose elements are?

This debate is a crucial one in many cultures throughout the world today.In the U.S., the debate promises to impact the way we educate our children— that is, the manner and shape in which culture reproduces itself—andthe way we write our laws. In other countries, equally crucial issues areat stake.

For a sample of the issues and voices of this debatein the U.S., please visit the three links below: After reading through these very brief quotes, ask yourself: What is yourown position in this debate about what elements are a part of the nationalculture? Perhaps you agree with Hirsch and you feel that a greater bodyof shared cultural knowledge among all U.S. peoples would enhance communicationand intercultural understanding. Perhaps you agree with Hirsch but wonderwhy his list has room for numerous scenes from Shakespeare's plays but noroom for a famous corrido like "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,"or why there are three references to a famous slaveowner like Thomas Jeffersonbut no reference at all to a famous slave like PhillisWheatley; are the traditional elements of the majority culture to bethe common elements of the national culture? Perhaps you would go even further,agreeing with Alice Walker that to understand our cultural tradtions weneed to look not only for what was recognized as genius in the past butfor the genius that was suppressed and had to assert itself in new, creative,and anonymous ways.

For many people, the what is at stake is the character of U.S. nationalidentity. Hirsch argues that this identity needs to become less culturallyfragmented; others, like Walker, argue that the national character getsits strength from cultural diversity, from the freedom (at home and in schools)to celebrate, honor, and reproduce different cultural traditions. Thosewho take this latter view follow the reasoning of Shweder, arguing thatwe need to accept that there are multiple valid cultural perspectives andthat two such perspectives can both be valid even though they might contradictone another. For a fuller articulation of this argument, visit Enginesfor Education, an electronic publication which argues forcefully thatHirsch's "cultural literacy" project threatens the effectivenessand integrity of the U.S. educational system.

Recognize that the position you take in this debate about culture—whateverposition you take—is a political one with implications about whatwe should value, what we should praise, what we should accept, what we shouldteach. When you reflect on this debate, when you contribute your own voiceto the discussion, try to be aware of the implications that follow fromyour position. When you listen to the voices of others, try to listen withawareness, deciding for yourself what is at stake and how their positionsrelate to your own.


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