Friday, May 13, 2011

Telling us what we think we already know

That is what I think undergraduate students think I do as a professor of anthropology.

I say that b/c of course it is that time again: In-class review and then exams suggest to me that for each student who genuinely seems to have grasped the concepts as presented to them in class, then absorbed them well enough to think through the ways in which they apply in various situations (including in his or her own life), there are others who walk in and out of class apparently immune to education.


This is a point that columnist Katha Pollitt makes in the May 16th issue of The Nation, as she discusses the rise and fall from grace of memoirist and erstwhile do-gooder Greg Mortenson:

As a string of much-praised fake memoirs can attest - to say nothing of Bernie Madoff's meteoric career - people don't look closely at stories that tell them what they want to hear. Americans love to be inspired by heroic lone individuals who provide simple solutions to complicated problems - especially when the individuals are American and famous, the solutions are cheap and the problems are far away.

I admit that as a cultural anthropologist, I both agree with Pollitt - and feel vaguely queasy b/c I suspect that what students learn in ANTH 100 Introduction to Cultural Anthropology is the story that they want to hear. That is, the truth that they think they already know. Note that I say "what students learn." Not "what I teach." Or at least try to teach.

I think students learn that "culture" is a simple solution and a complicated problem. As in, Our culture could teach Them Over There what to do in order to fix all of Their problems, which are rooted in Their culture. They need to learn from Us.

Exhibit A: Nicholas Kristof's column on female "circumcision" this week in the New York Times. (See a response at Living Anthropologically.)

Kristof ought to read Pollitt. In fact, I ought to assign this column for ANTH 100 next fall:

We've gotten used to a certain kind of NGO fairy tale, as depicted in the children's book Beatrice's Goat, much admired by Kristof: Heifer International gives a family a farm animal, and in a dozen years, the profits send a daughter to college.... Faced with the chance to transform a life, we forget that poor people rarely need just one small thing, that they are embedded in immensely complex and oppressive social worlds.

I am grateful to Pollitt for giving a name (NGO fairy tale) to the gripe that I have had with efforts like Clean the World, "which distributes recycled soap products, along with appropriate educational materials, to impoverished countries worldwide, and to domestic homeless shelters." (Along these lines, I had heard about a group called Underwear for Africa (and in the UK, Knickers for Africa.)

It is not just that we forget, but we want (and in a way, need) to believe that poor people need Just One Small Thing b/c that seems to be all we are willing to give toward justice.

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