11 November 2007

On the Future and Anthropology

See an update to this entry here...

Whether or not we like it, the world is a shrinking place. I think most would wonder why advances in technology and communication could be disliked, but I say this because there are those of us who don't appreciate and, quite frankly, detest what our world has become. Therefore, it is a shame, for us, to see the world we have come to know and hate slowly creep over all that has potential for good. This is beside the point though, at least for me because I have resigned myself to the fact that the takeover of materialism, capitalism, neo-colonialism and ethnocentrism is inevitable. Simply put, we must wait it out.

This statement, then, coincides with the contradictory nature that thrives within me. While I have resigned myself to this fact, I can't simply let it happen. As a humanist I have hope in humanity and the human condition. It lies in education. Not the type that humanitarians think we should spread across the "third" world (as if this planet allowed some to be fenced off from others!), not the type that Oprah gives to the girls in South Africa, not the type that the Catholics have traditionally offered at home and abroad. No, in my own recognized ethnocentric nature, I suggest a different kind of education; anthropology. I have been embedded in this discipline for three years now and it saddens me that it is such a forgotten discipline. (As I write this, I can't help but wonder if maybe anthropology is one of those few good things left in the world.) Anthropologists are an interesting breed. We're often impossible to describe on an individual basis so let's forget generalizing. The fact is, the more anthropologists I spend time with the more my mind opens, the happier my life gets and the more I hope I have for the future. I think it is the ideas we have, the knowledge we gain and the perspective we take that offers hope for the future.

I was going to offer a case study of my own university, but for fear of becoming to lengthy, I thought better of it. The point is that current "diversity" and cultural education in this country is severely lacking, if not non-existent. As I wrote somewhere once, we unabashedly celebrate difference without sensitivity and thereby alienate ourselves and others. Somehow we think that we can teach students about others without approaches developed by a field which has devoted itself to studying cultures. I've attended few "diversity" events at my university, but I have taken the course that defines our approach to worldly understanding; instead of students learning of others, they learn of otherness. I see current approaches only reinforcing strict "them and us" dichotomies. This leads to a security in thought and action. We believe that our actions can only be good because we understand other people, we have dealt with "diversity" and we are sensitive to other cultures. In fact, while made strikingly aware of cultural differences, our own way is still celebrated, we only discuss others in our own terms. This is a dangerous security.

Anthropology, simple introductory classes, cultivate different and often times new understandings. The most simple concept to an anthropologist in the 21st century is cultural relativism. Cultures can only be understood and should only be considered on their own terms. Reflexivity is massively important, for we must be aware of biases. Why do we feel the way we do about things? Anthropologists are not gods, we cannot overcome our biases, but the very act of recognizing them and considering how they shape what we learn about others is a skill we all (at least those true anthropologists) acquire and seek to master.

We do not have the power to change differences between "us" and "them" and we should not want such power. Difference is something to live joyously alongside with. However, the one way barrier between us and them need not be impenetrable. Simply considerations of biases and how we have come to be who we are break down this barrier, allowing for a two way transfer where all factors are considered. This is what anthropology has to offer to our shrinking world; a world where cultures are clashing and clashing on a daily basis. A world where all that people know falls apart around them forcing them to reckon with unfamiliar and confusing norms. A world where populations of people, internally as diverse as the sun and the moon, are generalized and told that they do not understand our ways, they cannot function in the modern world without our help. It is in this world and the near future that the one-way barriers between us and them must be perforated if not torn down.

I'm not saying that everyone should be an anthropologist, indeed, it is a field suited for very few. But the ideas and approaches that we practice and study should not be kept and secret and left hidden deep within the ivory tower of academia. This is a call, not only to those who could benefit from such education, but also to those who live it every day. Why contradict ourselves and create barriers between the "lay" and ourselves? We must share and make our ideas accessible, we must create programs that share our approaches and allow students (from graduate to elementary) to learn how to break down barriers and reach better understandings around them. I believe that it is in our hands that the impetus for change lies, we cannot change the world by locking ourselves deep within the halls of scholarship. No, we must make available those ideas and theories that lie at our core, that make use who we are. Cultural relativism and reflexivity, the most basic of our tenets, this is where the future of humanity lies.


Anonymous said...

I was just searching for the future. That is, i was looking for fun activities or suggestions for exercises that I could use in my classroom to practice the future tense. I was so happy to see this pop-up on the first page of the search results. I miss you, old friend.

-the master of gesticulation

Anonymous said...

I find your angle on the subject lovely and I truely agree with you.