The politics of education, and the importance of being a foreigner

Class are over, and although grades still remain to be done, blogging and reading are still much more fun distractions.

I’m now reading Between Borders : pedagogy and the politics of cultural studies, edited by Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren. I find Giroux rather heavy going, and the cost vs value index is rather high (i.e. it takes a lot of hard work to extract a nugget of valuable meaning). But I find the nuggets valuable enough that I’m prepared to sift through another tome (this time it’s mostly written by others).

Anyway, here’s a nugget, right in the introduction:

it is necessary that we begin to imagine cultural studies not simply as the critique of disciplines [or, I might add, as simply another discipline] but as an alternative to the humanities themselves

(Michael Denning, 1992, 41 “The Academic Left and the Rise of Cultural Studies”, Radical History Review 54:21-48)
(If you’re like me, and enjoy putting faces to names, then go here to see a video of a Denning lecture: “Neither Capitalist Nor American: The Democracy as Social Movement.” DeVane Tercentennial Lecture. Yale University. February 13, 2001. (link found at Michael Denning Essays)

I think this is the first time I have come across a clear cut suggestion for a replacement to the humanities as a discipline. (It’s also the first time I’ve ever heard of or read the name Denning.)

And here’s another nugget, from the same chapter, by Lawrence Grossberg :

three models of a progressive pedagogical practice. The first, a hierarchical practice, assumes that the teacher already understands the truth to be imparted to the student. … the problems with such a practice become more apparent when the teacher assumes that he or she understands the real meanings of particular texts and practices, the real relations of power embodied with them… The second, a dialogic practice, aims to allow the silenced to speak; only when absolutely necessary does it claim to speak for them. But this assumes that they are not already speaking simply because we, the teachers, do not hear them, perhaps because they are not speaking the right languages or not saying what we would demand of them. Moreover, such a practice fails to see that there are often real material and social conditions that have disenabled people from speaking at particular places, in particular ways, at particular moments.

(My emphasis.)

I feel that much of value can be obtained by communication, by exchange, by trying to communicate, by failing to communicate, by being frustrated in our communicative attempts, and particularly by talking about those failures and frustrations and difficulties with not just people of our own culture but also (and more importantly) with people from the other culture (whatever that may be). I feel that so much can be learned and gained from this exchange: insight into the ways that our own personal behaviour, our own values, are culturally directed; insights into our own essential humanity.

Unfortunately, even though my American colleagues and I are surrounded by people who are bilingual or close to it, and who have all spent some time living and studying in a country other than their native one, our Japanese colleagues don’t seem to have the time or the interest to just sit around after meetings and “compare notes”. Perhaps they just can’t stand us. Perhaps the idea of hanging around speaking English or trying to decipher our tortured Japanese just isn’t their cup of (green) tea. Or perhaps they don’t realize, or have forgotten, the importance for a community of mutually talking and listening

I was reminded of this by an email exchange with a colleague. After a meeting, my (native-speaking) partner in crime and I discussed it and compared notes. The upshot was that we came to a clearer understanding of what had transpired and also realized we both felt strongly about several points. Although the meeting was over, we summarized our feelings and sent off an email to a Japanese colleague who had also attended. The reply came back: “I mostly agree with you. But why didn’t you speak up in the meeting?”

Why indeed? Well, one obvious answer was that our Japanese language ability is still such that it takes us time to understand and to reflect. Most of the time in meetings, our energy is spent on just understanding what is being said or what is written in documents. Evaluating what we read and hear, that takes more time. That process is greatly helped by having someone to talk to about it, usually immediately afterwards. Comparing notes is often like watching Rashomon: we discover that we often brought away quite different interpretations, saw and heard quite different things.

Despite being nearly fluent in English, and having lived and studied abroad (in the US), our Japanese colleague seems to fail to see that there are often real material and social conditions that have disenabled people from speaking at particular places, in particular ways, at particular moments.

In the movie Rashomon, the viewer eventually learns what “really” happened when the victim’s ghost tells the story. However, the viewer also learns something else: that different participants can and do have very different perspectives on the same event, even if, unlike the Rashomon characters, they have no particular reason to deliberately lie and distort their perceptions. The viewer’s experience is enriched by witnessing all the characters’ take on the central event, as well as by finding out “who dunnit” in the end.

But also, our Japanese colleague who asked why we didn’t speak up at the meeting, seems to be forgetting the reasons he (or anyone) might not speak up in meetings: the fact that hardly anyone speaks up at meetings, for instance! The fact that “face” is so much more important in this society than in the ones my colleague and I grew up in; perhaps (gasp!) the impression that so few people seem to genuinely care about what is decided in meetings and seem happy to just rubber-stamp; perhaps (gasp! shock!) the view that so few meeting agenda items are worth getting worked up about. In other words, yup, we gaijin are human too.

Not only are we “gaijin”, but in a sense, so is everyone. My Japanese colleagues need no reminding of the first proposition; persuading them of the second will be hard work. (Link is to a members’ page; registration is free).

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