Sunday, March 15, 2009

Cultural Knowledge

The New York Times is running a series called "Where Education and Assimilation Collide." It caught my eye because, to many American Indians, education and assimilation carry a lot of freight. Called heathen, pagan, and savage by Europeans who first came to what became America, missionaries tried to Christianize us in mission schools, and, early U.S. government boarding schools were designed to assimilate us with the motto "Kill the Indian, save the man."

The Times article is not about American Indians, it is about immigrants of today. Reading the article, this stood out:

Few of these students had heard of the Pilgrims, much less the history of Thanksgiving. Idioms like “easy as pie” and “melting pot” were lost on them. They knew little of the American Revolution, much less the Bolshevik.

“American students come to school with a lot of cultural knowledge that other teachers assume they don’t have to explain because their kids get it from growing up in this country, watching television or surfing the Internet,” Ms. Cain said. “I can’t assume any of that.”

Cultural knowledge. Ms. Cain is right on. Kids do gain a lot of "cultural knowledge" about the United States just by growing up here, watching TV and surfing the net. But is it really "knowledge" or is it something else? What counts as "knowledge" and just what would the NY Times reporter say about "the history of Thanksgiving?"

Societies tell stories about their origins. Americans fix the American origin story back there in time with the Pilgrims and the Indians and the "First Thanksgiving." But the story that is told is a romantic one that is incomplete. A more complete history, a more accurate "cultural knowledge" would serve us all well.

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