More Anthropology for the Real World

It’s great when the rubber meets the road, when theory aids understanding of reality.  Applied anthropology aims for just such an application – how can anthropology help solve real world problems?  I’m in the field of higher education and readily see application for anthropology to speak into everyday issues in the classroom.  Allow me to give a few examples.

I taught at a school in the U.S. that has a growing population of international students.  This school is known for its excellent academics and does indeed provide a fairly well rounded education.  However, cultural issues sneak into the classroom in ways not readily detected by even the finest faculty.  I was in my office one day, a Thursday in fact, when a student came in during a lunch break to talk.  She was nearing the end of a one week intensive class that meets Monday through Friday from about 8-5 every day.  Here it was Thursday afternoon and the student expressed concern to me for some of her classmates.  The professor had designed the class to be highly interactive which was unusual for this school.  In fact, 70% of the student’s grade was dependent on active class discussion, giving one’s own ideas and opinions, and even challenging other classmates in their opinions.  Each time a student would speak up, the professor would mark down the participation to factor in to the final grade.  There was only one problem.  The class had a number of Asian students who had said nothing at all and this student was worried for their grade.  What was the problem here?

I told the student that some Asian cultures have different values in the education process.  In these cultures, it is extremely rude for a student to speak without being called on and a student would never fathom to challenge the professor, give his or her own opinion, or argue openly with classmates.  Yet, this is exactly what the students were asked to do in order to earn a high grade.  Yes, the students were aware that such a system was “normal” in the U.S.  Yet, their cultural background was so strong that they could not physically bring themselves to speak out in class.

The student who had visited me in my office quickly went back to try and catch the professor before afternoon class began.  She kindly explained to him why she thought the Asian students had not spoken the entire week.  Thankfully, the professor (who had noticed this lack of participation as well) was extremely gracious for this insight, and felt embarrassed for putting the Asian students in this predicament.  Over the next day and a half, he called on the students and attempted to make a safe place in the classroom for them to participate in a more acceptable manner.  It turned out that they had excellent insight from their perspective, just that they did not have a culturally appropriate means to convey their knowledge.

The most ironic thing in the whole scenario is that this professor is himself multi-cultural and has even written extensively on inter-racial and intercultural issues, though just from a small segment of American values.  He is a genuinely wonderful man and very humble.  My point is that culture is a tricky thing, and we are totally blind to so many facets of it.  What we deem as normal and natural, especially when it comes to education and classroom performance, is totally taboo and unacceptable in another cultural system.

I currently teach in SE Asia and serve as a sort of advisor in a college that has just launched an American Degree Transfer Program.  Students do two years of college here, and then can transfer into a US university, where they will earn their degree.  I’m excited for the program because I get a chance to help students transition from the Asian education system to the US system.  It has saddened me over the years to hear of top-notch Asian students – the best and brightest in their home countries – flounder in US systems simply because of unknown cultural differences on both sides.  These students are robbed of their opportunity to contribute and excel and much frustration could be avoided with a simple training program designed to introduce students to US education (which do actually exist at many schools), but also to train US professors! to help Asian students overcome cultural issues.

So here we have a great application for anthropology.  What are the inherent values present in education systems from different cultures and what difficulties will these systems present when they cross cultures?  How can we create a classroom that has room for every student that gives each the opportunity to showcase their knowledge in an appropriate way?  Whatever subject you teach or study, find an anthropologist and ask for insight into these issues because they are extremely common in the real world.

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About culturnicity

Anthony Casey Cultural researcher, traveller, trainer, and learner
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