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Dwelling in the Experience of Others: Reflections on Culture in Education after September 11

by Barbara Finkelstein - September 03, 2002

A call for multicultural communitarianism.

On September 11, the U.S. received two air mail, special delivery messages.  Four planes, laden with nineteen disaffected, adrift from tradition and nation, relatively well-schooled Islamic men and tons of explosive power, freighted an awe-inspiring series of messages. The messages constituted the symbolic shouts of the group of nineteen and an as-yet-unknown number of  invisible compatriots who shouted “no in thunder” to modernization, global marketing, cultural tolerance, democratic liberties, western hegemonies, sexual freedom of choice, re-imagined gender-roles, the temptations of unrestrained entertainment-gurus, and the visions of community lodged in commitments to equality, legal justice, self-government, and individual rights (Buruma & Margalit, 2002; Juergensmeyer, 2000; Lifton, 2001; Bhabah, 2001).

Among the many “no’s” which they shouted in thunder, were ones that I believe bear our closest attention, not because there is merit in what these men think and do, not because too many people in every corner of the globe have cheered them on, not because there are powerful affinity groups in the United States who share their basic premises, not because terror in its most awesome manifestations has become palpably evident, not because we in the U.S. have finally experienced externally imposed terror, and not because international real politique in the twenty-first century requires equal measures of response or revenge.

The no’s that the nineteen men amplified bear our closest attention because they reveal the illusory nature and paradoxical effect of some of our most cherished beliefs about the foundations of liberty, justice, and democratic forms of association.  In this very short talk, I want to call attention to four of our more cherished and widely shared national myths, which reverberate across generations, classes, ethnic groups, and nationalities as parents, teachers, theologians, and assorted other social messengers filter the ways of the world to the young, often without an awareness of their culturally-specific origins, their local character, their manifestations in education policies and practices, and their capacity to conceal, mystify,  undermine and confound some of the very commitments they are designed to sustain.  I am going to argue that the very systems of belief that have been traditionally associated with U.S. strength and power, may, in fact, constitute serious liabilities, when, as we shall see, they blind Americans to the realities of interdependence, the dilemmas of pluralism, the importance of human connectedness, the existence of hate-inducing poverty and despair, the presence of historically long-standing alternative perspectives, habits of association, and structures of authority, and even to the negative effects of our own behavior.  I am going to argue that the post 9/11 world is not, as countless social pundits have asserted, a new world, at least not for most of the world’s people.  Nor is it necessarily a less safe or more dangerous world.  It is a more communicative world, a more transparent world, a culturally more congested world, a world of infinite connections. It is a world that schools as currently constructed are ill-prepared to face.


Among the more cherished and universally revered national myths in the United States is the one that projects the autonomous individual as the center of a democratically conceived and virtuous body politic. The autonomous, choice-making individual -- i.e., the theoretical American citizen-- is, relatively-speaking, free of the constraints of governing agents, free of the weight of tradition, free of the tyrannies of family, church, and state, free to compete as an individual, free to exercise political agency through involvement in competing interest groups. The democratically conceived U.S. citizen is free to invoke particular authorities, to embrace particular beliefs, to choose leaders, to define affiliations, and somehow “be oneself.”   In education, the autonomous individual is a student in possession of, among other things, a specific and identifiable learning style, a measurable capacity, a diagnosable need, a differential capacity to compete effectively and to learn easily -- that is, if they behave obediently and work diligently (Finkelstein, 1988). As Robert Bellah and others like him have suggested, U.S. schools are also typically awash in visions of competitive individualism (Bellah, 1975; Bellah et.al., 1985).  Competitions typically occur between individuals rather than among groups. Teachers encourage students to compete for prizes. They praise individuals publicly and commonly call attention to individual merit and achievement. They ask children to correct one another and actively discourage them from talking or working together.  Since the middle of the nineteenth century, teachers commonly value independent study over group or cooperative learning. Not unexpectedly, group projects are only rarely undertaken in American schools. When they occur along academic lines, we call them cheating. (Finkelstein, 1989).

Traditionally, U.S. schoolrooms have been places where learning to be a student has meant learning to withdraw from informal sociability, cooperative learning, and group accomplishment, and to engage instead in the individual pursuit of knowledge, creativity, and self-expression (Finkelstein, 1989).

The commitment to individual autonomy and the exercise of choice has generated a powerful capacity to inspire innovative and creative thinking and a dazzling diversity of expression, belief, and point of view. It has also, however, obscured the realities of interdependence, concealed the ill effects --no matter how well intended-- of widespread labeling as a mechanism to address individual needs, served as an important disincentive to the development of cooperative learning strategies, community-building rituals, and systematic efforts to strengthen connections between families, schools, and community agencies (Noddings, 1987).


A second and related myth, orbiting around beliefs in the virtues of independence and  national self-sufficiency, moral superiority, and national loyalty, has projected images of people in other nations and cultures variously -- as less progressive, less modern, less enlightened in the case of some; as primitive, barbaric, and satanic in the case of others ; as unholy, destructive, and tyrannical in still others; as deeply in need of infusions of globalization, legally constructed civil societies, and doses of the American way (Bhabah, 2001).  In the wake of September 11, visions of U.S. superiority have become manifest in an effusion of patriotic rituals that inspire daily life in schools and induce despair and anger among many immigrant children who have not yet learned what it means to be an American. Visions of U.S. superiority are evident in the continuing construction of global learning as an exercise in comparative morality, geography, and religion, rather than as an opportunity to explore alternative points of view, habits of association, or structures of authority that sustain communities all over the world.  Through an approach to comparative culture that has emphasized difference rather than similarity, superiority rather than complementarity, the content of global learning has commonly framed the world hierarchically -- as regions distinguished by relative degrees of moral inferiority, political enlightenment, economic development, and educational advancement (Birnbaum, 1988; Willinsky, 1999).  It takes no rocket scientist to discover that alienation rather than understanding is a common result of this sort of global construction.


A third myth, the myth of open borders, projects the U.S. as a welcoming nation, a refuge from oppression, tyranny, and poverty, a site of economic opportunity, an invulnerable fortress of freedom loving patriots, an education haven for the otherwise uninformed, a beacon of hope for the tired and poor of the world.  A congratulatory and expansive myth, the idealized portrayal of open borders, like the portrayals of calls for color-blind policies, (Dill, 2001) has also served to conceal an array of ethnocentric qualities that have dominated the national discourses of difference, complicated the reception of immigrant and refugee groups in diverse localities across the U.S., obscured the existence of inter-ethnic conflicts in cities, and diminished the quality and depth of educational commitments to cultural border-crossing and transcultural perspective-taking.  


A fourth web of significance centers on a belief in the cultural superiority of rule by law as a foundation to govern human relations and public life, secure human rights, protect religious freedom, anchor expressions of belief and perspective, limit the power of government, and define the public sphere as secular, religiously neutral–outside the sphere of church and family authority. This construction has not only served as a buffer against the tyrannies of run-away governments and excesses of religious zealotry as historic American philosophers intended, but, as a new generation of civic philosophers and social critics have observed, has also disjoined morality from public life, elevated matters of technique over matters of judgment and intellect in education, problematized the role of American teachers as moral and cultural guides, imposed paralyzing legalisms on school administrators, and created chasms of misunderstanding among and between families and schools, parents and teachers,  and between cultural and racial communities (Bellah, et al., 1985; Birnbaum, 1988; Brown, 1987; Finkelstein, 1988).  Most important perhaps, the myth of open boundaries has concealed the existence of local conflicts between new immigrants and older U.S. residents who, because they have experienced oppression and status degradation in each of their nations, are doing battle with one another to acquire their fair share of an often insufficient foundation of resources for the schools.      


When they are taken together, the myths of individual autonomy, global superiority, open borders, and civil society, constitute an historically grounded American cultural template. Like most cultural blueprints, the American one is embedded deeply in the structured realities of education policies, practices, and the daily life of students and teachers in school.  Like most cultural blueprints, these widely held cultural beliefs are the product of centuries long efforts to reconcile political differences, tamp down divisive socio-economic conflict, and create stability if not harmony in the midst of division. Like most cultural perspectives, each of these is typically taken for granted.  In the wake of September 11, their taken-for-grantedness constitutes forms of ethnocentricity and cultural arrogance that we can no longer afford.

For Americans who harbor visions of an American community as an empowering one for talented and motivated individuals, the systematic introduction of cultural other-mindedness, and the study of international as well as local strangers can serve as an important national conversation about what it means to be an American, what it takes to be free and equal, and what it means to be well-schooled (Banks, 1993).

In the remainder of this paper, I would like to share with you an alternative image of education-doing designed for an evolving world that my daughter Donna has optimistically characterized as a community-in-the-making rather than a planet.  The orientation, which I will be calling multicultural communitarianism, is not new.  Indeed, it is embedded in traditions of diversity advocacy that emerged early in our history when Orestes Bronson condemned public education and Horace Mann along with it, for fostering a uniform vision of an American citizen.  Almost a century later, at the very moment when teachers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Cleveland, Ohio were prohibited from using German as a language of instruction, Horace Kallen invented the concept of cultural pluralism, and defined a new standard for diversity advocacy.  Kallen’s celebration of pluralism laid dormant until the 1960s and 1970s when in the name of civil rights, a new generation of scholars and school reformers --graduates of the very schools that Bronson and Kallen had condemned-- invoked Gunnar Myrdal’s condemnation of racism as the Achilles heel of democracy, and invoked visions of cultural pluralism as a basis for the reform of education.  

Over the course of the next generation from 1970 to the present, a glittering effusion of diversity advocates have effected reconstructions of curriculum content, and called attention to an array of status degradations visited on students who enter school awash in alternative habits of heart, mind, and association. Sociologists of education have called for new frames, new classifications, and academically enabling practices to accommodate diverse students (Bernstein, 1977).  Other diversity advocates are calling for definitions of national community that integrate the whole of the American people into visions of American identity (Takaki, 1994).  Still others have advocated for a reconstructed public philosophy (Sullivan, 1981) a new civic covenant (Bellah, 1975), a moral language for public life, (Giroux, 1988), and a political curriculum that is whole and related (Warren, 1983).  They are in search of a civic covenant grounded in morality rather than interest, interdependence rather than competition, and mutuality and reciprocity, rather than selfishness and privatism.

My own call for multicultural communitarianism is, I believe, properly situated within these traditions. But it proceeds, as it must in this historical moment, on slightly different assumptions: that the study of culture and tradition is a curriculum basic; and, that transcultural border-crossing, like learning to read, write, to reason logically, think scientifically, and exercise citizen responsibilities is a moral, intellectual, and technical necessity in education for this time.   

Multicultural communitarianism as I am using the term today, refers to an education orientation that cultivates cultural knowledge, communicative dispositions, community-building skills, and cultural literacy as important educational emphases.  It refers to a content focus that privileges culture-specific knowledge, cultivates perspective-consciousness, and promotes organized opportunities for participants to compare, reflect, and decode cultural actions and systems of meaning.  The concept of multicultural communitarianism that I am suggesting today, also refers to educational processes that enable participants to enter into productive and reciprocal exchanges with people in possession of culturally different habits and ways of knowing, being, and educating.  A cultural education orientation invites learners to contemplate and experience alternative visions of time, space, human relationships, educational processes, family dynamics, workplace habits, and aesthetic forms.  It invites them to learn to read another culture, to peer behind cultural facades, to capture the world with new eyes.  As an antidote to arrogance and ethnocentricity– multicultural communitarianism in education refers to educational occasions that encourage a leave-taking of local identities, a willingness–at least for a moment in time--to dwell in the experience of others. (Finkelstein et. al., 1998a; 1998b).  

For teachers, administrators, and others with compelling interests in the fate and power of education, this means an explicit role for educators as gatekeepers of cultural information, expositors of cultural perspective, midwives to inter-cultural possibility, wielders of cultural authority, and critics of image-makers, and image-making.  As they mandate, construct and/or mediate the written word of the history or geography text, the novel, the folktale, short story, the film, the object, the diary, the television program, they figure forth images of strangers, reinforce and/or transform social and cultural relations within classrooms, and otherwise cultivate a sense of place, community, and intergroup relations. They can engage students in explorations of alternative ways of knowing, being, and associating and invite them to explore culture from both insider and outsider perspectives (Finkelstein, 1989).  Commitments to multicultural communitarianism in education require educators to become sophisticated cultural de-coders, seeing past the headlines, past the brandings of public relations gurus, past the demagogic invocations of governors, statespersons, politicians, religious spokespersons, and internet geeks.  It requires adults to help young people understand that “Osama Bin Laden” is not a new television talk show host -- a characterization that seemed natural for my eleven year old grandson to observe.    

For those of us who preside over programs of teacher preparation, an internationally grounded multicultural agenda requires a reformulation of teacher preparation programs not only to end what Ken Zeichner (1995) has called its culturally encapsulated qualities, but to engage rising teachers in an array of culturally fundamental, community building kinds of inquiry  -- oral history taking, ethnographic explorations, ethnic studies, cross-cultural communication analyses, foreign language study, study abroad programs, explorations of the meaning of cultural minority in international as well as local perspective -- all of which require them to cross traditional disciplinary lines, build bridges between normally balkanized fields of cultural study, and transcend boundaries of nation, class, ethnic group, gender, culture, class, and even neighborhood.

The multicultural/communitarian approach to education has a capacity to galvanize a search for common ground, stimulate visions of community, sustain cooperative as well as competitive education actions, reveal commonalities as well as differences, and interdependence as well as independence.  Such an orientation requires and celebrates the presence of cultural strangers who, because they are in possession of alternative cultural habits, can ground a search for new modes of understanding and forms of cooperative learning to sustain rather than fracture communities of understanding.


In this post September 11, communities-in-the-making world, the transformative

possibilities of transcultural study and experience, the exhilaration and challenge of cultural encounters, the utility of cultural reflection, and the call for reciprocal and respectful exchanges of points of view, constitute an indispensable scaffolding on which to sustain what is best in the worlds of our fathers and mothers.  It charts a path to a less terrifying future than the one that we now know. It is, in my view, our best revenge for September 11.     


I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to my friend and colleague, Betty Malen, who listened and listened, and with endless patience and kindness, brought her prodigious and incisive mind to bear on the conception and trajectory of this paper as it developed.   


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Bellah, R.N. (1975). The broken covenant: American civil religion in time of trial. New York: Seabury.

Bellah, R.N., Madsen, R., Sullivan W.M., Swidler, A., Tipton, S.M. (1985). Habits of the heart: Individualism and commitment in American life. New York: Harper and Row.

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Finkelstein, B. (1998a). Hidden messages: Instructional materials for cultural teaching and learning, with Elizabeth K. Eder, Nancy Traubitz, Alan Chalk, and Corinne Mantle-Bromley. Yarmouth, ME:  The Intercultural Press.

Finkelstein, B.(1998b).  Discovering culture in education: An approach to cultural education program evaluation. Washington, DC: ERIC Assessment Center on Evaluation and Assessment, with Sarah Pickert, Tracy Callahan Mahoney, Douglas Barry, Jennifer King Rice, and Larry Widener.

Giroux, H. (1998). Schooling and the struggle for public life: Critical pedagogy in the modern age. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Juergensmeyer, M. (2000). Terror in the mind of God: The global of religious violence. Berkeley: University of California Press.  

Lifton, R. (September 28, 2001).  Giving meaning to survival, The Chronicle of Higher Education, B8.

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Sullivan, W.M. (1981). Reconstructing public philosophy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Zeichner, K. M. (1995). Preparing educators for cross-cultural teaching. In W. D. Hawley & A. Jackson (Eds.), Toward a common destiny: Improving race and ethnic relations in America (pp. 397-423). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 03, 2002
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11031, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 9:31:19 AM

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About the Author
  • Barbara Finkelstein
    University of Maryland
    E-mail Author
    Barbara Finkelstein, is an historian of education who examines historical and cultural dimensions of education policies and practices as they have impinged on the lives of children, youth, minority groups, and women, and shaped the quality of educational opportunity available to them. She has also done extensive field work on minority group experience with literacy and school reform in both Japan and the United States, and has, through her work as Director of the International Center for the Study of Education Policy and Human Values, organized, and convened an array of research partnerships that engage teams of scholars, educators, and education planners in interdisciplinary research collaborations centering on cultural stereotyping. Among her publications are: Governing the Young: Teacher Behavior in Popular Primary Schools in Nineteenth-Century U.S.; "Education Historians as Mythmakers,"(Review of Research in Education); Transcending Stereotypes: Discovering Culture and Education in Japan and "A Crucible of Contradictions: Historical Roots of Violence Against Children in the United States."
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