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“Truths” that are Self-Evident

Regardless of whether you read The Docent Educator in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Panama, or the United States, you reside in a multicultural environment. All modern nations are composed of a variety of cultures — indigenous, dominant, and minority; and all societies are characterized by diversity — including differences in race, ethnicity, religion, language, and so forth.

North America has always been multicultural. The first people here spoke different languages, maintained separate tribal identities, and observed different customs from one another. And every group arriving thereafter has contributed to the mix. While the character of these contributions was often overtly discouraged, their substance was routinely integrated and used to strengthen the whole.

Whether by neglect or design, we who live in the United States have done little to chronicle the contributions made by the different cultures that compose our society. Thus, we know less than we should about ourselves and tend to have a skewed view of our own history and national character.

Lately, however, a new awareness is beginning to emerge, and with it some of the “truths” people hold sacred are being challenged or replaced. Many have already unraveled. Hollywood westerns, which once had portrayed Indians as senseless and brutal savages, now challenge that view in such films as “Dances with Wolves.” The reviling and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II has been replaced by a sense of collective shame, and legislation to make reparations to these victims of unfounded prejudice.

Instability often follows in the wake of change, and the shift toward understanding, valuing, and respecting diversity has been accompanied by feelings of turmoil, defensiveness, and fear. We should not be altogether surprised to learn that the school board of Lake County Florida recently passed a law that “required teaching [students] that American culture is inherently superior to others” (New York Times, Sunday, May 15, 1994, p. #12Y). Fortunately, however, such acts seem desperate, silly, and make most people wonder how do they define ‘American culture”?”

While such fear-generated myopia is not characteristic of staff educators and docents serving in museums, historic sites, zoos, parks, and gardens, it must still be guarded against. It is not uncommon within the U.S. to have an “us” and “them” mentality about the composite cultures existing within our nation, or to have varying degrees of xenophobia about the cultures of other nations.

It’s been said that the key to flourishing in a multicultural environment (locally or globally) is possessing an ability to recognize yourself in someone who is least like you. At the very least, all people:

  • share a desire not to be abbreviated into a stereotype;
  • find depersonalization degrading; seek a personal connection when learning; and
  • have similar needs and desires.

Let’s examine just a few of the implications of these common traits.

No one appreciates historical stereotypes or falsehoods. It is abhorrent to have one’s history or people trivialized. For example, hearing that slaves were “happy” or “well cared for” before emancipation is insulting, simplistic, and just plain incorrect. While some slaves may have been content with their fate, such statements do not acknowledge the wholesale degradation, lack of control over one’s destiny, and destruction of families that is far more characteristic of such a brutal system.

Depersonalization is degrading. No one wants to be thought of as a commodity. For instance, referring to Chinese or Irish people only as “an inexpensive labor force” used to build railroads or canals is callous. It does not acknowledge the hardships and costs of such servitude, nor does it reflect their aspirations and many other contributions. Similarly, depersonalizing the victims of genocides, holocausts, or famines into such objective terms as numbers or percentages can be obdurate and frightful if not balanced by references to their humanity.

All people seek themselves, or a personal connection, when learning. When learning about the past, people will find most relevant what they connect with most directly. If you are an African- American student visiting a plantation home in the South, for example, it is only natural that you would want to know about the lives and contributions of the slaves on the plantation. This does not mean that you would be uninterested in the lives and personal affects of the plantation owners, but the owners may not be your connection to the past.

This same desire to identify personally invites many white visitors to misconceive of their own connection to the past. Most will place themselves into the role of the wealthy homeowner when visiting historic houses. They dreamily consider how grand and gracious life would have been for them back then. Rarely are they told of how few people actually had access to such luxury, and how restrictive the social and economic barriers to such lifestyles were during earlier times.

All people have similar needs and desires. People everywhere require shelter and food; want good lives for their children; observe celebrations and rights of passage; adorn themselves and their objects; construct rules; and so forth. Should your museum examine different people and their customs, try discovering some of the similarities, rather than just the differences, among them.

If your institution examines the interaction of early European settlers with Indians, have visitors find similarities between the two groups. Consider, for instance, the ways in which 17th century Native Americans and Scottish Clansmen adorned themselves. How are their traditional modes of dress and decoration similar? How did these traditional embeUishments serve similar purposes?

Should an African mask of a human face marked by scarification (the cutting and scarring of flesh in order to impose a design upon the skin) be thought of as “barbaric” or “primitive,” establish parallels to such culturally familiar practices as tattooing, plastic surgery, hair removal, and ear piercing. That should make the unfamiliar seems less strange. Similarly, a reliquary figure containing the bones of an ancestor may seem less odd when compared to an urn containing the ashes of a loved one.

If you introduce visitors to endangered species from other parts of the world, how do you present the issue? Do you inadvertently give the impression that the animal or plant’s endangered status is the result of uncaring or uneducated people in a third world country? Or, do you compare such problems as the need for jobs, demands of growth, use of pesticides, desire for economic trade, pressures of competing interests, and so forth to those that we, in our country, are also struggling with?

There is little doubt that living in a multicultural world makes teaching more complex. But it also makes it richer and more interesting. Variety and spice do enliven our diet! And, learning to adjust the ways we view other people and interpret objects is well worth the added effort.

So remember, when the variables related to teaching seem overwhelming, good teachers are never complacent. They understand that teaching is a skill never fully acquired, and that it will always require diligence, deliberation, and further refinement.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “‘Truths’ that are Self-Evident,” The Docent Educator 4.2 (Winter 1994-95): 2-3.

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