Relativism and world perspectives

I recently came across this blog post by Dennis Baron from Fall 2009:  “The Noun Game.”  I subscribe to Dennis’s blog, but I must admit that sometimes it takes me a while to wade through all the material in my Google Reader and find his posts.

In any event, I thought this was a very interesting article, especially for those of us interested in how cultural difference impacts education. 

He tells the story of a South Asian student who faced a conundrum in his American school when asked, during an activity on nouns, if a horse were a person, a place or a thing.  As Dennis writes,

In India, where he had been in school before coming to Ohio, Ganesh was taught that a noun named a person, place, thing, or animal. If he played the noun game in India he’d have four buckets and there would be no problem deciding what to do with “horse.”

When Ganesh decided that a horse was closer to a person than a “thing”, he was given a C for the exercise.  Dennis pairs this with another example from his own life when his family was living in France.  At their school, his sister had this experience:

The teacher asked her, “How many continents are there?” and she replied, as she had been taught in the good old U.S. of A., “seven.” Blaap! Wrong! It turns out that in France there are only five.

What makes this story even more striking is the map from the French Wikipedia that Dennis includes, in which these five continents are clearly color-coded.

As an instructor working with cross-cultural encounters, this article underscores for me that the biggest challenges in these sorts of situations are not the cultural clashes you expect, but the ones that you don’t.  So many it times, it seems that what we need to look carefully at are the way that there is cultural difference even in our underlying assumptions (how do you categorize a horse? how many continents are there?).  I remember the moment in our collaboration with Orebro, for instance, where we needed to step back and ask, “So what exactly do you expect from a student writing an argumentative essay?  What does research look like?  What does a rhetoric class look like?”  It was an important moment for me to move away from my presuppositions — my position that the way We Do Things is the Way Things Are Done — and realize the relativism behind it all.

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