Jonathan Zimmerman: America’s Overseas Teachers and the Dilemmas of ‘Culture’

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman is a former Peace Corps volunteer (Nepal, 1983-85) and a professor of education and history at New York University. This essay is excerpted from his book Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century, published this month by Harvard University Press. ]

... [T]he post-World War II era spawned a new awareness and appreciation of culture, a concept that would revolutionize the teachers’ perceptions of America, teaching, and themselves. Between 150,000 and 200,000 Americans went overseas to teach in the 20th century, whether as colonial instructors, missionaries, or postwar secular volunteers. In most historical accounts of this so-called “American Century,” the United States acts as a “crusader” or even a “missionary” force: through its movies as well as its military, the story goes, Americans aimed to spread a given set of values—democracy, freedom, private enterprise, and so on—across the globe.

The letters, diaries, and memoirs of American teachers tell a different and more complicated tale. In the early 1900s, to be sure, the teachers reflected a fairly consensual certitude about American goals and ideals. Yet consensus as well as certainty fell apart in midcentury, when Americans began to ask whether their culture was the “right” one—and whether they owned the right to promote it in other places.

Consider the ways that Americans approached teaching itself. Early American teachers confidently exported a teaching philosophy they called “progressive,” stressing reason, activity, and persuasion over rote, repetition, and force. Yet by midcentury, with their students demanding blackboard lectures and memorization, Americans started to wonder whether the progressive philosophy simply reflected their own cultural bias. “We are skeptical of current attempts to impose Western educational methods upon a nonreceptive culture,” wrote two Peace Corps volunteers from Ethiopia, defending their use of rote methods in class.

Likewise, Americans came to question their long-standing emphasis upon vocational curricula over so-called “book learning” in the Third World. Stressing “practical” skills like carpentry and weaving, the Thomas generation denounced academic study as irrelevant or even harmful to “native” populations. But in the postwar world, Americans realized such arguments often caricatured their hosts. Like it or not, one American teacher in the Congo wrote, his students craved academics; indeed, they regarded “practical” training as simply “an attempt to deprive the African of the white man’s education.” Overwhelmingly white and college-educated, American teachers were themselves a product of “academic” culture. Why deny the same to their students?

At the same time, teachers came to lament the growing power of the United States in global culture. Living in conditions of relative poverty overseas, teachers became appalled at the materialism and avarice of their homeland. But they were even more outraged to find their students and colleagues imitating it, from speech and dress to music and cuisine. “We don’t believe those stupid advertisements that suggest lasting good breath and bright teeth will come with one flick of the toothbrush, or that deodorant is an automatic assurance of popularity, but these people do,” a Philippines Peace Corps teacher wailed in 1961. “They drink Coca-Cola almost as a cult ritual—every swallow makes one more American.” Teachers inevitably blamed “cultural imperialism,” which combined a generic critique of their own culture with a wariness of Americans who spread it overseas.

Just like the drive for “practical” schooling, however, the attack on cultural imperialism could reflect its own imperialist assumptions. In Uganda, students bridled when American teachers pressed them to sew “local dresses” by hand—and to reject Western-style, mass-produced ones. “You just don’t want us to have sewing machines!” one student protested. In Ethiopia, likewise, an American complained that Africans “reject their own culture” and “adopt the white-collar aspirations” of the West. “I feel very strongly (although perhaps I have no right to make this judgment, as I am a white collar) that this [is] personally injurious,” he added. Only the teacher’s offhand, parenthetical remark—“perhaps I have no right to make this judgment”—betrayed any hint that it was a judgment, every bit as severe as anything uttered by a colonial-era teacher. By indicting the West for imposing its culture on non-Western ones, postwar American teachers made themselves into the final arbiters of all of them.

Consider the following 1985 encounter between a Peace Corps teacher and a German missionary, deep in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal. The missionary was selling religious tracts to villagers when the teacher accosted him, demanding to know why the Nepalese needed such literature. “Because Hindus are thieves and murderers,” the missionary replied. Unless they received Christ, he added, they were going to hell. Then, as the teacher recalled in an article many years later, “things got ugly”:

I told him that I hoped he went to hell. He said he was going to heaven; hell was reserved for “infidels” like Hindus and, yes, Jews. In a truly cheap shot, I asked him why his own church had rolled over and played dead for Hitler. He told me the Holocaust was a tragedy, but mostly because of the Christians who had perished.
I told him to be fruitful and multiply, but not exactly in those words.

The teacher, of course, was me. More than two decades ago, I spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer and English teacher in Nepal. To my ears, the missionary’s overt ethnocentrism reeked of early 20th-century, pith-helmeted imperialism. But now, I wonder: Wasn’t I just as “imperial” as he was? His bigotries were more explicit: Hindus were thieves and murderers, and that was that. Beneath a cloak of cultural sensitivity, however, my own behavior betrayed a similar bias. I never asked the villagers what they thought of the missionary or his message. Just like my German foe, I presumed that I knew what was best for them. I presumed that I knew their “real” culture, that is, whether they knew it or not.

At its best, the postwar concept of culture made Americans wary of imposing their values and beliefs upon the rest of the globe. Here they added a welcome dose of skepticism to the smug arrogance, duplicity, and ethnocentrism that permeated so much of the American Century. At its worst, however, “culture” promoted the fallacious idea that members of a given society were all similar to each other—and all different from us.
Although America has too often ridden roughshod over other cultures, the reflexive desire to “defend” them reflects its own brand of arrogance. It denies other societies’ freedom in deciding whether to change, presuming that “The Other” should remain the same. Most of all, it makes Americans into the all-purpose umpire of what is “local” or “indigenous,” and what is not. In an era of unprecedented global flux, we need to ask ourselves anew about the cultures that continue to divide us. And we need to avoid being too sure in our answers, lest we forget or diminish the human universals that should unite us all.

comments powered by Disqus