It’s Time to Address America’s Cultural Un-Awareness Problem

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Adolfo Félix on Unsplash

The other day I was teaching some basic cultural facts about Mexico in my Spanish class. To start off the lesson, my students were looking at a map of Mexico and I was pointing out major geographical features — capital city, bordering countries, and bodies of water. I pointed to the Gulf of Mexico and asked my students “What body of water is this?” and one student proudly shouted out “The Mediterranean Sea!” to which most of the class started laughing.

Even though this moment made us all laugh, on the inside I wept a little, because many of my students have never traveled outside of their Midwestern bubble, so to them, what does it matter if they don’t know where places around the world are? It’s hard for them to see the connection between far away places and their everyday lives, because American education doesn’t place much — if any — emphasis on gaining geographical and cultural awareness.

And I think this lack of cultural awareness is a serious mistake. As the world gets smaller due to technology and innovation, it is becoming more and more important that people around the world connect with one another. In order to do this requires not only language and geography skills, but also cultural competency. Yet education at the moment is so infatuated with STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — while at the same time de-emphasizing other real-world soft skills and competencies.

As a recent Forbes article puts it,

While many are pushing for a greater focus on STEM, alarm is spreading over what some have characterized as a crisis in civics education. Scores on national tests in that subject, along with history and geography, are alarmingly low, with only about a quarter of students scoring at the proficient level.

If we as a country want our young people to be able to succeed in the world of the future, then we need to prioritize teaching geography, language, and cultural awareness.

“Culture makes people understand each other better. And if they understand each other better in their soul, it is easier to overcome the economic and political barriers. But first they have to understand that their neighbor is, in the end, just like them, with the same problems, the same questions.” — Paulo Coelho

Cultural awareness especially comes to mind in light of recent news and politics. Just look at President Trump’s foreign policy and the lessons he is passing along to future generations. From his perspective, supporting corrupt governments and their leaders is productive trade policy. Building a border wall to reduce immigration will “make America great again”. Perhaps just bussing newly-arrived immigrants to sanctuary cities will solve border problems. And cutting off funding and aid to countries and thereby punishing the innocent civilians living there is the best way to make the leaders pay for disagreeing with him.

It’s not even the policies themselves, per se, rather more important is the effect of his rhetoric around such divisive and politically-charged subjects. The way the President rallies and incites both sides of the aisle around sensitive issues only perpetuates the ignorance and inability to foster constructive cultural dialogues in our future generations.

In many ways, the current political climate is actively influencing America’s cultural un-awareness, both abroad and at home. The dialogue that filters through the local media and among American people support these cultural biases. There have been so many important teachable moments of late centered around race and politics in this country, but most schools simply ignore what’s happening in the real world and push forward with the prescribed — and sometimes antiquated — curriculum.

So instead, young people acquire their cultural “knowledge” from unreliable news sources (or worse, social media) and from their parents’ opinions on these subjects. Before young people get a chance to form their own opinions on these topics, they are already judging the world and its people based exclusively off of their background.

But worse than forming this knowledge outside of school is that students often learn misconceptions directly from teachers in school. For instance, my colleagues and I were all completely aghast when we found out the news about teachers dressing up as Trump’s border wall and as a group of “Mexicans” for Halloween. How is it possible that any adult responsible for shaping minds of the future could do something so blatantly insensitive?

Image for post
Image for post
Picture of the Idaho teachers’ Halloween costume. Screenshot from Facebook

As teachers, it’s our job to be impartial mentors who develop students’ knowledge and critical thinking abilities. Instead, I have heard about and witnessed countless culturally-biased and sometimes flagrantly racist teachings in school. While there are many excellent teachers out there who are imparting culturally-aware lessons, too many teachers are ill-equipped to infuse cultural education into their content areas, because they themselves have no experience with new perspectives.

In fact, statistics show that the teacher workforce in America remains predominantly white and female. That makes it hard to deny that students really only graduate with a one-sided perspective of the world. For this reason, providing better cultural education is more than just an issue of good education — it’s a matter of equity.

The Knowledge Map Project at John Hopkins University demonstrates that students from low-income families lack the breadth of cultural knowledge compared with their wealthier peers who can afford to participate in more activities and travel more often. These students won’t perform as well at demonstrating their understanding of broader topics. According to a Hechinger Report article,

In Baltimore City Public Schools, district leaders see “knowledge gaps” as an equity issue. More than half of the district’s students are categorized as low-income. The conversations in their homes, their travel destinations, their cultural excursions too often fail to provide learning opportunities that their wealthier peers have.

Consequently, schools have a responsibility to not only level the playing field of content knowledge but help reconcile the cultural differences between students as well. To do this, teachers must actively incorporate various perspectives and voices into their lessons.

“The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they’re valued.” — Ken Robinson

Think for a moment about the discovery of America that we all remember from history classes in school. I personally only ever learned that Christopher Columbus was a Spanish hero who helped to discover our great nation. He was a famous historical figure who should be remembered and revered, or so I always thought.

Then I went to study abroad in Mexico when I was in college. I was in a Mexican history class there and in one of the first lessons the professor stressed how terrible Christopher Columbus was for the history of the indigenous Mexican people. By his account, Columbus led the European people to conquer new lands in the West using death and destruction. Eventually, other European explorers reached Mexico, bringing with them new crops and diseases, forever altering the lives of the indigenous people on into modern day Mexico. He connected Mexico’s current issues of poverty and injustices to those first European explorers.

In that moment, I remember feeling like my education had failed me. For the first time in my life I understood the importance of learning about other cultures and perspectives.

I remember this same feeling from when I attended graduate school. It was the first time that I had traveled to the West Coast and I immediately felt a kind of culture shock just as when I studied abroad in other countries. I hadn’t learned how to keep an open mind about new ways of living, even when simply moving from one part of the country to another. The population of California is vastly different than Missouri, and so is the everyday lifestyle. Yet there I was, a recently arrived Midwesterner, feeling as though I was a foreigner in my own country.

This is part of the reason I’m writing this article, because I myself used to be the culturally-unaware, geographically-oblivious student I’m describing. Growing up in my own Midwestern bubble, I had no idea of the diversity that lay outside of my tiny sphere on this Earth. For lack of a better term, I made a complete ass out of myself in front of strangers here and abroad, because I used my own background as the definitive lens through which the world must operate. It took years for me to gain the diversity of knowledge and experience that would help me adjust my perspective so that I now celebrate these differences.

Americans, like me back then, have a natural tendency to avoid what lay outside of their comfort zone. So we have a natural tendency to force our way of life onto others. I have traveled abroad many times and every time I can easily play a game of “spot-the-American”. Even though we speak the same language, I can tell apart the Canadians, Australians and Brits from the Americans. The citizens of other countries try to adapt and seem to enjoy exploring local cultures, whereas American adults seem to treat everywhere they travel like it’s still part of their America.

“I always encourage people to get out there, travel the world, see new things, experience new people, experience new food, experience new culture. What happens is that helps you to grow and be your best self.” — Karamo Brown

And even though now as a a teacher I stress cultural competency in my class, I will be the first to admit that I am by no means perfect at incorporating these lessons or that I have all the answers to this societal issue. Curriculum dictates that I teach so many others things that cultural lessons are often cursory at best. I try to give my students basic facts at a minimum, yes, but these don’t build cultural competencies and I know that. True competency is about more than just information, it’s about analysis and deeper understanding that help students learn how to appreciate and interpret similarities and differences between them and other people in the world.

I know that my students won’t remember most of the vocabulary or grammar that I teach them. What my students will need, however, is the ability to interact with someone from a different background as themselves. There are countless missed opportunities to foster in our students an appreciation for diversity both inside and outside of this country. There are so many cultures and sub-cultures that go completely unmentioned in American education.

Future generations will need to know how to interact with anyone with a different background from themselves. They will need to explore and engage with the world at large. They will need to learn about different perspectives, practices, languages, and cultures the world over. Then they will need to apply this knowledge and demonstrate that they can successfully navigate a new culture on their own.

It’s time for America to recognize the value of such an education.

Written by

Stories of a former high school teacher, now business consultant. Husband. Travel fanatic. Obsessed coffee drinker. And all-around nerd.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store