Friday, August 7, 2015

Tilting at Windmills, Vol. 1, No. 13

Combating Ethnocentrism in World Regional Geography

     As a history teacher at a community college I cover a range of courses that have traditionally been aligned with the discipline of history. One of those courses is Geography. I like teaching Geography. I find the world to be a very diverse place where the American point of view is just one lens among many. As the globalization of the world continues to increase, I think it is very useful for people to understand that there is a big world out there and it is not American. In fact, the US is just one nation of many and the idea of American Exceptionalism is a joke. 

     As these students finish their educations and move out into the job market, some will find themselves traveling for business purposes. Knowing something about the areas they will travel or or in some cases even live in will help them succeed in their endeavors. To do this, I teach a real world point of view and at times this clashes with the belief structures of students. My students are mostly younger adults in the first few years removed from high school. Some are older adults. My experiences with older students is that they have more to "unlearn" than others. 
     Let me explain. As an older adult who returned to college I found myself trying to reconcile what I thought I knew with what I was learning about. Most of that had to do with history and how I had constructed a historical interpretation of the past based on what I had learned years before. When I returned to college, that interpretation fell apart under the onslaught of historical information I encountered. I realized I needed to unlearn or just forget what I thought I knew and construct new interpretations built on factual information. 

     Some adults have a lot of difficulty doing that. They resist change, especially when that change is part of their belief structures that they have developed over many years. This is natural. The phenomenon has been observed for years. I see it in some of my students as well. Usually it can be overcome with students by providing them the primary sources so they can see for themselves where the information came from. I rarely have issues with students in history regarding this. Generally, those that resist change don't bother with going to college as an adult because that is an admission of embracing change in the first place.

     However, when I teach Geography I run into a different situation. Some students have a very pronounced ethnocentric point of view regarding their perceptions of the world. They see everything through an American lens. Often that involves stereotypical perceptions and often has roots in American Exceptionalist teachings from years ago. These students find the class difficult because they cannot let go of their older beliefs regarding the world outside of the US. While it is natural for everyone to have some degree of ethnocentric views, some students have constructed their worldviews from an ethnocentric aspect to the point where they just cannot accept the fact that those beliefs are false.

     The ability to understand and embrace different cultures is cultural empathy. This means to accept and understand foreign cultures as well as foreign values. One does not replace ones own culture and values in this way, but instead constructs a worldview that incorporates foreign cultures alongside their own cultural norms. People who employ cultural empathy develop an integrated worldview where multiple cultures exist alongside their own. 

     Rasoal, Eklund, and Hansen have listed five barriers to intercultural empathy. These barriers are a lack of knowledge outside one's own culture, experience with other cultures outside one's own, knowledge regarding other people's cultures, experiences regarding other people's cultures, and an inability to bridge different cultures by understanding the commonalities and dissimilarities. My World Regional Geography courses are the anti-thesis to this ethnocentric disorder. For it is a mental disorder found in cultural psychology. 

      My courses involves students learning about the world and its regions by studying the people that interact with the geography that exists in those regions. Like it or not, mankind's history has been shaped by that interaction to an extremely high degree. People with ethnocentric disorder tend to think that that other factors played stronger roles. Racists almost always display this disorder and often to a high degree. Those who believe in American Exceptionalism often display this disorder, but not necessarily to disabling degrees. Fortunately, very few of my students seem to have this disorder. I think it is due to their youth and that they are still developing their worldview and thus open to learning about the world. 

     Older students may or may not have this disorder. Most are willing to learn quite easily and discard their former worldview and are eager to construct new ones. However, some refuse to do so. I really have no answer for them that they're going to like because I do not have their disorder. I've noticed these students tend to be part of the minority that have difficulty grasping new learning such as multiculturalism. The pedagogy for teaching them is a bit different than that of teaching younger adults. It causes me to have to make adjustments in my teaching to deal with these students and it can be disruptive at times as well. 

     There is a strong element of empathy involved in cultural ethnography as well. This also factors into the way some people cannot embrace other cultures or new ideas. They have either a lack of empathy or lack empathy along some pathways. Psychologists have postulated that people can have a lack of empathy. This is an area of research which has been explored quite well although more research is needed as the ability to measure empathy is not exact. A lack of empathy is noted in many mental disorders. In intercultural ethnography we see four types of empathy involved, Behavioral, Emotional, Relational, and Cognitive. 

     I will wrap this up by saying that I find it interesting that education and psychology are so closely related. I have become a better teacher by using elements of psychology in my pedagogical practices. Dealing with adult students requires a different approach in the classroom. Most of the time this is not a big deal, but there are times when older students present special problems due to their mindset. Understanding that mindset definitely helps me reach out to them. 

Next week we will study a psychological disorder involving geography that I find endemic to a certain type of individual involving the culture wars.

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