Teaching “American values”

…backfired!  For the lecture, I listed off and explained eleven “American values” selected by esteemed (first to come up on Google) sociologist Robin Williams (not the comedian!).  They were, in this order: achievement and success, individualism, activity and work, efficiency and practicality, science and technology, progress, material comfort, humanitarianism, freedom, democracy, and equality.   That list seemed very normal at the time, but in class I suddenly found myself completely uncomfortable with the idea of explaining to a group of people what is important to [assumed: all] Americans.  No matter how many times I qualified my speech with, “now, speaking really generally here,” or “of course not all Americans are like this,” it was uncomfortable to make any of these incredibly broad statements.  For a couple of reasons – one, because there are just so many exceptions that half way through I started doubting the whole idea of national values, and two – because my goal here is to connect our cultures by showing Russians that we’re not so different after all.  When I asked my students what they thought of the list, they all instantly pointed out how these values differed from their Russian values.  They pointed out that family wasn’t even on the list.  Afterwards I thought about how humanitarianism is perhaps just to soothe our guilt for other unflattering qualities, like aggressive competitiveness or greed.  It bothered me so much that the next day, I decided to do a lesson on American counter-cultures, to show some of the other types of Americans.  That list centers too much on one certain type of American, and the true, authentic American trait is that we appreciate and respect differences and uniqueness.  Thus, I wanted to bring everyone’s attention to the other side of the picture. We read about the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, which talked about using the barter system instead of money, living with less, sharing, being open-minded, and being artistic and unique.  Not individualistic, per say, more like, “thinking outside the box.”  We looked at pictures and my students reveled in the wild costumes and art exhibitions.  It was definitely a fun lesson, but I’m not sure it stabilized the one-sided image I had drawn the day before, and it definitely did not bring Russian and American cultures closer.  Before I give another talk on American values, I’m going to do a lot of thinking and figure out a better way to present this interesting but precarious topic! Note to self: conclude lesson with this quote: “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, and all will be well.


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