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Merits and Perils of Teaching About Other Countries

By Walter A. McDougall

Nothing in my experience sums up the merits and perils of studying other cultures better than an appalling week I spent at Fort Sill in February 1969. Almost all of us recent graduates from artillery school had orders for Vietnam, and so we were subjected to a week of what the army called "In-Country Orientation." A model Vietnamese fortified hamlet had been constructed there on the Oklahoma plains, and our instructor, a butter-bar lieutenant no older than I, insisted that its defenses were impregnable, as if none of us had ever heard the frequent news reports of villages overrun. We were also told what to do in case of an ambush: which is not to get pinned down, but charge right into the enemy's guns. And we learned all about the poisonous serpents and insects we could expect to encounter. In sum, far from boosting our morale and making us gung-ho, the course left us feeling utterly terrified and unprepared. But worst of all was when they herded hundreds of us into an auditorium to hear a lecture on Vietnamese culture and society. The instructor was not a scholarly expert, or a native Vietnamese, or perhaps a Green Beret who knew Vietnamese and had lived with the people. Rather, the teacher was a grizzled drill sergeant who paraphrased a manual, stumbling over his words. "Awright, you mens, listen up! You will now git orientated into Vitmese so-ciety. Da mostly thing y'all gots to know is dat Vit-nam is a Confusion society. Dat means that ever'body is in a kind of high-arky: like the chillun obey deir parents, and the womens obey deir mens, and ever'body obeys the guv-ment. It's sorta like da army chain o' command."

I must have stopped listening, because that is all I remember. But looking back, I can imagine that orientation as a metaphor of the whole U.S. enterprise in Southeast Asia. As our current fiasco in the Balkans demonstrates anew, Americans make a habit of declaring a war, sending over massive firepower, then expressing amazement when the locals do not bend at once to our will. Only then do we finally decide that it might be a good idea to learn something about the history and culture of the people we are trying to bludgeon, help, and change. Not that a common soldier needs an advanced degree in multicultural studies, but it would help if our policymakers took time to study the world over which they profess to exercise a benevolent hegemony.

The value of studying other cultures is not something we Americans, or Westerners in general, discovered only recently, as a consequence of having our consciousness raised by the multiculturalists. Medieval Christians were fascinated by their Muslim adversaries. The Age of Exploration inspired Europeans to collect information about the strange lands they discovered, think of themselves as one civilization among many, and ask what caused the differences, as well as similarities, among cultures. The Enlightenment systematized the study of non-Western peoples, giving birth eventually to world history (Voltaire), encyclopedias (Diderot), and comparative politics (Montesquieu). In the 19th century, archaeology, cultural anthropology, comparative religion, and a new burst of European imperialism enriched the study of other civilizations, however much solipsistic Westerners took for granted the superiority of their own ways and assumed that all other peoples must inevitably follow in their path. As Walt Whitman wrote,

One thought ever at the fore
That in the Divine Ship, breasting time and space
All peoples of the globe together sail, sail the same voyage
Are bound to the same destination.

Today's radical multiculturalists accordingly disparage what they call Europe's "Enlightenment Project" as a campaign to explore, subdue, and study the whole world for the Purpose of controlling it, exploiting it, and ultimately making it an extension of Western civilization. That is highly tendentious, but does have a measure of truth. At Amherst College in 1964, all of us freshmen were obliged to take History 1, a course that developed themes in world history rather than Western Civ, and as such was very progressive. But the themes chosen were invariably Western themes projected onto the history of other civilizations. One early block of material dealt with the conquest of Mexico by Cortes. To be sure, we were taught about pre-Columbian cultures, but whereas I remember a good deal about the Spanish side of this culture clash, literally all I remember about the Aztec side was their belief that a hummingbird on the left was an omen of good luck—or was it bad luck? Anyway, "hummingbird-on-the-left" became a stock laugh line for Amherst students.

A later instruction block compared the Mexican, Chinese, and Young Turk revolutions of the early 20th century, a truly interesting exercise. But the theme uniting them was "paths to modernization;' so it was not the essence of historic Mexican, Chinese, or Islamic culture that was at issue, but rather the struggles of those civilizations to come to grips with their backwardness and adopt Western ways. Indeed, I do not think I ever studied other cultures on their own terms—independent of Western intrusions—until my graduate years at Chicago, when I read the books of William H. McNeill, beginning with The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community. To be sure, Amherst and Chicago had many professors who specialized in other cultures and offered courses on them. But those of us in mainstream fields such as European and American history were not exposed to true multicultural education in the survey courses of high school and college.

McNeill was a tireless advocate for the study of world history and other cultures long before it become fashionable. But alas, no sooner did his campaign for world history, as opposed to Western Civ surveys, begin to gain ground than the whole movement was captured by the ideological multiculturalists, Afro-centrists, ethnic lobbies, and victim groups who substituted curricula that depicted Western Civ as a story of progress for curricula that damned Western Civ as a story of plunder, rapine, imperialism, exploitation, and slavery. In other words, the focus was still on the West, with other cultures appearing mostly as virginal victims.

Another expression of the multicultural trend is less subjective, but anodyne, and that is the "non-Western" requirement that so many college majors, including the International Relations program I direct, impose on their students. We feel we must make a bow toward multiculturalism, so we just insist that students take one or two courses that are non-Western in focus. The implicit purpose would seem to be to sensitize students to other cultural traditions and alert them to the astonishing fact that there is a whole world out there beyond Great Neck, Long Island, and Newport Beach, California. (I recently asked an I.R. major if he had had any experience traveling abroad. He proudly said yes, he had been to Cancun.) But what good does one course on sub-Saharan Africa or Ming China really achieve? It is not enough to make one really conversant in African or Chinese history, religion, and society, and it certainly tells one nothing about the variety of human cultures. Ultimately, instead of acquiring new categories to use in thinking about human nature and history, the student merely receives a smattering of knowledge that is hors de categorie: outside Western norms, and therefore just strange. Rather, it is like the high school athletic program that—in between major sports—schedules two days of lacrosse and handball just to let students know that those games exist.

Should we teach our students about other cultures? Absolutely! But do we succeed? I think most of us do not. First, because few of us are qualified to teach about Islam, or India, or traditional China or Japan. We may do better than that drill sergeant, but do we risk just conveying new stereotypes to students, rather than getting beyond stereotypes? And how do we integrate non-Western material into existing courses? The recent debate over the National History Standards reveals the difficulty in doing this, even leaving aside all political controversy. The easiest way is to retain the old Western Civ chronology, but to insert flashback sections on other cultures at the moment Europeans first come into contact with them. Needless to say, that is still Eurocentric. Another way is to grant Western Civ merely an equal status, and to study each culture in turn: a month on China, a month on India, a month on Europe, and so forth. But that artificially disconnects civilizations from each other, ignoring perhaps the most powerful theme in McNeill's works, which is the cross-cultural borrowing, challenge, and response mechanism that is so often the engine of historical change.

What is more, the teacher who goes into some depth about other cultures on their own terms, clearly a good thing on the face of it, runs the risk of offending someone's self-esteem and landing in the principal's or dean's office on charges of insensitivity or even racism! But if we are going to teach about other cultures on their own terms, and not just as targets for Western imperialism, then we must stress the bad and ugly as well as the good: the oppression, slavery, and reciprocal racism and brutality among Asian and African peoples themselves. We must teach about the binding of girls' feet in China, the forced suicide of widows in India, the Islamic texts that place women somewhere above goats but below cattle, the genital mutilation of women in Africa. Now, we can try to deflect criticism by drumming into children's heads that they must not make value judgments, especially ones based, after all, on Western traditions: the Bible and the Enlightenment. But to try to be value-free about, for instance, Aztec human sacrifice, slavery in the Islamic world, or the barbaric tortures practiced by the Comanches and Apaches, is to do exactly what we all say must not be done with regard to the darker chapters of Western history. Thus, even as we try to explain to students why the Spanish Inquisition was set up, or how the Nazis could come to power in Germany, we quickly add that whereas we must try to understand the past on its own terms, to understand is not to forgive: zu verstehen ist nicbt zu vergeben. So we cannot just give all other cultures a "pass" when it comes to their inhumane practices. But to condemn the "bad" in other cultures is by definition to impose a Western standard of good and bad.

Above all, to treat other cultures in isolation, to censor aspects of their history that might damage some student's self-esteem, or to refrain from making any moral judgments at all, is to cheat students of the one thing they need to learn most, and which only multicultural history can teach them: And that is the many ways in which all human beings, all cultures and civilizations, are alike. For no real toleration among peoples can exist unless they are given a reason to imagine themselves and others as "we," and not just as "we" and "they." In what ways are all people alike? They are all Homo sapiens, they are all conceived and born the same way, and they all face the certainty of death. They all live on the same planet and need food and shelter. They all wonder about the meaning of life, love, tragedy, and what if anything happens after they die. They have different answers to the eternal questions, and they invent different political and social forms to order their brief and toilsome time on this earth. But at bottom they are all alike. Thus, Chinese are not angels, but neither are they aliens.

I have no solution to the curricular issues, except to insist that all high school students take at least three full years of history—one being world history. Alas, in many states the trend is to cut back, not expand, history requirements. But I did hit upon a technique this semester for handling the "self-esteem" issue, which seemed to work. (At least, I have not as yet been summoned to the office of the Penn ombudsperson.) In my last lecture in the modern history survey, I asked students to recall a question that I had posed in the first lecture: not why people and societies so often do bad things, but rather why on occasion they do good things, why on occasion people have taken risks and made sacrifices in order to improve the lot of others. Evil is banal and universal. What is shocking and in need of explanation in history is the good.

Thus, I granted that European and American civilization has been imperialistic and exploitative. But so has every other civilization in history. What is unique about the West is that it invented anti-imperialism. I granted that the West practiced slavery. But so has every other civilization in history. What is unique about the West is that it gave rise to an anti-slavery movement. I granted that the West has waged war on a ferocious scale. But so has every other civilization at one time or another. What is unique about the West is that it tried over and over to devise international systems that might prevent war. I granted that women were in a subordinate status throughout Western history. But so were they in every other civilization. What is unique about the West is that it spawned a movement for female equality And I granted that the West has known tyranny and indeed totalitarianism of the most brutal sort. But forms of tyranny and even genocide have appeared in all other civilizations. What is unique about the West is that it alone has declared certain human rights to be universal and tried to devise governments that expand, not crush, liberty.

What is needed to ensure that multicultural education can be a glue and not a solvent of American community is dedicated, knowledgeable, and above all honest teaching. All civilizations are worthy of celebration by dint of their being civilizations, that is, extraordinary examples of collective human invention. But all have also been horribly flawed by dint of their being human creations. If Western civilization appears to have done more nasty things in recent centuries, it is not because it is worse than others, but only because it has lately been the most powerful. What is more, the three ways in which people from all the world, while cherishing their diversity, can nevertheless identify themselves as part of a single human community are themselves gifts of Western civilization. Those unifying forces are science and technology, the Enlightenment doctrine of natural law and natural rights, and the astounding Judeo-Christian theology to the effect that all human beings are children of one and the same loving God.

Unfortunately, the radical multiculturalists denounce science and technology as an evil, masculine "discourse" that oppresses the weak, pollutes the environment, and privileges "linear thinking." They attack the "Enlightenment Project" as an ideological cover for Western cultural imperialism. And they hate the Bible for promoting patriarchy and heterosexism. In so doing, they are attempting to destroy the very principles under which toleration of diverse cultures has in fact the best chance of flowering! In so doing, the multiculturalists help to perpetuate the tragedy that Alexander Solzhenitsyn called "A World Split Apart." Asked to deliver the Harvard commencement address in 1978, Solzhenitsyn, a survivor of the Soviet gulag, shocked his audience by proclaiming that the line that divides the world does not run between communism and capitalism, or along the boundaries between nations, races, social classes, or genders. The line that splits the world apart runs straight through the middle of each human heart.

Walter A. McDougall, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, is Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations and History at the University of Pennsylvania, co-director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute's (FPRI) History Academy, and the editor of Orbis: A Journal of World Affairs.  

This article was originally published in the Fall 1999 issue of Orbis and is based on Professor McDougall's address to the FPRI History Institute for secondary school and junior college teachers on the theme, "Multiculturalism in World History "held in Bryn Mawr, Pa., on May 1–2, 1999. For information about future History Institutes for teachers, visit or e-mail