Social Education 57(3), 1993, pp. 108
1993 National Council for the Social Studies
Dear Alumni and Friends,
Very soon the eyes of the world will focus on one of the most significant milestones in history, the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus....
I am pleased to announce that the University Alumni Association has chosen to mark this particularly American anniversary with one of its most beautiful products ever-the Official University World Globe.
This specially issued globe was offered to me (and other alumni) for only $295, a price one might think exorbitant until reading later in the brochure that
set within the horizontal band encircling the globe is a gleaming 24 karat gold-finished medallion re-creating in precise, three-dimensional detail the Official University seal...[and]...a second medallion commemorating the Quincentenary...[consisting of]...original artwork...[featuring]...the flagship Santa Maria approaching the New World in 1492 and an inscription of the historic anniversary.1
That same day I also received a fund-raising appeal from the Native American Rights Fund that included a detachable summary page of "Indian Gifts to the White Man" and "White Man's 'Gifts' to Indians," organized neatly in two columns. The page was prefaced with the following statement:
Far from being the "savages" Christopher Columbus described in his log, native peoples of the Americas were advanced in many ways-and far more civilized than their "discoverers."
The list of Indian gifts to whites included foods, medicines, forms of government, material wealth, and knowledge of the environment. The list of the white man's "gifts" to the Indians was a summary of "cruelty, betrayals and relentless attempts to take their lands and destroy their cultures." Organized chronologically, it begins with a reference to Columbus:
1492-Columbus "discovers" America and immediately enslaves native peoples. On the island of Haiti, all Indians over 14 years of age were required to bring in a certain quota of gold every three months-and those hapless ones who failed had their hands cut off.2
These strikingly different invocations of Columbus represent in a general way the larger issue of competing perspectives and perceptions of Columbus and, more importantly, of the ways in which we should mark the anniversary of his arrival in the West. In an article in the New York Times, a reporter took stock of the breadth of response to Columbus Day 1992:
The National Council of Churches has voted to condemn Columbus' arrival as an "invasion" and plan[s] to hold counter-demonstrations to the Catholic Church's plans for a celebration of 500 years of Christianity....
Christopher Columbus "symbolizes everything that is against basic American values," said Jack Weatherford, a professor of anthropology at Macalester College....
Kirkpatrick Sales's The Conquest of Paradise..."stresses the explorer's legacy of environmental destructiveness"....
Lynne Cheney, the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, would not fund a documentary, 1492: Clash of Visions, because it "was not balanced, and...[dwelt] on Spanish human rights violations while whitewashing the less attractive features of Aztec civilizations."...
French actor Gérard Depardieu will star in a movie on Columbus directed by Ridley Scott, well known for his feature film, Alien....
Timothy Dalton, the latest film James Bond, will also star in a Mario Puzo feature film about Columbus to be directed by the person best known for his work on Rambo II. (Stanley 1991, 4)
Conflicting Approaches and Multiculturalism
As educators, we could not simply be amused by this because we had to make decisions about our classrooms. Would we allow Columbus Day 1992 to pass quietly? If not, how did we mark the day, given the range of conflicting approaches that were so effectively offered to U.S. citizens? Furthermore, as we formulated our plans our thinking could not help but focus on the continuing debate in our elementary and secondary schools, in our school board meetings, on our campuses, in the media, and in our churches and synagogues on multiculturalism-a term so broad as to defy simple and concise definition.
Some senses of multiculturalism fueled, and were fueled by, continuing debate about the anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the Americas. How do we (as a society, as local communities, as educators in our classrooms) evaluate the competing and often contradictory accounts of the "encounter"? How do we understand, much less resolve, the divergent perspectives of various groups within U.S. society on the significance of events that occurred five hundred years ago? As educators, we ask: Given the potential turmoil created by the passion with which various groups approached the Quincentenary, what could we do in our classrooms-how do we conduct our classrooms-as we explored the "facts" of this event and assessed their meaning for us and our students today?
In one way, these issues were not as complicated as some other multicultural debates. In this case, for example, there is little argument about the "facts." State-of-the-art findings from anthropological, historical, and biological research document the various cultural, political, and ecological factors that shaped the events of 1492 and were affected by their aftermath. The spread of disease, the introduction of new plants and animals, transformations of beliefs, the incorporation of indigenous North American and South American polities as the periphery of an expanding European-based economic system, and a host of other facts have secured a place in the public consciousness that could not have been imagined a century ago; these facts could not be known except through a multicultural perspective. That is, they emerged only as a result of deliberate investigation of the encounter from multiple perspectives-from the points of view of the various parties involved. Because scholars have considered seriously the differences in values, beliefs, practices, and perceptions of various communities of Europeans and Native Americans, our awareness of what transpired five hundred years ago is enriched. Thus, scholars have constructed what might be termed a multicultural view of the encounter.
Diversity versus Accuracy?
To the extent that what we teach and what our students learn is consistent with this complex, multicultural view, we need not fear that our classes will "sacrifice accuracy for diversity," as Albert Shanker has recently warned us. Shanker has alerted us to the danger of multicultural curricula that equate "'noncanonical knowledge and techniques'" and "'nondominant knowledge sources'" with "ideas and theories that no reputable scholar accepts" (Shanker 1991, 9). But the consideration of Columbus from a multicultural perspective, one that incorporated the perspectives and positions of several cultural groups, could only result in an accurate picture of events. Here, then, accurate knowledge was not threatened by multiculturalism but, rather, was made possible only as a result of a multicultural view.
Although such facts may be clear, their interpretation was problematic. What should the facts mean to us today? Our task remains to help students not only to understand events of the distant past and their ecological, cultural, and political implications but also to understand continuing events in the present, including the vigor with which various groups competed for the authority to frame our understanding of Columbus and the encounter.
Susan Shown Harjo (1991, 32), head of the 1992 Alliance (an Indian organization), for example, suggested that the Quincentenary was not worthy of celebration:
Columbus Day, never on Native America's list of favorite holidays, became somewhat tolerable as its significance diminished to little more than a good shopping day. But this next long year of Columbus hoopla will be tough to take amid the spending sprees and horn blowing to tout a five-century feeding frenzy that has left Native people and this red quarter of Mother Earth in a state of emergency. For Native people, this half millennium of land grabs and one-cent treaty sales has been no bargain....The pressure is on for Native people to be window dressing for Quincentennial events, to celebrate the evangelization of the Americas and to denounce the "Columbus-bashers"....[A]t the same time, neither should anyone be surprised by Native people who mark the occasion by splashing blood-red paint on a Columbus statue here or there.
In contrast, Raymond Sokolov (1991, 92), author of a book on the encounter's influence on what we eat, celebrated at least the gastronomical achievements of a postencounter world:
I will stick with post-Columbian dishes-tacos filled with beef, baked potatoes stuffed with sour cream, Sichuan chicken with chilies and peanuts, strawberry souffeacute;-foods no one would be eating today if the New and Old World hadn't collided and shared their edible riches.
At the same time, he acknowledged a difficult and disturbing past:
Shouldn't I-for that matter, shouldn't you and billions of others who eat like this and love it-be ashamed to survive on a diet created at a huge cost in human lives? After all, didn't the rich civilizations of the Aztecs and Incas have to be destroyed so that Belgians could eat french fries and Peruvians could substitute beef for llama heart in the famous appetizer anticuchos?
In the end, he searched for a way for us to acknowledge the past, to understand the present, and to situate ourselves in our world:
So we should stop kicking [Columbus] around. He is only a convenient scapegoat for our own self-hate and our own very modern doubts about the value of our culture.
The Challenges of Columbus Day
Columbus Day, then, entered contemporary U.S. society's struggle with the definition, inclusiveness, and content of its culture. We are a diverse lot, with cultural sensitivities and differences through which we increasingly distinguish ourselves from other groups, and through which we often evaluate the actions and values of groups different than our own. All this makes an especially difficult road for educators to travel. In exposing students to materials, information, and, most importantly, several useful perspectives by which to make sense of the events surrounding Columbus's arrival, we also exposed them to the power and disruption of contemporary cultural differences-to a set of struggles for recognition, for authenticity, for political and economic rights, for setting the record straight, for compensating persons for injustices of the past-a world of cultural differences that are not simply interesting to look at on a Sunday visit to a museum or a local folk fair but that impinge on our daily lives, that disturb, and that may seem to threaten our well-being. Columbus Day was but the most recent challenge for us to help students equip themselves to understand the nature of cultural differences, to live in a world and country characterized by cultural differences, to understand their place in such a world. Even with the commemoration behind us, we remain challenged to help students-and ourselves-understand how groups separated by cultural differences can be integrated into a larger, coherent society.
Anthropology offers substantive findings about the indigenous cultures of North America and South America. It also provides a perspective by which to view those findings and a perspective by which to help make sense of the world in which we live, including the cacophony of competing views, values, and perceptions. What anthropology offers is cultural relativism, a concept that has fallen out of favor in recent years.
The classic definition of cultural relativism is that perspective by which any aspect of behavior or custom is understood in the context of the culture of which it is part. Its opposite is, of course, ethnocentrism, by which one would use the values and standards of one's own culture to evaluate (erroneously) the meaning of behaviors or customs of another culture. Ethnocentrism distorts the meaning and function of a particular custom by detaching it artificially from its immediate cultural context. Cultural relativism allows us to see how particular customs, values, and beliefs fit together, providing a sense of the world as a particular community understands it.
Ethnocentrism is not a posture that one always consciously assumes; many argue that it is the almost natural viewpoint that humans hold. Perhaps, in the language of computers, it is our default setting-the way by which our own culture prepares us to view other cultures:
The primary mechanism that directs the evaluation of culture is ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the point of view that one's own way of life is to be preferred to all others. Flowing logically from the process of early enculturation, it characterizes the way most individuals feel about their own culture, whether or not they verbalize their feeling. (Herskovits 1973, 21)
Anthropology brought the world cultural relativism as a corrective to ethnocentrism. It has become a concept powerful in its simplicity: Understand the behavior of other groups in their own terms and from their own perspective.
Critics of Cultural Relativism
All along, there have been critics of this concept. The concern most widely known outside universities, and the one that has often brought cultural relativism into disfavor in the current debates on multiculturalism, is about values. Cultural relativism seems to trap us into reasoning that threatens our sense of right and wrong. When we consider behavior only in the context of the culture of which it is part, we discover time and again that there is almost always a clear sense, a rationale, for the behavior under scrutiny-that behavior makes sense in a culturally defined way. What might, from our own ethnocentric point of view, appear to be appalling, evil, or stupid will, from the context of the culture of which it is part, make sense and may even meet the local definition of goodness and virtue. Some critics question the value of an intellectual procedure that leads only to the notion that behavior makes sense to those who engage in it. More alarming is the implication that no absolute definitions or standards exist or can exist for virtue and evil; in this sense, cultural relativism leads to a moral bankruptcy, even a nihilism, that helps not one bit in facing a world of competing moralities in which we are forced to make moral decisions every day. Here, cultural relativism is not simply a benign or useless perspective, but one that precludes any deliberative, systematic, and critical evaluation of values.
Worse still, in assessing the value of other people's customs in terms of their own cultures, we simultaneously relativize our own customs and beliefs. Our ways of behaving, our values, and our notions of good and evil become just another way that a culture (this time our own) has arranged things. In this view, everything is quite arbitrary. Anthropologists' gift to the world, cultural relativism, leads to a recognition of the arbitrariness of all cultures and values, thus weakening them. Anthropologists themselves have noted this difficulty:
The fear that our emphasis on difference, diversity, oddity, discontinuity, incommensurability, uniqueness, and so on...might end leaving us with little more to say than that elsewhere things are otherwise and culture is as culture does has grown more and more intense. (Geertz 1984, 267)
I observe anthropologists trying to be omni-tolerant and/or neutral towards almost anything and I say they are abrogating part of their responsible humanity, which just does involve making moral judgments-however uncomfortable that may make them feel. (Jarvie 1984, 74)
These fears are confirmed outside anthropology; social critics have not spared cultural relativism or its anthropological proponents from blame for the increasing social divisiveness and moral decay they see in our society. In his recent critique of higher education in the United States, for example, Allan Bloom (1987, 33-39) singles out anthropologists, and relativism, for special attention:
Sexual adventurers like Margaret Mead and others who found America too narrow told us that not only must we know other cultures and learn to respect them, but we could also profit from them. We could follow their lead and loosen up, liberating us from the opinion that our taboos are anything other than social constraints. We could go to the bazaar of cultures and find reinforcement for inclinations that are repressed by puritanical guilt feelings....
Cultural relativism succeeds in destroying the West's universal or intellectually imperialistic claims, leaving it to be just another culture.
Columbus Day and ongoing controversies about multiculturalism in our schools add fuel to these fires. For some time, most anthropologists deployed the concept of cultural relativism in the study of cultures other than our own. The debate on multiculturalism and Columbus, however, brings cultural relativism to intra-societal questions. Now we must ask how our own society will be able to hang together given the myriad cultural differences that characterize the population. We are forced to confront the search for common moral standards and values among groups whose cultural differences seem at times greater than their cultural commonalities. We have lost the luxury of approaching, as relativists, groups of people far removed from us by oceans and time; we now are challenged to approach, as relativists, people with whom we share our society-our cities, our schools, and other public institutions-but with whom we may differ in appearance, language, deportment, tastes, and values.
There is a historical irony about this most recent dilemma of cultural relativism. In its formulation in the early twentieth century, cultural relativism was shaped by political events in U.S. society. To a great extent, cultural relativism was an intellectual response to "bad" science deployed to justify restrictive immigration. The anthropologist Franz Boas and his students promoted relativism as a "relativist and anti-racist 'social scientific orientation to human differences'" (Handler 1990, 253). These early anthropologists, actively engaged in establishing anthropology as an academic discipline, directed much of their energies to (if not receiving their inspiration from) events outside their universities:
Boasians repeatedly spoke out against racism and national chauvinism, and in favor of pluralism and intercultural tolerance-in the early 1920s when American xenophobia reached hysteric proportions, during the economic depression of the 1930s, and during World War II. Not content merely to wage war on racist social science in various professional arenas, Boasian anthropologists addressed a broader audience in such periodicals as The New Republic and The Nation and in books aimed simultaneously at scholars, students, and the educated public. They wrote about race, culture, nationhood, language, education, and world civilization....In sum, Boasian anthropologists took seriously the duty of the scholar and scientist to make specialized knowledge accessible to the citizens of a modern society. (Handler 1990)
Now, decades later, we see relativism skewered for contributing to divisiveness within our own society, even though it was originally developed and promoted as a tool toward the formation of a U.S. society that would integrate diverse cultural groups on the basis of mutual respect and understanding.
The Original Concept of Cultural Relativism
The historical social mission pursued by the early proponents of cultural relativism suggests that it might be useful for us to return to the original concept. What we discover is that as cultural relativism gained acceptability outside anthropology and outside the academy, certain of its features became diluted and misunderstood. I would suggest that by sharpening our understanding and appreciation of cultural relativism, we can recognize its continuing promise for helping us cope effectively with the challenges of a culturally diverse U.S. society, a multicultural educational curriculum, and even a multicultural response to the anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the Americas.
Two features of cultural relativism should be underscored in the context of today's debates.
First, although cultural relativism forces us to search for a logic of behaviors, values, or perceptions according to the cultural system of which they are a part, this embedding of custom within its own cultural context should not be interpreted as leading to the view that cultural differences are arbitrary, that "culture is as culture does." Many critics have failed to understand that the relativism of values and behavior is not a conclusion or finding of anthropological research; rather, it poses the question that anthropologists investigate: why do cultures make sense? The weight of anthropological scholarship seeks to show how customs and values make sense in particular ways for particular communities. Some anthropologists discover that sense by relating particular customs within a culture to each other to show their interrelationships, each custom contributing to a larger, coherent fabric of life. Other anthropologists attempt to show that particular customs are expressions of common structural properties of the human mind-all human minds-unified by a universal human rationality regardless of differences in the details of customs that particular minds have created. Still other anthropologists show how particular customs make sense in terms of the external characteristics of a community-its environmental, ecological, or material conditions.
In all these cases, cultural relativism leads us to see that customs are not arbitrary. Through such thinking, we should be led to explore anew our own customs, which we often take for granted: how does a particular value of ours, or one of our customary practices, make sense in terms of its contribution to the larger organization of our lives, to the position we occupy in society, or to external ecological or material circumstances of our community? Making our own values relative-viewing them in the larger comparative context of other groups' values-has as much potential for strengthening our commitments to our own values as for weakening them. Cultural relativism leads us to recognize that values and beliefs are necessary parts of a larger, complex cultural whole on which the continued functioning of communities and societies, including our own, depends. Thus, cultural relativism and anthropology can lead to an affirmation of our own way of life.
Second, in encouraging us to see the world from another group's point of view-that is, to understand what behavior, values, and perceptions mean to those who engage in or espouse them-cultural relativism leads not to a moral nihilism, but to a respect for the need of every human community (including our own) to have a cultural system by which individual and societal values are defined. The anthropologist Melville Herskovits (1973, 9-10) wrote about cultural relativism during World War II, when U.S. society faced a physical danger to its continued existence:
Those who are seeking to understand the nature of human civilization and its effect on the men and women who live under it must separate the evaluation of different cultures from the problem of value in culture. Granting that our own body of tradition is but one of many such bodies...it must not be forgotten that our society has developed values whose importance for us must be recognized and sustained if we are not to be tested in the ideological struggle that goes on about us, whether or not physical conflict accompanies it.
Cultural relativism, and the anthropological search for the sense that behavior makes, helps us recognize the necessity for all peoples, including groups within our society, to have some particular culture, some particular values, beliefs, and customs. This recognition provides a basis for understanding that the cultural diversity we are part of in the contemporary United States is neither ephemeral nor arbitrary. Such diversity is inevitable, given both our historical knowledge of the demography of our citizenry and our anthropological understanding of the way in which human groups function. Cultural relativism, then, provides us with a basis for regarding that diversity with humility and respect, both intellectually and politically. Such respect is requisite in any efforts to discover commonalities or complementarities by which we can attempt to shape the integrated society for which we all strive.
The cultural diversity of the U.S. population is not arguable. It is real. Our question is how to prepare students to live in a society that will continue to be characterized by cultural differences. We simply cannot begin to address this question without cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is necessary to help understand the nature of these differences, to recognize that they are real, that they are likely to persist, and that they are functional. We must not use cultural relativism as a way to rationalize differences or abandon values, but to understand differences, strengthen values, and help students search for accommodations between their values, practices, and beliefs and those of other groups in our society. In these terms, we must use cultural relativism to help students learn to cross cultural boundaries. As the distinguished anthropologist of education, John Ogbu (1990, 428-429; emphasis added), has written:
Education in the context of cultural diversity is a process in which teachers and schools bear the responsibility of acquiring knowledge of the cultures and languages of minority and other mainstream students and using such knowledge to educate the students from these groups....[T]he other part, which complements the responsibility of teachers and the schools, is the willingness and efforts of students from different cultural and language backgrounds to learn and use the language and culture of the schools. These students...must be willing to cross cultural boundaries and this does not require them to give up their own cultures and languages....A true cultural diversity that promotes the academic success of minority students and other marginal populations is one that permits them to cross cultural and language boundaries without feeling threatened.
I would simply add to this that cultural relativism will also help majority students to cross cultural boundaries, to step outside the assumptions of their (sub)culture in order to see, if only for a moment, a world, a nation, or a holiday from a point of view different than their own. Majority and minority students, mainstream and nonmainstream students, all need to develop the ability to see the world from more than one point of view, because that is the reality in which they live: there is more than one point of view in the world, in the United States, in the cities, and in the schools we share. It is simply not possible to navigate that reality without cultural relativism.
Elasticity and Flexibility of Our Humanity
Finally, cultural relativism underscores an essential feature of our being on which the struggle to maintain our society depends: the elasticity and flexibility of our humanity. We can understand another culture and experience a culturally alternative point of view without losing our own. In a world of competing viewpoints, and in classrooms where cultural diversity, improperly understood, can lead to divisiveness rather than understanding, we need to underscore the affirming nature of cultural relativism. As Robert Redfield wrote decades ago:
We look from our position, that of an anthropological investigator out, to, and inside of those other people, over there, doing things and thinking thoughts that we seek to understand...using the sentiments and ideas that we have within us as other human beings. We could not understand those others at all if we did not or could not feel some part of the sentiments and hold the ideas which we come to understand that they feel and hold. We do not observe "behavior" in the sense of events that may be described in physical terms, as motion and velocity....We observe the overt indications, from which, using imaginative sympathy, we infer the states of mind and feeling of those others that we study....So we "project ourselves" into the mind of that other by means of our own humanity. (Beattie 1984, 4; emphasis added)
Our own culturally defined humanity is thus affirmed through a culturally relativistic approach. Indeed, humanity is the source of the "imaginative sympathy" that holds the promise of our understanding groups with which we share U.S. society, our heritage (including Columbus), and our holidays.
Beattie, J. H. M. "Objectivity and Social Anthropology." In Objectivity and Cultural Divergence, edited by S. C. Brown. Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures Series: 17. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.Geertz, Clifford. "Anti Anti-Relativism." American Anthropologist 86 (January 1984): 263-278.Handler, Richard. "Boasian Anthropology and the Critique of American Culture." American Quarterly 42 (June 1990): 252-273.Harjo, Susan Shown. "I Won't Be Celebrating Columbus Day." Newsweek (Fall/ Winter 1991): 32.Herskovits, Melville J. Cultural Relativism: Perspectives in Cultural Pluralism. New York: Random House, 1973.Jarvie, I. C. Rationality and Relativism: In Search of a Philosophy and History of Anthropology. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.Ogbu, John U. "Understanding Diversity: Summary Comments." Education and Urban Society 22 (December 1990): 428-29.Redfield, Robert. "The Anthropological Study of Man." Anthropological Quarterly 32 (January 1959): 4.Shanker, Albert. "Making a Multicultural Curriculum." New York Times, 10 November 1991, 9.Sokolov, Raymond. "Stop Knocking Columbus." Newsweek (Fall/Winter 1991): 92.Stanley, Alessandra. "The Invasion of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria." New York Times, 2 June 1991, 4.Lawrence B. Breitborde is Professor of Anthropology at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin 53511-5595, and cochair of the Task Force on Anthropology and Teaching of the American Anthropological Association.
1 University of Rochester Alumni Association letter to "Alumni and Friends," September 1991.2 Native American Rights Fund, fund-raising brochure, September 1991.