By SOPHIA CHAWALA
Spring is nascent in the Ithaca air. The sun is finally peeping out of its hiding place; blue pockets of sky are beginning to poke holes in the gray winter clouds; stubborn snow is melting away from the grass, the trees, and the cars.
We all know this springtime feeling, but it is never complete without the cherry on top: Course Registration.
Ah yes. Registration. ’Tis the hectically wonderful time of the year when the Registrar throws open their gates like Wal-Mart opening for a Black Friday shopping spree. The time has come for us to scour the repository from which we choose the classes that will ultimately usher us into the completion of our academic careers. To me, registration is as consequential and anxiety-inducing as paying the bills. In the middle of every semester, I religiously run up the stairs to the fourth floor of the Muller Center to see my advisor, in hopes of knocking out pre-registration and registration in one ten-minute shot. The week before spring break, I performed this ritual. I arrived at my advisor’s office heaving for air and asked him how I was doing in terms of completing my major. As he scrutinized my records on the computer screen, he gave me the report.
“Well, Ms. Chawala, it looks like you’ve got classes for your major rolling well,” he said with squinting eyes.
A flood of relief filled me until my advisor spoke again.
“But…” he said with a pause, “your general education seems a tad behind. I think it’s time I show you the gen-ed sheet.”
My advisor swiveled his chair around to open the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet. He took out a horizontally-oriented form and slammed it down on the table. He proceeded to entertain me with a rehearsed protocol speech.
According to the speech, the Ithaca College General Education Program requires all students to complete a set of gen-eds from a variety of fields. Gen-eds are supposed to provide students with the resources necessary to embark on what the College believes will be a “lifetime of inquiry, discovery, and responsible citizenship.” To achieve this, the program aims to foster literacy in the liberal arts, science, mathematics, history, and other fields, so that students can achieve an understanding of concepts, perspectives, and methodologies at a cross-curriculum level. In this way, the program brings with it an ultimate end goal: effective communication and appreciation of diverse cultures and perspectives.
The gen-ed sheet looked as if the Martha Stewart of education had concocted a cheap and simple recipe for a successfully diverse mindset: one and a half cups of Self and Society, a quarter cup each of Visual Expression, Science, and Mathematics and Formal Reasoning, and finally, a pinch of Language and History for garnish. While I was still gazing at the gen-ed sheet, my advisor added that if I did not complete these gen-eds in time for graduation, not only would I become a super senior, but I would prolong the process of becoming officially licensed as a “diverse-minded student” by the College.
This “one-stop shop” attitude reflects a typical American approach to commoditization, often with the goal of simplifying things, and it is not unique to Ithaca College. While it has been visible in our consumer behavior for some time, with industrial giants and gargantuan warehouses selling myriad products to the masses in one confined space, this idea has become the norm in mainstream education in recent years. As students, we have fallen into this trap, wherein we are told to choose arbitrarily from a set of pre-selected courses in order to fulfill certain standards and goals. But these are intentionally bland enough to apply to every individual and are set by a group of individuals who are paid to decide what counts as solid preparation for the future and a valuable contribution to society.
According to the mission statement of the Ithaca College General Education Program, we are pushed to be diverse in our thinking, to explore ourselves as individuals, and to formulate our beliefs. However, we are, in effect, crudely shepherded en masse into becoming “diverse” by means of conformity while we unconsciously adhere to the instructions of our herdsmen. We are taught that our institution’s formula is an “important tool” needed to “survive” in our study abroad endeavors, future careers, and interactions within our society; but the path that the administration leads us down is treated as uniformly applicable to each individual learner.
We have never been encouraged to make our own ends meet, to seek out our own experiences, and to forge personal connections with the things we learn.
Ithaca College is not the only institution poisoned by this mindset. Others follow their own formulae to achieve some universally pertinent outcome. Take the Air Force Academy, for example. In January 2007, the Air Force launched a new mandatory education program for Service members as part of a larger effort to expand the Academy’s “dynamic global mission.” Known as the Air Force Culture and Language Center (AFCLC), here to-be militant combaters, jet fliers, and drone droppers participate in various programs intended to prepare them for the demands of the Service. According to the AFCLC’s mission statement, the primary goal is to “provide the Air Force with a ‘one-stop shop’ for language, region and cultural force development.” Although the Culture and Language Center provides a vast quantity of motives for and explanations as to why and how they execute these particular programs for Total Force Airmen, the ultimate goal appears to be to furnish the Service with the expertise required for cross-cultural competence.
Looking at the situation from the perspective of college and military students, what exactly is the problem here? While “cross-cultural competence” and “responsible citizenship” seem like reasonable goals, there are problems with the assumptions of programs like Ithaca College’s General Education Program and the AFCLC, and the effects they have on students and Service members. Presented as a great opportunity for students, both of these institutions attempt to establish some abstract standard of cultural competence and, through rigid requirements, posit it as a means of gaining monetary and authoritative success. Moreover, these standards can only be reached after completing programs that are composed of carefully-constructed activities that promote the use of quantitative measurements in cultural analysis. However, these activities vary both in their validity and in their real-life applicability.
For instance, one of the AFCLC’s class activities calls for students to witness, interpret, and evaluate a scenario in which an American citizen interacts with a foreigner in everyday settings. If an American citizen interacting with a Japanese foreigner witnesses the Japanese person having shaky knees, stumbling over words, and displaying hesitancy, the American is taught to make an assumption, directly based on this isolated encounter, about Japanese culture as a whole by using his handy-dandy cultural theorem toolkit. The shaky knees and stumbling words evidence that the Japanese inherently possess high levels of uncertainty. The hesitant behavior means that te culture shares a high degree of detachment. Altogether: Japan is concluded to have a high-context culture, one that embraces formal, indirect communication and hence produces formal, indirect people. But isn’t it possible that the Japanese person was just having a bad day?
On top of the ingrained compulsion for measurement, the AFCLC also boasts the concept of “leadership” in its curriculum. The word is thrown around emptily in its mission statement, vision, origin, course instructions, and interpretations. It tries to cover up this abstraction with synonyms such as “management,” “organization,” and “proficiency,” words that imply a need to almost forcibly engage in modification of cultural zones that are different from our own. These goals may contain imperialistic undertones, but the military justifies them by proclaiming our need for “national security” and to carry out operations in key countries in the Middle East, where “the contrast between rich and poor nation states is increasingly sharp; and the ability of terrorist organizations to directly threaten United States interests is increasing daily.” This further mechanizes the call for “cross-cultural” examination, giving it a business spin by applying theories and models that the institution invented to produce a particular, and arguably predetermined, outcome. But the problem with this system is that it does not regard the naturally-moving frequencies in the world, nor accounts for the diversity of human experience.
Looking at the situation in American colleges and in the Armed Forces, we can see that intercultural communication is nothing more than a tool employed to service this business- and military- (read: money- and power-) crazed world. When we hear the term “intercultural communication,” we most likely imagine a discourse of symbols between two distinct peoples, an exchange and merging of the verbal and non-verbal from differing backgrounds, a meeting to express and consummate emotions and thought we discover to be universal. Of course, placing a finger on one definition seems impossible in a pursuit so crucial for the improvement of our human condition.
What intercultural communication can be, in my perspective, is something that transcends words, symbols, and even culture. It is you embarking on a great modest struggle. This struggle, specifically, is to actively embody something separate from you. This is done by letting yourself become vulnerable to differing human conditions that smack you in their rawest forms to create a kaleidoscope of perspectives—perspectives with symmetries and colors you must bear with care in your life. Simply put, it is a performance that requires you to physically, verbally, and emotionally embody one that may become your other “you;” a process executed with empathy, compassion, and honesty. By triangulating these three things, you become humane. That is exactly what education needs more of in this country: it needs more humanity.
This article was originally printed in kitsch, Vol. 11 Issue 2, “Hype”