Balance needed in "Cultural Education"By Eric Seymour
I'm baaack! For any of you out there who regularly read this column, you will remember that I ended last semester not knowing whether I would continue this column or not. Well, by a number of different circumstances, I will continue this until the end of the Spring '99 semester at least.
Christmas break and the first week or so of classes is a great time to gain some perspective during your college years. I took some time during my "vacation" to think about my studies, my job prospects, what kind of things I want to do after graduation (aside from my job) to keep busy, and other topics. One topic, though, that became especially clear to me upon returning to campus was how and what the University--through classes and various programs--tries to teach us about "culture."
No one can make it through four years at this University without encountering the "PC (political correctness) Police." The most prevalent division of this force is the CommUNITY Educators (CUEs) found in the residence halls. According to a recent email advertising the CUE selection process for next year, this position is rewarded with free room, meal plan, and a $750 stipend. In other words, these students have approximately 2/3 of the total cost (for Indiana residents) of attending IU covered for them.
In return, the CUEs put on a "program" about once every month per dorm. The topics they cover are as broad as any definition of the word diversity, but a favorite topic is teaching students about "other cultures," which usually includes religious beliefs.
Another major source of "cultural education" is the campus newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student. For better or worse, nearly every issue contains one or more stories more like documentaries than news. For example, it is not news that one religious group on campus is celebrating one of its annual holidays. But, with campus news being the stated priority of the IDS, and with more budding journalists than breaking news to cover, these pieces seem to be here to stay.
Combining these courses with the kinds of classes offered (especially to fulfill general requirements), what picture do we get in "cultural education" at Indiana University? Often, it is one that strongly emphasizes the minority cultures and religions, and often nearly ignores the mainline traditions of the Western world and America in particular.
For example, at least three articles have appeared in the IDS in the last two months about the Muslim celebration of Ramadan, but did you see any similar articles about the celebration of Christmas? CUE programs often abound with components of "other religions" (whether stated overtly or not), yet members of Christian groups on campus feel especially privileged when they are invited to participate.
Most recently, members of one Christian fellowship group began to inquire about bringing the band Jars of Clay to IU for a concert, and were met with some hesitation about the University hosting a "Christian" concert. This is the same University that has had the Dalai Lama and other religious persons speak without much question.
Why this discrepancy? If you ask those involved, they might say something about needing people to understand the minority cultures and religions. But is it really a service to the community to do this to the exclusion of the majority? After all, there is not only a need for Christian Americans to understand minority cultures and religions, but an equal need for International students to learn about the predominant culture of the community they have come into.
It is also wrong to assume that all students in the "majority" already are experts on the religious/cultural background they are supposedly a part of. Not many students can name more of the ten commandments or the twelve disciples than the pillars of Islam or the "noble truths" of Buddhism.
If anyone is truly seeking an understanding community, there must be balance in how different traditions are presented. Those who would present "cultural education" must not assume a need to "help" one side by focusing on it more strongly. When students can see that the CUEs, the articles in the IDS, material in classes, and other sources are actually presenting and not advocating, there will be a much greater chance of them actually listening.