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From Chalkface, A Moroccan Journal of English Language Teaching, Chalkface 5 – 1998. Reproduced with their permission.

Cultural Literacy

by Padraic Kennedy

One of the primary objectives of our journey around the Mediterranean Sea is to improve the cultural literacy of the American students who are following our "electronic field trip." To us, cultural literacy means a basic awareness and understanding of the fundamental elements of a culture. What do people within that culture share? What divides them? What are their values, their customs, their laws? What language do they speak? How are they governed? How do they worship, live, shop, eat, relax? But, cultural literacy is not only an understanding of a specific culture. It is also the ability to recognize and adapt to other cultures — to understand how someone is different, to have some notion of the reasons for their differences, and to be able to accommodate those differences.

Many students in the United States question why they should learn about other cultures. "What does Morocco have to do with our lives?" they ask. Given all they are expected to learn and to know, why add more? Part of the problem is American arrogance. As an unfortunate by-product of our good fortune many Americans believe that people from other cultures should learn about our society and customs but that we have very little reason to learn about theirs. "Besides," they ask, "shouldn't our first concern be literacy in our own culture?"

Students who have traveled abroad quickly recognize that value of competency in another culture. For tourists not marooned on a package bus trip, a basic understanding of another culture is crucial to enjoying travel. Visitors expecting to be able to use American dollars, to speak English to everyone, and to eat familiar food would not get far. But cultural literacy implies more than this. For example, even if a tourist can negotiate the price of a Grand Taxi, how can she hope to understand Morocco without understanding that Islam is the dominant religion of the country? Without a basic comprehension of Islamic beliefs, much of what happens around her will remain a mystery.

More importantly, we try to point out to students that without an understanding of other cultures, a great part of our own culture would remain a mystery as well. The more a person knows of other cultures, the better she appreciates her own, particularly someone who lives in a culture as varied as that of the United States. Indeed, to be culturally literate we must understand the connections between other lands and our own.

The culture of the U.S. is incredibly diverse and complex, and even those elements within it that seem most widely shared — language, law, a set of values — have been deeply affected by other civilizations. For example, much of our moral philosophy is based on the work of Arab thinkers; our political system evolved by way of the Greeks, Romans, and British; and American English includes a whole vocabulary contributed by African-Americans.

More obviously, our students have to understand one another. Although the most common religion in the United States is Christianity, millions of Americans are practicing Muslims. Millions more are recent immigrants, many from non-Western societies. Practically every American traces his or her ancestry to other countries. Other culture is an ever evolving amalgam of dozens of others, a melting pot of ethnic groups and cultural traditions. Cultural literacy involves an appreciation of them all.

Finally, we explain to students that the United States' "next door neighbors" are not just Mexico and Canada, but the entire world. Continuing revolutions in communications are shrinking the world: jet travel makes distances shorter; satellites bring distant events (and distant voices) immediately into our homes; and tools such as the internet, make correspondence nearly instantaneous while at the same time allowing easy access to an incredible amount of information. As the physical distances separating us decline, so too must the cultural differences.

Of course, this brings us back to our own journey around the Mediterranean Sea. We contend that improved communications makes cultural literacy more important to the students following us, but also that the internet makes such literacy far easier to accomplish, if not through the necessary superficial dispatches we write, then through the access to so much additional information through our web site.

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