Big Main Intro to BASICS

Over the years, since July of 2008, a few items have appeared under the category Basics. All of them seem to be worth reading in terms of what I think is basic to an understanding of what it is to teach foreign languages in the United States. While appropriate, they possess no unifying thread, and I hope to provide that in this first entry of what I hope will be an onslaught of basic matters to consider when discussing education and our society in which it goes on.

So, to begin.

What are the Basics? They are the foundation of our discussion. In other categories we might discuss how man has evolved or even if he has and how institutions have evolved and what is the best way to choose a used car, but in this category we will posit the Basics and by “we” I mean my readers who participate with me. So far it’s a hard-core of 2 or 3 commenters with an occasional welcome interloper. The Basics treat of human nature and relations, along with the institutions and events in which we act out that nature and those relations. We may argue over just how many Native Americans lived here pre-Columbus, but we will not discuss whether it was really Vikings who built the Mayan pyramids. The Basics is a category to lay down the fundamentals, not to argue over whether or not they are fundamental that’s for another category or even another blog.

Trust figures prominently in some of the earlier entries to the Basics category. This cement of human relations can be examined on two levels: anthropological and societal. The first recalls mankind’s earliest organizational attempts to function beyond the individual level, a level not found even among other primates. I have often cited Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Social Order as a good introduction to the major issues in how we developed complex societies and importantly for our discussion the effect of the multiplicity of institutions we grew to facilitate that development. Readers of this blog might want to suggest other books that offer food for thought concerning the anthropological or sociological details. I expect any discussion to be academic rather than spiritual or ideological other categories of my blog provide room for that.

For me, as an old anthropology major, the earliest picture of mankind I have is of a small band huddled together, everyone symbiotic with each other, entirely dependent, with utter trust. Outsiders could be integrated or at least dealt with, but it was a tricky thing. As man trekked out of Africa, population growth continued and demanded larger social units than the band. That’s where the institutions got complex. Nevertheless, and this is crucial, biologically and that includes social and psychological factors man remains what he was 50,000 years ago (OK, I pulled that number out of my hat, but you get the idea long before complex institutions and ideologies and religions). What that means is flight or fight response to fear, physiological as well as psychological response to stress, and, over all, a mind capable of making up things that do not exist thus, anxiety. Over and over again, I will remark on the behavior of that little kid in the third row back as embedded in this primordial network of needs, demands, anxieties, and reactions, entirely divorced from the neat, tidy world of White, middle-class North America with its literacy, technology, and organization. IOW, you might say that as a teacher, you should always keep in mind that you are dealing with a small cave-man. Gaining his trust may be easy or it may not; some of that depends on how well the teacher has mastered the art of establishing relationships (the title of a side bar growing out of flteach in 2013), which in turn rests on the basic factors of human behavior found in our early ancestors.

The societal part of this picture of trust-building and trust-destruction really blows up on us. Not only do we have massive diversity around the world to look at in an instructive way, i.e. to compare ourselves with to get ideas and see a reflection of ourselves, but the complexity of our own society defies easy answers or explications. Keeping present in your mind that all of human kind’s institutions and the cultures bearing them arose out of that anthropological complex of physiological and psychological needs, you can examine your own society in several dimensions: historical, cultural, ideological, geographical, demographical, and so on. Let me first give some examples of these dimensions so we can discuss them on some common ground before going into how those specific and peculiar to the U.S. affect education for example, comparing the Finnish educational system with our own cannot be done without an understanding of how those dimensions play out in each society theirs and ours (apologies to any Finns reading this for assuming all my readers are North Americans and/or citizens of the U.S.; it’s just a conceit that allows me to trim some of my ideas to a manageable level of complexity).

My point over several blog items has been that North American society is colonial not only in origin, but, per force, in nature. The subordination of one group by another is universal, but the divisions of our society are historical in this way: by superior organization and technology, Europeans arrived here after disease, also introduced by earlier arrivals from Europe, had decimated the native population, and took over the place. Nowhere outside of isolated pockets like the Apacheria and the Maroon settlements throughout the Americas did Europeans not completely dominate the Americas. In North America, temporary alliances with Native Americans did little to mitigate the imbalance of the power equation. The early introduction of Africans in a subordinate status as slaves added another layer. Eventually, as waves of immigrants, primarily from Europe, overtook the early stratum of English settlers, the layering at the top became very complex, but the basics of all colonial society remained and remains to this day: conquered Native Americans, a caste of tightly controlled Africans, and White Europeans on top. The need to maintain this structure has formed our society and continues to inform our institutions and even our current politics. The influx of Hispanics, Hispanics being a result of the unbridled miscegenation so feared in the U.S. (the exclusion of Canada here is advised), has added a more recent stratum with very interesting psychological ramifications in the minds of Euro-Americans who have seen our society in terms of Black and White and are not sure whether to segregate Hispanics or go after their votes. Nevertheless, the basic colonial structure of our North American society must be the lens through which we view the subsequent flourishing of our institutions. Much more of the historical dimension remains to be told, but now let’s give an example from culture.

Obviously, no one lost their culture in all this mixing and exploiting, despite the myth of the Melting Pot.

A major element of the myth is that the Europeans came here and found a clean slate and brought with them the high culture of Western Europe and that is the basis of our society and nothing else. A few observers of the scene in North America might mention that African-Americans preserved elements of African culture in their music and Native Americans preserved some on their reservations, but all in all, North America’s story must be told in terms of European high culture Plato, Shakespeare, and all that. The other side of the ledger is expressed by a researcher into those very survivals of African cultural traits: “We were looking in the wrong place for African survivals among African-Americans.” What s-he meant was that African cultural traits were disseminated throughout North American culture so broadly and deeply that we do not recognize them, in part because we expect those traits to have been confined to those of African descent and missed completely the extreme amount of interaction between Whites and Blacks in the society. The harm done by the stereotype of slavery as a bunch of Blacks hunched over with a cotton sack with an whip-equipped overseer on horseback in the distance cannot be overestimated; that’s why Herskovits wrote The Myth of the Negro Past. Applying the word “seminal” to that work is to vastly underplay its significance; at a time when it was common knowledge and taught academically that Africans had never had any cultural attainment at all, this book exploded all of that.

What had happened was that the intermixture of Whites and Blacks, a phenomenon in such contrast to the stereotype of the Africans as isolated in slavery, had engendered a two-way exchange of cultures. One example of this and a good one because it started out as one-sided, then flipped to the other side, and now has flipped back, is the linguistic influences Whites and Blacks had had on each other. The first take on it was that Blacks had imperfectly, due to low culture, low IQ, or lack of interest, learned English from Whites. Then in the 60s specialists in Creole linguistics, Creolistics, thought they had discovered enough creole elements in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) to classify it as such, even as a separate language system, what the Oakland school board ttired to do in an attempt to qualify for bilingual education funding. Now much more tie-ins to English dialects of the time have revealed the British Isles provenance of many features of AAVE, including the pronunciation, once thought surely due to the way African language phonology would have shaped the accent of the slaves.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the influence of the speech of Africans on Whites cannot be discarded. To go for a moment outside the U.S., young White ladies raised on Caribbean plantations had to be shipped back to English finishing schools to get rid of their Black creole speech. In a delicious turn, young White adolescents in England are now using the creole of their Caribeean-derived classmates as an in-group code.

Ideological may seem too abstract to fit into an overall paradigm of society, but I would place religion into the ideological realm along with putting it in the cultural realm. For me, ideological simply means a priori thinking and reasoning. Definitions vary but I like these two from Dictionary.Com:

“a body of ideas that reflects the beliefs and interests of a nation, political system, etc. and underlies political action”


“philosophy/sociology: the set of beliefs by which a group or society orders reality so as to render it intelligible”

Another definition calls an ideology doctrine, myth, or belief.

And an overall fair one is from Merriam-Webster:

“1. Visionary theorizing

2. a. a systematic body of concepts, especially about human life or culture

b. a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture

c. the integrated assertions, theories, and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program”’

I think the very last one is what most of us think of when we say someone is being ideological, with an emphasis on the word assertions. For me, so much of what is called ideology consists of myth, belief, and doctrine, but those who see their ideology as pertaining to governance will definitely try to base it on fact, data, etc., making it as scientific as possible so as to withstand scrutiny. Nevertheless, ideologies are defensive, often quite closed, and designed for power rather than for truth-seeking.

An example of how ideology has shaped our nation is Manifest Destiny. The author, Frederick Jackson Turner, presented a theory, the Frontier Theory of American History, which proved very powerful and spawned an academic empire of its own. Turner did not invent the concept of a destiny for the Europeans who had settled the east coast, he only described and named it in a way that generated a lot of study and thought. However, it captured the popular imagination to the extent that one of the most powerful vehicles of American popular culture, the movies, rode for decades on the back of this horse in the form of countless Westerns, cowboy movies, Cowboy & Indian movies, and darker Westerns, some even extolling the Native American. In all of this, our entire expansion west can be summed up in the image of the Marlboro Man, the man on horseback, the White Man (never Black, despite numerous Black cowboys, never Native American, despite their mastery of the horse culture, and never Hispanics, despite their introduction of the horse and its culture to the West), uncaring about the Surgeon General’s warning or what Pastor Svenson might say, and ALWAYS by himself. To call this an icon helps, but we must understand the Marlboro Man as central to the popular ideology of America. He has counterparts in Latin-America: the vaquero, the gaucho, the guajiro, and so forth. All very, very macho, a master of animals and women, even of the earth itself.

For yourself, reflect on how this image gets expressed in the statements of our politicians. What would happen if women dominated our politics numerically, what would change in this regard? Que cambiaria al respecto?

With regard to the geographical, there’s an obvious point to be made: North America is a land of incredible richness, and whether you think it due to low population or to lack of cultural resources, not much in the way of exploitation had been attempted. It was wide open and rich beyond the dreams of any European. It would be interesting to find a prophet in those first centuries after Columbus who foresaw the domination of the world by North America. The lack of draft animals limited the high civilizations created in Central and South America as well as that of Mexico in North America; the Caribbean islands offered little opportunity to build major civilizations but did participate to some degree in those of the mainland. Once the land had been turned over to one-crop production, mainly the life-destroyers sugar and tobacco, some fruits, and the life-preserver, coffee, Latin-America spiraled into a fight among a few families to possess the productive land and the means of getting the products to market; the rest of the people were just hands. But in North America, a great fecundity gave forth a variety and diversity of products that enriched the food supply of the people and the wealth of the people through export.

Finally, from my list, we have demographics. This may be the hardest of the Basics to grasp because of the interference of received wisdom concerning the peopling of the Americas. Incidentally, in Spanish it is La America, a singular, thus unifying the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

Indeed, a marked feature of North American concepts of the people of America = the United States (and Canada if you are thinking of hockey players) is the divorce between the two hemispheres. Indians are thought of as living only in the U.S., with a nod, perhaps, at least among the cognoscenti, to Canadian Indians. Mexican Indians sounds bizarre to a lot of people. A good many restaurant maitre-d’ has been fooled into accepting an African-American as a customer because he faked a Spanish or French accent, the maitre-d’ believing only American Blacks were really Black. Just put on a turban and speak with an accent and you are in.

Whence the confusion and ignorance? Most Latin-American countries were eager to hide their populace of African origin, examples being Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, and so on. Even Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti made stabs at disguising their populace by putting blond Europeans up front in tourist advertising and other promotional material. The famous Spanish textbook of the 50s, El Camino Real, mentions people of African descent just once, and that in the second volume. Not so now, but at that time, the time when many of our leaders were exposed to Latin-America through Spanish-language classes, the sensitivities of Southern school districts were kept in mind by textbook publishers and the countries themselves aided in this regard. In Cuba, a Black musician could not play the casinos in the pre-revolutionary period. In some, only light-skinned Blacks were permitted; this despite the fact that what makes Cuban music Cuban is the African element (not to disparage either the heritage of Spanish folklore or the classical conservatories and composers, but it is the African element in Afro-Cuban that has driven the music into the venues of Europe and North America across the 20th century). Just as jazz, rock-and-roll, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop originated in the honky-tonks, juke joints, and brothels of the nation, deriving from church music and the blues, so salsa, samba, and the tango came out of the religious processions and ceremonies…….. as Wikipedia has it, “Tango is a dance that has influences from European and African culture.[5] Dances from the candombe ceremonies of former slave peoples helped shape the modern day Tango.”

I always got a kick out of how what we now call salsa was called Hawaiian music. Augie Colon, a Puerto Rican clearly of African descent, became famous in the 50s working with Martin Denny making exotic “jungle” music replete with Colon’s animal sounds and excellent drumming. But the album he is perhaps most famous for, Sophisticated Savage, which I have, presents him as Hawaiian. People were just not quite ready for Blacks and it was considered smart marketing to disguise their ethnicity or “race” as they said then.

In such a way did racism, advertising and marketing, and art interconnect with American ignorance to totally confuse the issue. I do remember my shock in 1960 when I was working as a hotel janitor when one of the middle-aged managers replied to me when I mentioned something about music, “Oh yeah, that music came from Africa with the slaves and it’s some of the best music we have” or some such (a paraphrase). So some of the album notes (“liner notes”) and even books like Myth of the Negro Past, Amira Baraka’s (ne Leroi Jones) Blues People, and Marshall Stearn’s The Story of Jazz were making headway.

There is a scene in the movie Black Like Me where a Black man on the segregated train is querying the author what his origins are. The author, a White reporter in Texas, had courageously (the procedure is hazardous) died his skin a dark brown in order to pass for Black in the 1950s South. The Black man spotted his hair and features and immediately zeroed in on him to ascertain his “nationality”. He obviously appeared Black or he wouldn’t have been sitting in the Colored section of the train, but the man couldn’t get the answer he wanted out of him; the reporter insisted he was Negro or Colored, whereas the man wanted him to be ANYTHING BUT NEGRO. It was a poignant, even agonizing scene, because we knew the man was trying to put the reporter into a higher category than Black as he himself undoubtedly tried to do with his own light skin and wavy hair.

Given the torturous history of race in all the Americas, we must admit the problem of racism will not be solved by redefining the demographics. Black people will, for the most part, remain Black not only in appearance but in culture. Hispanics will retain a good deal of their culture for some time to come, although many have already lost it and many more will lose it. Asians most likely will lose their culture but only after several generations due to the tight family structure of most Asian cultures. Native Americans will retain some of their culture if they stay on reservations; otherwise they will be absorbed as thousands already have been over the centuries. The key is how much the immigrant culture is replenished. For Hispanics, that will continue for some time; for Asians, probably also for some time. Not so for Blacks and Native Americans, despite thousands of people of African descent pouring into the U.S. from parts of the Americas and from Africa itself; the cultures of those countries are too different from the culture of African-Americans for any significant reinforcement of Black culture in this country.

We already see the breaking down of ethnic categories, nonsense to begin with, as census identification and “racial” categories on applications and surveys shift like a kaleidoscope, from Colored (what mine read at Sears in 1963) to Black to African-American, from Spanish to Mexican to Hispanic to Latino, from Asian to nationality……. even the word “nationality” doesn’t have the meaning it had when Roebuck Staples sang it. An old one we used all the time was “extraction” – what extraction are you? Hard to believe now.

A last comment on demographics: they have been used in the form of statistical predictions to frighten us into limiting our family size or to arming ourselves with nukes against a billion Chinese or illegal aliens flooding across our borders. It doesn’t help when bellicose Chinese or militant Chicanos (remember that word?) claim they’ll take us over or reclaim Aztlan. A little thought will dispel the more apocalyptic scenarios: remember the 1986 movie Red Dawn, how a handful of American teenagers would take our country back (ring a bell?) from Russian and Cuban invaders? While intelligent people scoffed at the idea that teens armed with .22s could destroy the combined Soviet and Cuban (?) armies, a little thought would have made laughable as well the idea that the two nations, the U.S.S.R. and Cuba could field enough troops to have soldiers on every street corner, in every bank, store, institution, and so on, and still have anyone left back home. Demographics: for thinking people only.


Now that we have looked at several of the dimensions on which we can examine our society, let’s return to the anthropological part of us all. In the introduction I pictured the small band as enjoying mutual and utter trust. A word of definition here: by trust I do not mean that members will not cheat and betray each other, that goes on all the time. I mean that behavior is relatively predictable, I can trust you to do certain things. The most basic is we share warmth and food and shelter. We also speak the same language. Moving up a little, we may share affection and a common purpose, say the hunt or gathering roots and berries. I can trust you to know how to hunt because you’ve been taught how and I can trust you to select the right berries because you have been taught how to.

Further, we share a set of beliefs, an ideology, if you will.

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