The Role of Education in Different Cultures

This is not an empirical study about education around the world. Rather, it is an observation and impressions of how different countries regard the purpose of schooling. Given my own background working in education (international and postsecondary, as well as a little bit in primary), Master’s degree in higher and postsecondary education, as well as my undergraduate degree in anthropology, I am always fascinated by how people learn around the world. I have worked with students from a wide range of cultures, and have also traveled to a number of countries.

What I have observed from Asian cultures is that education is of primary importance, that it trumps almost all other core values. Many of these countries have civilizations that are thousands of years old, and great scholars are revered–Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu is still read around the world today, despite the fact that he wrote in the 6th century BC. Being educated and intelligent means being highly respected.

Education is also, nowadays, a tool for betterment in society. Education is the competitive edge, the social currency in which people trade. If you do not study hard, you will not do well in school. If you do not do well in school, this will have dire consequences upon your career. To a certain degree, this is true all over the world. However, the way in which families and individuals place importance in this belief is probably higher in Asia and elsewhere. This leads to another important point–parents are very involved in their children’s education. Beyond the “tiger mother” archetype written about by Amy Chua, parental involvement and simply caring about one’s child’s learning makes for better learners and fewer behavior problems. Statistics from countless studies prove this point.

One key explanation for the competitive, even “dog-eat-dog” climate is a high population. China and India lead the world (and then add in the other former Indian countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh), Indonesia is number four, and then the highly developed Japan and Korea which are also ranked highly in terms of population. Therefore, doing well in school is, at the bottom of it all, a survival strategy. When there is so much competition, and often not enough resources, one has to outdo one’s peers. Anything that is concrete and measurable is the best way to determine this when there are so many students to evaluate; therefore, anything that detract from this is seen as “fluffy” and useless. A great emphasis is placed on completion, jumping through hoops, and where one studies. India has, sadly unbeknownst to many Americans and Westerners, a system of universities in technology and management (Indian Institutes of Technology, or IIT, and Indian Institutes of Management, or IIM). These schools are directly pipelines into graduate programs at Ivy League and other top-ranked schools.

Critics of Asian education complained that it is rote and does not value critical thinking and creativity. These are certainly fair criticisms, especially when compared to education in America and other Western countries. Looking at Asian philosophies of education from a non-relative (read: American) point of view, and having worked with many Asian students, I have to say I concur that there is less flexibility and originality. But advocates say it works for them, and their booming economies are proof.

But there is a dark side to all of this: This pressure on students can sometimes lead to dire consequences: depression, low self-esteem, and at its worst, suicide. Parents can be unrelenting and unyielding, have unrealistic expectations of their children and push their own unfulfilled dreams on their offspring. The extreme emphasis on education, frankly, is a two-edged sword.

Europe is a fascinating area to analyze, because it is not homogenous. Continental Europe differs within itself, and then it also differs from Scandinavia which differs from the United Kingdom. What strikes me most is that Europe often tracks or separates students from a young age. This is positive as well as negative. There is a recognition in many European countries like Germany that a “bookish” education that stresses academic and intellectual learning is not always suitable for everyone, and vice versa. Vocational education is not frowned upon, and often those with such educations do quite well financially and in their careers. Critics of American education often lament that our one-size-fits-all system does not help many students, who are really wasting their time as well as our resources on education that will not help them in the future. Many European countries, such as Italy, therefore can make academic schools more relevant to the students who are qualified enough to attend: they can attend a high school for classics, sciences, etc. Finland, which was recently featured in Michael Moore’s film “Where to Invade Next,” does not believe in cramming students with information and homework, giving them a chance to develop as whole people and as equals. Various folk schools in the Nordic countries and Germany and Austria provide lifelong learning opportunities for adult learners. In the United Kingdom, there is a mix of private schools (ironically known as “public” schools) favored by the upper classes and international elite in addition to state schools. There are universities funded by the state, but like in the United States, ranking is more of an issue. A university like Oxford or Cambridge is world-class, but then there are numerous universities both public and private that provide higher education to a large number of people.

There are many criticisms to be made here. Tracking students early on seems, to an American educator, extremely detrimental, especially if in a country where there is very little opportunity later for career mobility or changes. Many students do not bloom till later, do not find their calling our passion till they have left secondary school. This favors a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” philosophy where the best students are earmarked quite early and therefore university education is not accessible to anyone but the top few percent. In Belgium, however, higher education is open to everyone (with the exception of a few fields), but we must remember that Belgium’s population is nearly 11.2 million people–far behind the larger countries of Germany, the United Kingdom, and France. Same for the Finnish system – a holistic, less-competitive education can work when there is little competition. England’s education system is still, like the country itself, very class-based and becoming costly. Loans are often necessary, as in the United States, to go to university.

The United States is much maligned for this reason, and for many others. The quality of one’s education depends on the wealth of one’s neighborhood. Standardized testing has killed a teacher’s intuition as to what will work best for his or her classroom, leaving it in the hands of authorities. Teachers have to serve as students’ psychologists and babysitters, due to poor parenting. Many educators and curricula emphasize touchy-feely, “Mickey Mouse,” boost-your-self-esteem models that make our students embarrassingly behind in global rankings such as PISA. Sports and prom are high priorities in some schools, as opposed to new lab equipment and music programs. Violence and drugs threaten schools in lower SES areas. On the flip side, there are children who are under pressure, overcommitted to extracurricular activities and punished when their report cards do not show all A’s. These are children–yes, children–and more and more of them are on medications to deal with their anxiety. Their parents call the admissions offices of Ivy League universities did not admit their children. Each year does not go by without hearing of at least a handful of suicides by children who did not get into their top choice of college. And this is for the people who can actually afford to go to college. Each new generation bears more and more debt, and one wonders if these students will ever be able to become debt-free. Is there anything good about the American education system?

Despite all these significant shortcomings, I would argue yes. Despite the fact that America desperately needs K-12 school reform, as well as radical changes in college tuition and loans, there are a number of things to admire. The American system is fundamentally based on openness and positivity. Students are encouraged to try. They are encouraged to challenge ideas, to assert their own opinions, and to be creative. Having a well-rounded education in academics as well as extracurriculars such as music, sports, debate, etc. is considered ideal. Our education system also wishes to address diversity, both in the classroom as well as in the curriculum. Children are taught from an early age that everyone is equal, and to treat all people and races as equal. Different educational needs, from gifted children to special education, are acknowledged. The can-do spirit allows for exceptional individuals who want to return at the age of 60 to finish high school diploma. It allows for students to change their mind from being a statistics major to becoming a premed and eventually a psychiatrist. The best universities in the world are in America, and there is fierce competition worldwide to attend them. Great innovators, scholars, dissident writers–there is a place for them in American academia. Our task is to bring that dynamism into K-12 education to make it accessible to everybody, where a high quality American education is as vital as liberty and justice for all.

Face the Face: The Lost Art of Beauty

I recently finished reading Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext. The last section deals with the near-extinction of the description of characters’ appearances in literature. Baxter points out, astutely, that part of the reason for this is due to our long history of racial and disability discrimination. These are ugly and shameful behaviors that have been institutionalized and ingrained in American society. But why throw out the baby with the bathwater? Why neglect The Aesthetic?

One of our best cultural critics and public intellectuals, Camille Paglia, has frequently pointed this out in the context of feminism. A chief complaint of Paglia’s is that American feminists have dismissed and even destroyed the presence of art in their quest for female equality and empowerment. As an artist, I cannot help but agree that this is often the case. One such example from my undergraduate days was in an English literature class, where the professor presented an image of a Victorian-era painting in a round shape of a mother holding her baby, sitting next to a window. The professor asked for our comments. Moved by the tenderness and delicacy of the painting, I responded, “It’s beautiful.” However, what followed from my other classmates was a slew of answers that only commented on the repression of women, etc. Certainly women have been repressed and perceived solely as baby-making machines throughout the centuries. But this does not invalidate the sheer beauty of a beautiful image.

This is but a symptom of the lack of a genuine appreciation of art and beauty in American education. It was not until studying abroad at Oxford University that I was able to see that literature was an art, much to my delight. Oscar Wilde himself had lived, literally, across the street! Wilde is a perfect example of the English tradition of the dandy, something that does not exist in American culture, whose roots are in Puritanism and hard-line Protestantism. For a straight male in our culture to dress himself well would subject him to suspicion that he is homosexual or a metrosexual. But our modern metrosexual feels disingenuous: it revolves around a collection of products, usually appeals to men of a high SES, and is, as the name indicates, metropolitan/urban. Perhaps our only sincere dandy cultures exist within lower SES Latino and black cultures, where many men revel in decorating themselves and it is not socially shunned.

The problem is that beauty is highly commoditized in America, and therefore we lack a true sense of the aesthetic, the attractive, the beautiful. Countless magazines (usually based in New York) promote a Madison Avenue image of women each season, as does the billion-dollar fashion industry with a token “overweight” woman (read: the truly normal American-size woman) here or there. The cosmetics industry, also a billion-dollar industry, develops myriad products to make women look and feel young and “better.” And therein lies the legitimate criticism by feminists against the beauty industry and why many of them reject beauty: the American beauty aesthetic relies on perfectionism. It is too normative, based on white Barbie doll or socialite standards. That said, it is hard to resist a gorgeous spread shot on a desert island in a fashion magazine with beautiful lighting, flowing dresses, and glorious colors on the model’s face. It is a natural impulse to admire that which is beautiful. But like everything in America, things go to extremes.

We do not have deep roots in a folk art culture, as do many countries in the world. A Central American woman would have beautiful embroidery on her dress, a South Indian woman would wear a sari with stunning contrasting colors, an Eastern European would have a handpainted floral motif on a piece of furniture. Nor do we have a Scandinavian democratic philosophy of “form and function,” with everyday objects that look appealing. Nor do we have an aristocracy; though this is a very undemocratic institution, if we were to evaluate it strictly from an artistic perspective, it is something that leads to the development of a profound arts culture in any country. There is a reason why English Royalty has such great appeal to the practical Yankees. America is too practical. It thrives on business, efficiency, speed. We do not waste time with our words; those who have spent time in Britain will notice a more flowery prose than ours here across the pond. Our books do not describe people, how they look, what they are wearing – an opening like “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich…” does not belong to an American writer, although this may not be a fair comparison, given that Jane Austen wrote this line a couple of centuries ago.

Arts education is always in danger in America, be it in primary schooling or in academia, where it is considered “impractical” to major in anything creative or art history. Decision-makers and policymakers should be aware of this, and how ironic it is that our best innovators such as Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs were tremendously creative people. The late Maxine Greene, a philosophy professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, was one wonderful example of the sort of educator we need more of. Jacqueline Kennedy was also a seminal figure in promoting and developing arts in America, and we need more high profile women like her. But we also need parents who tell their kids to put down their electronic toys and pick up a sketchpad and simply draw–draw a bird, draw a tree, draw themselves. We need more of those coffeehouse folkies who write songs to their girlfriend’s beautiful hair. In short–we need more art and beauty.

Donald Trump: The One Man SWOT Team

In marketing, the acronym SWOT stands for the analysis of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Any successful businessperson has without a doubt done his or her market research in order to target one’s product to the appropriate sector and develop a strategic business plan. Given “The Donald’s” billionaire status – is he the 0.1%? – we certainly know he has done his due diligence and market research in order to make his own fortune, along with inheriting a vast fortune from his father.
Given his recent (unfortunate) foray into politics, do we think he would have been any less shoddy in contriving a plan to become the next President of the United States? How else could a man who has zero political experience rise to such despicable heights, unless he knew how to pander to the masses? Trump is a mastermind of manipulation! The following is a SWOT analysis of “The Donald’s” frightening rise to power, and perhaps a guide for those who want to take power and use it for good:

STRENGTHS:
-Trump is a master of self-promotion. He has no shame in promoting himself, in whatever form of media. The more outrageous, the better. Harassing and teasing opponents, making unsubstantiated claims – he is his biggest ally.
-He has inherited wealth. This is a very rare asset that he has used to his advantage, and tremendous wealth is imperative to run a presidential campaign.
-Nepotism. There is speculation that he got into Wharton Business School due to family connections. This does not seem implausible, as his undergraduate record does not seem worthy of entering an Ivy League graduate program.
-An MBA. He knows the ropes of how to make money and get ahead, and he applies those strategies of identifying the market and tailoring your product to fit it. In this case, his market is the conservative, uneducated American public, and he is the product.
-Hide your dark secrets from your supporters, or try to. A Jewish-convert daughter (imagine the anti-Semitic fans of Trump hearing that!) Contributing to Democrats in addition to Republicans over the years. An immigrant wife. Support from David Duke. Immigrant labor on his real estate. All things that might cost him votes with Joe Q. Public. But these are all carefully hidden as best as possible.
-Be enough of a hypocrite that you give the opposition some credibility. Trump can’t be entirely anti-immigrant, can he? After all, his wife is a Slovenian immigrant. And he would let London mayor Sadiq Khan in to the United States – just not the other Muslims.

WEAKNESSES:
-A basic lack of experience in politics. Enough said about his key weakness, which is a very serious matter.
-A total lack of true knowledge of foreign policy. He might know the markets, but there is more to building diplomacy than whether the stock exchange is bullish or bearish.
-Megalomania. A politician has to be rational and balanced, and not operate on hysteria from the public in order to form policies.
-No legitimate political advisors. Not even the worst of the Republicans want anything to with Trump.
His solution? Bully when someone attacks your weaknesses.

OPPORTUNITIES:
(This is where Trump preys upon his targets)
-Disenfranchised lower-middle-class whites. We have worked so hard to help minorities achieve equality, but these people understandably feel neglected. To disenfranchise anyone can only lead to bad consequences down the road.
-Racists. Whites who feel that they “were there first” have a lot of hidden animosity that is not allowed to be expressed. Donald gives them a public mouthpiece for their hatred, even though he himself may very likely not believe in what he is saying.
-Fears of immigrants. Whether it is threats from the Middle East or south of the border, xenophobia is a key issue Donald uses for his campaign. He is able to magnify smaller incidents and make people believe they are rampant.

THREATS:
-Muslims. As Mrs. Clinton suggested, he is only stoking the fire for America to be more vulnerable to terrorist attacks if he harasses Muslims.
-Illegal immigrants. Never mind that half his empire was built by them anyway.
-The media. They have the power to expose every last flaw of Trump’s (where are his tax returns, anyway?), to tar and feather him.
-Foreign heads of state dislike him. How can we continue with diplomacy and trade and foreign relations if we have a buffoon in the White House that no one wants to officially recognize?
-Lack of political support. Even the shadiest of politicians seem to be loath to support him, and without support from Congress, a President is merely a figurehead who accomplishes nothing.

Trump is, therefore, a market researcher of the highest order. Perhaps looking for his latest business venture, he has sought the office of President as another line to add to his resume. All we can hope for is a miracle before the Republican National Convention. If not, Canada is a short drive away.

The English Imagination: Bravo for British Books!

Of all the cultures in the world, there is one that seems to endear itself to readers everywhere: British culture. (I will here on use the word “English” though it is inaccurate, because it refers to the language as well as England, where many writers from Great Britain based themselves.) The tradition of English literature is long and vast, starting all the way back from the time of The Canterbury Tales, through the development of the novel in the 1700s, into the beloved Victorian period, and even through the 20th century with canonical classics like 1984. And the love of the English novel has been rekindled in the 21st century with the Harry Potter series, spreading globally like a wildfire.

Given this centuries-long, global mania that has touched the lives of literally millions, if not hundreds of millions, we must simply ask, Why? What is it about the English imagination that captivates us so?

Here are some possible reasons:
-The English have an imagination. This tautology might at first strike the reader as silly, but we need to acknowledge that the English have given us fanciful settings like in A Clockwork Orange, imaginary characters, talking and anthropomorphized animals like Winnie the Pooh, creatures that can perform magical spells, and even myths and legends like King Arthur. The presence of the Celts is certainly one factor in the English collective imagination. The isolation of an island nation may be another, for in an isolated setting, one must create and invent stories and fantasies to keep oneself entertained. Also, in a culture of rigid social hierarchy, the imagination is what makes one free.

-The English have royalty. Kings, queens, dukes, and duchesses, nobility, palaces, and their courts–there is plenty of glamour, intrigue, history, and power struggles that keep the reader entertained. Royalty = continuity, both in terms of a dynasty and a place. Place is very important to royals, as they are defined by the land they own.

-The landscape. There are the seacoast, lakes, stately homes on grand parks with magnificent gardens. There are parlors warm and cozy in which to do needlework while it is cold and dreary outside. There are beautiful spring days in the unparalleled English countryside in which to have a tryst, as Julia and Winston do in 1984. By contrast, there are the industrial wastelands, belching smoke and coated in grime, the sad byproduct of the Industrial Revolution. There is Dickens’s London, squalid and overcrowded. And of course, one cannot discuss the English landscape without including the gloomy, tempestuous Moors as in Wuthering Heights, a setting that is perhaps the original “dark and stormy night.”

-A sense of mysticism. Someone (likely JB Priestley) said that the English are “reasonable, not rational,” which can be interpreted as that the English are willing to entertain ideas that are not entirely pragmatic and realistic. Anglicanism embraces a sense of mysticism, and as mentioned above, the culture of the Celts and pagan traditions embrace gods and goddesses, fairies, et cetera. There might be trolls, wizards, signs, and omens. None of these are considered too far-fetched or outlandish, though Continental readers might find it so.

-Women sometimes feature prominently. While I think it is very wrong to look back on centuries of literature through a modern lens of political correctness and gender studies, we cannot fail to note that English literature has quite frequently featured female protagonists or major characters. This includes characters by both male and female authors. Jane Eyre, Austen’s heroines, Elizabeth Bowen’s Stella in The Heat of the Day, Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion, Virginia Woolf’s women and especially A Room of One’s Own, even Lewis Carroll’s children’s book character Alice – the list goes on and on. This is not to deny the sexism and secondary status of women through the history of English literature; rather, there has been a significant presence of women that is indeed influential.

-Colonialism. Needless to say, this has been an atrocious facet of history that still has a negative impact today. But strictly from a literary point of view, it broadened the scope of literature. Jane Eyre features the exotic subplot of Mr. Rochester’s time in the Caribbean and his marriage to the tempestuous Bertha. Kipling, for however politically incorrect he is now, set works in India, and one of his most vocal critics, George Orwell, spent time in India and in Burma, the latter providing fodder for his work.
Ironically, it is those who have grown up in former British colonies who read primarily British literature and have a great affinity and even affection for it. Global powerhouse Salman Rushdie has spoken of his love for The Lord of the Rings and Wodehouse. Ask a typical Indian reader (not a current literary scholar or writer) whom s/he admires, and you may very likely hear “Dickens.” Nobel laureate St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott has spoken of his very English education and influence by British poets and writers.

-The class system. Another skeleton in England’s closet, in addition to colonialism, the stratified class society of England has made for very important themes that entrance the reader, namely from low-high. Austen’s novels prominently feature poor women marrying wealthier men. Jane Eyre is a penniless orphan who marries the rich man in the stately home who favors her over the glamorous Lady. The foundlings on the doorstep turn out to be kings–or at least, they marry well. Shakespeare abounds with this theme, in works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream (recall a character named “Bottom”).  High-to low, and vice-versa, makes for a thrilling story.

-A sense of decorum. This relates to in some degree the previous point about class. The stiff upper lip and social conventions expected of people can be both a source of humor, as we see in Wodehouse or Pride and Prejudice, as well as a source of discomfort and tension, as in Great Expectations. Impropriety makes for good humor or good stories, as it is a form of transgression. How does it get resolved? This is a key question that keeps the reader engaged.

Here’s to hoping that England will continue to produce more writers that capture our imaginations and our hearts through the 21st century and centuries to come!

Hillary vs. Bernie: What Liberals Need to Know

I have been a longtime admirer of Mrs. Clinton, and who wouldn’t be? Strong, principled, experienced, and smart as hell, Hillary Rodham Clinton has broken through many barriers for women, showing us that the sky’s the limit. Or almost the limit: she is trying to break through the last glass ceiling, trying to become commander-in-chief of the most powerful nation in the world, a country that has not yet had a female president or prime minister. She has the knowledge of five people, knows America and the world inside and out, knows the common people (given her own middle class roots and her activism for underprivileged children) as well as those at the top. Many hate her simply because she is a woman, and an ambitious one; she has endured invective that no man could ever possibly endure.

However, there are those who raise a legitimate criticism: Madam Secretary is disliked not due to her gender, but due to her links to power. Again, we must distinguish here that this criticism is not about her being a woman who desires to be politically powerful. Rather, it is that she is allied with the forces that possess tremendous power in this country, power that is simply inaccessible to the vast majority of Americans. Those who dislike her say that she is part of the establishment, the 1%, makes tremendous amounts of money and receives tremendous amounts of money to support her campaign from questionable and influential sources. Objectively, one cannot deny these facts.

This is what provides strength to the campaign of Bernie Sanders, someone else whom I admire greatly. Senator Sanders has truly led a life of simplicity and commitment to public service. Originally an independent “democratic socialist,” he has a long track record of taking concrete action to help the common man and woman, and fighting for social justice. Sanders runs, unhypocritcally, on a platform of transparency and sincerity. One cannot deny that his campaign has been a grassroots one, with his claim that the average contribution made to his campaign is merely $27 and that he does not accept money from super PACs. His ideas for helping the middle class – and all non-wealthy Americans in general – are extremely necessary, sane, and in line with the rest of the civilized industrial world. It is very reassuring to know that we have a politician who is really working for us, and is willing to take on Wall Street and the institutions that really work to our disadvantage. Sanders gives visibility to “the rest of us,” the honest, decent, hard working people who want a better society and who despise a system that favors financial corruption in the hands of a few.

But the question is, can such a “man of the people” (who until recently flew economy class) really succeed without big money behind him? I believe the answer is that liberals who have made it to the top usually have one foot in the corporate or mainstream/establishment door. Being a grass roots activist alone will not enable someone to have the power necessary to make large-scale social change. It is one of the “dirty” secrets of our country that even the most liberal-minded social activists need to realize. Or perhaps it is not so dirty, but a necessary and resigned acceptance of how the structures in American society work.

There are many noteworthy examples of people who have had one foot in each door. Rachel Maddow was very leftist and involved in LGBT and women’s issues, even writing a thesis on AIDS, then became a Rhodes Scholar and journalist, accepting the opportunities offered to her by Air America and then corporate giant MSNBC. A Stanford friend who developed a program to send medical supplies to Bosnia during the time of war later worked in corporate finance. Another friend who is works in bonds and is one of the 1% had worked for a feminist think tank in college. We can also look at our politicians. Barack Obama grew up in developing country Indonesia, and was a community organizer in Chicago in his earlier days. Al Gore has straddled both high-level politics and environmental activism. So has California Governor Jerry Brown. Even the most wholesome of nonprofits receive funding from corporate sources.

Even Bernie Sanders has contributions behind him from Apple, Amazon.com, and the U.S. Navy, according to opensecrets.org. Also noteworthy is the fact that Sanders implicitly acknowledges that he accepts money from PACs, just not super PACs. A super PAC not approved by him called Billionaires for Bernie formed last year, though it seems to have dissipated. Certainly, there are millionaires and billionaires who do support Sanders’s vision; some might find this hypocritical, while others find it commendable. And the Washington Post recently reported that the average contribution made to his campaign is slightly over $27.

This is in no way meant to speak ill of Sanders, who is a very commendable politician. Rather, it is to remind liberals that even our most honest politicians do have to work with big money. Also of note, liberals need to know that the Ivy League and elite schools train students to be able to contribute to the community in a sincere way, understand poverty and disadvantage (many students come from such backgrounds themselves), but are inescapably allied with the establishment and its institutions of politics and corporations. Many liberals are quick to tar and feather anybody who works in finance or corporate America. While these people are often worthy of great scorn and even punishment, too many white-collar criminals get away unpunished, and our tax system favors the ultra rich, there are still many commendable individuals in these fields. Though I personally wish the system and structures would change, I would encourage liberals to understand how the country works and not to make sweeping generalizations or dismiss everyone in the establishment. Study economics, finance, and political science, even law. Don’t be blind to how things really work, and don’t underestimate how difficult it is to climb to power while maintaining a liberal agenda.

As we wait on the edges of our seats to see who the Democratic candidate will be, at least we can talk about Sanders’s greatest accomplishment so far: bringing national visibility to- and discussion of social issues and ordinary people’s contempt for the establishment that takes advantage of them.

Either way, be it Hillary or Bernie, we will be in good hands.

Truths about American Culture

Life in the United States is very often misunderstood, especially by those who come from countries that are fairly isolated from American influence, or that have a very old history of which its citizens are proud. Needless to say, the American media does much harm (and perhaps some good) in portraying life in the United States, full of stereotypes. One can only wonder how many American-hating terrorists have ever set foot on American soil or ever interacted with Americans before waging a campaign of hatred against them. Here are some characteristics about American culture that those overseas may not realize:

-Americans really ARE that friendly. Many visitors to the United States are surprised to find out that Americans in general are nice. They don’t usually have some agenda, ulterior motive, or centuries-long opinion by which to judge someone. American culture places a high value on being “nice,” friendly, pleasant, and smiling. (Americans are probably the only people who smile in their passport photos). Of course this can vary from region to region in the United States, with the brusqueness of the Northeast contrasting with the take-your-time-to-get-to-know-someone manner of the South. One must not read into the friendliness of Americans too deeply. Rather, it must be seen as the necessary social glue that holds us together, a country of nearly 320 million people made up of every imaginable culture, spread out over thousands of miles.

-All people in America are considered “Americans.” It is sadly true and hegemonic that race is based on a white standard in the United States. But the most insulting mistake foreigners make when coming to America is not understanding that “American” is a nationality, not an ethnicity, and it relates to birth and living here. This is especially difficult for Western Europeans, who generally come from extremely ethnically homogenous societies, to grasp; in their societies, nationality and ethnicity are one. Even those who accept that African-Americans are also “legitimate” Americans along with those of European ancestry fail to realize that the fabric of America is multicultural. People overseas might be astonished to find that even white Americans have a diversity of cultures in their ancestry: it is not uncommon to have German, Irish, English, Scottish, and perhaps some Native American blood in one’s “white” background.
And now, with the racial mix of America increasing further, many people have a mix of white and non-white ancestry, or a mix of non-white ancestries: many half-white/half-Asians in California, Hawaiians of European/native Hawaiian/Japanese ancestry, many individuals whose international parents of different races who met in graduate school or the military overseas (Indian and Filipino, Persian and Italian, etc.), and modern Americans of mixed races who marry others of mixed races which produce truly multicultural children (for example, someone who is half Korean, one quarter white and one quarter Cuban, someone who is Puerto Rican, Italian, and Jewish, etc.).
President Obama has brought some awareness globally to this issue, but still, American diversity is extremely difficult for many foreigners to grasp. It is of note that there are indeed other countries and cultures that are arguably more progressive with matters of race, such as Brazil, and with the recent spate of police killings of African-Americans, we still have a long way to go with creating a more harmonious society.

-America is not the same country everywhere. Many visitors or foreigners who come to the United States do not realize how regional America is in character. A Bostonian is as different from a New Mexican who is as different from a “Hoosier” (Indiana citizen). Midwesterners place a high value on community and non-confrontation; Californians value personal fulfillment and ambition; Washingtonians (from DC) value family name and status. Even among ethnic groups, one can contrast, for example, Indians in other parts of the country and Indians in California, or Jews around the US and New York Jews. Again, the homogeneity of finding the same McDonald’s, Target, or Trader Joe’s in different places may be what helps unify us when we are so physically spread out.

-The American education system, at its core, is about teaching students to think flexibly and differently. Many countries in the world, such as former colonies, place a high value on rote learning and a more hierarchical system of imparting knowledge (think Paulo Freire’s “banking model” of education). Communist countries focus(ed) on history and ideology (the verb in both present and past tense, given that there are still a few remaining communist countries). Western European countries focus on tracking students at an early age and specializing in high levels of sciences, humanities, etc. and ground students in their culture and deep-rooted history. The Nordic countries value academic as well as vocational education, and developing the whole person.
But here in the United States, what matters most is your individual opinion, even if it means challenging the system. Our heroes are individuals who did that–Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and George Washington defying the British. Being creative and innovative are highly valued traits.

-Religion plays a significant role in the United States, even if many people are atheists or not religious. The irony is that we are by law a secular society. America has a strong reputation overseas of having a very conservative, Christian right-wing religious streak. However, there are many Americans who live quite to the contrary who oppose the religious conservatives and fight ardently for a culture free from religion. They oppose the teaching of religion in schools or even wishing others a “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” There are also many Americans who practice a variety of religions, who are Christian as well as Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Wiccan, Native American, etc. who are rooted in their traditions and also respectful of other traditions. Many foreigners, especially Western Europeans, fail to realize that America is a haven for the religiously persecuted from around the globe. Diana Eck of Harvard has done much to shine light on America’s religious pluralism.

-Success is not a taboo. Granted, this will differ in degree in different regions of the country. More traditional parts of America that are highly community-based may frown on being too successful and regard it as being “too big” and a betrayal of one’s humble origins. But generally speaking, one is expected to be a success, there is no sin in being upwardly mobile or a social climber, countless courses, websites, seminars, and TV shows focus on how to improve oneself. The “can-do,” positive spirit is something that always takes foreigners by surprise, but again, like American friendliness, it really is true.

First Lady, Second Priority: The Dumbing-Down of the President’s Wives

My college reunion books are peppered with comments by admirable women who left their careers as doctors or lawyers or bankers who say their children are more satisfying than their job ever could be. These are women who were at the top of their game with their careers, highly educated women who are as intelligent as any man and still bring life into this world. A magnificent combination!

However, what I cannot understand is this: the forced exile from the workplace of our First Ladies. In the recent administrations, the First Ladies have been highly intelligent, educated, well-read, sophisticated, and professional career women who often took a backseat to help further the political aspirations of their husbands. Some of these women could have been presidents themselves. True, the presidential families may have wished for one parent to be more present and at home for the children while the other parent is away traveling the country or the globe, attending summits and talks or attempting to rectify communities after natural disasters.

But we are not talking about normal families here; we are talking about families that have access to literally the best resources in the world, who have ability to pull strings to have any lifestyle adaptations they wish, and whose family dynamics will naturally be different than ours. These families could have a mother who works a professional job part-time, or from home, or who is very vocal about political interests of her own. This does not have to be a conflict of interest. Instead, these women are stifled for whatever reasons. The bottom line is that John Q. Public and the American establishment still cannot accept a First Lady who pulls her own weight equal to her husband’s. The First Lady cannot be involved in politics like her husband.

Naturally, Eleanor Roosevelt must spring to mind when anyone thinks of a dynamic, active First Lady. Her role seemed almost a counterpart to FDR’s, and perhaps she really ran things behind the scenes when her husband’s health did not enable him to do so. Mrs. Roosevelt’s career even continued after her husband’s death, and she was an equally acclaimed woman in her own right. Perhaps it was the only benefit of the war, in that women at that time had a certain degree of public presence and worked when the men were fighting overseas.

Jacqueline Kennedy — though Sphinx-like, feminine, graceful, and in a sadly traditional marriage that tolerated rampant cheating–was extraordinary in her championing of the arts. In her quiet way, she developed a culture and served as the impetus for other institutions that brought high culture to America, as well as boosted American’s profile overseas. Well read, multilingual, and intelligent, it wasn’t till later in life that she got the chance to use her knowledge when she worked as a book editor in New York.

Betty Ford was also an arts lover. A bohemian former dancer and divorcée, she supported equal rights for women, various “liberal” social causes that are considered normal today, and made alcoholism and its treatment a visible issue through her own struggles before founding the Betty Ford Clinic. But certainly, she came under criticism for discussing taboo issues in public. It was possibly one of the first times that a First Lady showed the cracks in the façade, showed that she was human and not simply an elegant figurehead to host state dinners.

But then jump ahead a couple of decades to the fiercely intelligent and accomplished Hillary Rodham Clinton. There had been no one quite like her before coming to the White House, as she arguably could have shared the job of president with her husband. Mrs. Clinton tried to embark on major health care reform and tried to get seriously involved with policy matters. Unfortunately, she was bullied, criticized, and harassed for trying to hold equal role of her own in the White House. The White House experienced a setback with Mrs. Laura Bush. She returned to a more traditional role, championing reading and literacy, which were more “safe” causes. This is not in any way to criticize Mrs. Bush’s intelligence, for if you have heard her speak, it comes across very strongly and she is well read. Some might even say that she is more intelligent than her husband!

With Michelle Obama, we have again revisited a situation not unlike that of Mrs. Clinton. She is a brilliant woman who made her way from Southside Chicago to Princeton to Harvard Law School, then to a law firm and then the University of Chicago. Granted, she has two small children and she is clearly a very devoted mother who has her kids as a priority. But why is this brilliant woman not encouraged to use her legal knowledge to do more for society and hold a strong position of her own? She has certainly done great work with military families as well as tackling childhood obesity and healthy eating, which is extremely crucial at this time. But the point is–

These highly educated– women who should not be criticized if they choose to spend more time with their children or if they want to ease off on the stress of having a career–should also have the option to pursue a dynamic career while in the White House that utilizes their previous training. Jill Biden, the Vice President’s wife, is a wonderful example, as she has a doctorate and teaches full time at a community college while still being involved in helping military families as her “cause.” First Ladies should not be expected to only take on “neutral” causes that are “safe.” They should be allowed to help make policy, serve in the cabinet, etc., because after all, they did support their husband in his campaign to become president, are obviously in the same political party, and are often extremely knowledgeable themselves about politics. And often overseas, presidential/prime ministerial spouses hold their own independent careers such as Joachim Sauer, Angela Merkel’s husband, who is a chemistry professor.

We need to rethink the role of the presidential spouse, especially because there is a possibility in 2017 we will have a First Man!   William Jefferson Clinton has already served in the highest position in the country, so will he have to relinquish everything, including the Clinton Global Initiative, by his own independent work? He knows more about the White House and presidency than anybody, so why not put it to use?

Naturally, there are going to be lots of questions as to what are the ethical boundaries of this role and where is there a conflict of interest? These are things that will have to be worked out, and that will be a large cause for debate. However, this is a necessary step in empowering that rarest gem of a woman, the First Lady.