Introducing Cross-Cultural Literacy

hands coming in together

Before my sixteen-year-old was born we began building his library. Among the board books and chapter books we eagerly collected, anticipating the day we could read them together, were atlases and cultural studies for young people. We wanted our future children to love the world at large and feel comfortable in it.

Although we have traveled widely throughout the United States with them, my two oldest made their first out-of-the-country trip last year when we joined a church mission group to the Dominican Republic. Yet, I feel we had already exposed our boys somewhat to cultures and customs beyond their own through personal stories (Their father and I have visited and lived in several countries), movies, documentaries, culturally diverse friends, and of course, through reading. Recognizing it will take time to develop fluency, introducing cross-cultural literacy now is important to us.

In 1987 E. D. Hirsch published his Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, where he first used the term. Tying an intimate and comfortable knowledge of one’s own language, customs, entertainment, symbols, history and dialect to a knowledge of decoding letters and words (i.e. literacy proper) Hirsch created an awareness of cultural literacy itself.

Having a solid basis in cultural literacy is important. If we are not aware of the idiosyncrasies, foibles, strengths and roots of our own cultural language, then it will be exponentially difficult for us to enter in to another culture with any sense of understanding or appreciation.

At sixteen, fourteen and seven, I do not expect my boys to be culturally fluent in any location outside their own culture, but I would love to think that they have been introduced to a sufficient number of other “worlds” that something new and different doesn’t startle them. I like to hear them talking with people from other countries or backgrounds while asking about their cuisine, being able to discuss basic issues relevant to the other country, or just being aware of behaviors that might be culturally offensive to others. We cannot be fully literate in every culture, but just as there is a term for “kindergarten readiness” or “reading readiness,” so there is a way to prepare for “cross-cultural literacy.” Whether it is through travel, meeting new people, eating out in a Vietnamese restaurant, or reading a book set in Botswana or India, there are many ways we can open new worlds for the children in our life.

What good is there in being culturally literate? Much.

  1.  We grow in empathy. Our hearts expand and open through the diversity of people we can relate to.
  2. We grow in our knowledge of cultures and worldviews, which piques our curiosity and broadens our interests and love for the world.
  3. We are protected from xenophobia, exclusionary or condescending views toward others.
  4. We learn the universality of feelings and basic needs. The specificity of lifestyle, language or custom may differ, but the commonality of the need for love, acceptance and respect transcends nations, ethnicities and cultures.
  5. We are less likely to fall prey to chronocentrism, the assumption that people who lived 100, 500, 1,000 years ago should think and act as we do.  A chronocentric attitude would see people from days past as inferior and as not having had time to progress as far. Here we should recognize that cross-cultural literacy does not only figure into national borders and dialects, but also time periods. The American Midwest where I live today, while sharing some similarities and history, does not share the same culture from 150 years ago. If I want to read James Whitcomb Riley, I will need to make use of some learned cross-cultural literacy techniques, and be ready to recognize that I am still not fluent.

Perhaps this seems obvious to us, but more and more I see kids (and adults) eschewing books which are “out-dated” in lieu of something “relevant” and “modern.” This belies the attitude that historical settings have no bearing or application in our lives, even more, that we have no connection as humans. Gravitating to contemporary and pertinent issues may seem understandable unless we only gravitate to books whose characters are “like me.” There is a danger in always trying to find ourselves in the pages of story. Story is where our world expands, and our capacity to empathize is not dependent on how closely the main characters’ lives and values reflect my own.

We need to help ourselves and our children become cross-culturally literate, whether we are crossing the street, traveling with a passport or through time. On first hearing of a new holiday or a new root vegetable from South America, I would love my children’s initial reaction to be curiosity and enthusiasm. In the same way, as they encounter hurt, discrimination and triumph in other people’s lives, I would love for their reaction to be sorrow, anger and joy where appropriate.

How beautiful to understand that God works IN cultures, ABOVE cultures, and IN SPITE OF cultures, including our own.

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