Why Teach American Studies in a CIS Country?
CIS The Commonwealth of Independent States, is a loose confederation of the former republics of the Soviet Union.
Carol is currently a Peace Corps Volunteer assigned to Azerbaijan State Agricultural University, where she taught an American Studies class last fall.
By Carol Orme-Johnson
There are three good reasons to teach American Studies in a former Soviet country: to provide accurate information and correct misapprehensions about the United States; to show how a democratic government can be held accountable to its citizens; to teach critical thinking. I had the good fortune to teach a 39-hour American Studies class to second year university students in Ganja, Azerbaijan, in 2010, and I accomplished these three goals in that class.
At the beginning of the class, the students
had more information about the United States than I expected, but had many gaps
in their knowledge. They had seen American movies and advertisements for
American products, some of which they owned. Much of what they knew about the
United States came from popular music and censored news reports. Most of the
students I taught had never traveled outside the country or met an American
before (though they subsequently met Fulbright Scholars who came to our
university). Classifying America as big, but being from a country the size of
the state of Maine, the students really had no concept of its scope and the
richness of its resources. They knew a little history and had heard of George
Washington and Abraham Lincoln. They knew, for example, that Lincoln freed the
slaves but really had no idea how slavery worked. They knew that President
Barack Obama is Black but had no understanding of the road Black people had
traveled in the US between the end of slavery and his election. Teaching
American history, physical and human geography, and government helped fill in
some of the gaps. The class covered the following subjects, in this order
through the semester
Azerbaijan is a secular Islamic, post-Soviet country struggling to develop under a government burdened by corruption and intolerant of dissent. The Azerbaijani education system emphasizes rote memorization, and the students had little or no experience analyzing, much less criticizing, events or ideas or policies. The conservative society outside the capital city in Azerbaijan limits options for ordinary people. For example, though women do not have to cover themselves as in strict Muslim countries, they are still subservient to men. A man is always served first at the table and is expected to make the decisions for the family, often without consulting his wife. A woman who is not married by the age of twenty five is considered pathetic, and unmarried motherhood is incomprehensible. When they marry, many couples continue to live in the same house or very near the husband’s family, and parents continue to have great influence over their married children’s lives. Also, children care for their aging parents in their homes. Azerbaijan is over 93% Muslim (1), and the majority of non-Muslims live in the capital city or in tight enclaves. Most people in the outlying regions know only a very small number of people of other religions. In general, opportunities for educational and professional advancement depend entirely on personal contacts and influence, not on individual achievement. Obviously, Azerbaijan is quite different from the United States.
I chose to devote time in this class to a discussion of human diversity in the US in order to highlight the contrast to the much more homogeneous society in Azerbaijan, and to reveal the cross-currents underlying American society. Of course, any description of the diversity of the American population includes statistics about the large and growing percentage of non-White Americans, but statistics do not tell the whole story. The assorted mixture of people from many different places is part of the picture. Repeated reference during the history section to the waves of immigrants from different parts of the world at different times, supplemented with photographs of various ethnic groups, was designed to explain the tensions among the groups in the rapidly growing country in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The United States is not really the way it seems in so many advertisements. For instance, the 2-parent-2-child nuclear family is no longer the norm (2). A description of the various family structures prevalent now – including unwed mothers, divorced/widowed parents, married people choosing not to have children, people having children without marrying, blended families with step-parents and half-siblings, single sex couples with or without children, and older people living alone – gave a greater understanding of what the diverse society is truly like in the United States. This variety of family structures is very different from the traditional society in Azerbaijan and was new to the students.
Religious diversity was harder for the students to understand than racial and ethnic diversity. They were very surprised to learn that, although the majority of Americans are Christian, all the world’s religions are represented there. When religion was discussed in relation to a 2007 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (3), which found that 44% of adult Americans have changed their religious affiliation from that of their childhood, one student expressed his surprise: “You mean that you can change? You can change your religion?” Meeting a teacher who had changed her own religious affiliation in her forties was itself a radical experience for these students.
Background to 9/11
Students were unaware of the background leading up to 9/11 and had surprisingly little factual information about the events of that day. Today’s students were not alive in 1979 when the Iran Hostage Crisis began and did not understand the hostility that event provoked among Americans against Iran and other radical Muslims. A review of Osama bin Laden’s “jihad” against the U.S. and attacks against American embassies and military targets overseas in the 1990s, with repeated headlines about radical Muslims killing Americans around the world – for no reason except that they were American – helped to set the stage for 9/11. Some students had been taught various conspiracy theories about 9/11, for instance, the US government was actually responsible for the hijackings. It was not until they learned about the evidence proving al Qaeda responsible for the hijackings and resulting deaths and about the previous events from 1979 onward that they could understand why some Americans disliked or mistrusted Muslims. They could begin to see that American hostility is, at least partly, the consequence of the actions of a few radical Muslims, not government brainwashing.
Focusing on the history of the Civil Rights Movement gave the students an example of how rights on paper are meaningless without the means of enforcement and how the people themselves could transform their society and their laws. The students learned that although slavery officially ended in 1865, severe discrimination against African Americans was legal for the next 100 years, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and major Supreme Court decisions of the 1950s and 1960s. It was the actions of African Americans themselves, through protests, voter registration, and court cases that brought about change (4). By the late twentieth century, they had achieved equality under the law and substantial improvement in the everyday life of the average Black person (5). Their actions influenced both the views of numerous White Americans and the decisions of members of Congress to pass important new legislation, displaying democracy in action. The role of the independent Supreme Court in requiring some unpopular changes in the way Black people were treated demonstrated the strength of the three separate branches of government and the centrality of individual rights in American government.
The concept that a right given on paper but not allowed in practice is not a real right was a new concept for these students. (The Azerbaijani government takes the opposite position, that people have great freedom, on paper, and anyone who protests that the rights are not real can get in serious trouble.) Students saw that only when enforcement of that right became possible did the right become actualized.
Opportunities to encourage critical thinking occurred throughout the class. When discussing the government, students described the US as the model of democracy and mentioned that the Azerbaijani Constitution is based on the American one. When asked, however, what the disadvantages of democratic government are, not only could the students not imagine any, but they were shocked by the implication that democracy, as it is found in America, is not perfect. In the arts section they learned to look for deeper meanings. For example, immigrating to the United States appears rosy but has been very difficult for some peoples, as illustrated by the movie West Side Story. Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman exposes the flaws in the great American Dream of economic prosperity. In this way, students learned that fiction can reveal societal truths.
In the US, critical thinking can be applied to the actions of the government itself. Public outcry was partly responsible for ending the Vietnam War. Slides showing the graphic, unflattering presentation of the war in the media and depicting the major protests across the country against the war demonstrated the force of public opinion contrary to a matter of national policy. This is an example of how in a true democracy the government is subject to the will of the people. Similarly, the ability of reporters from the Washington Post and other papers to persist in digging for information about what really happened in the Watergate break-in, followed by a thorough investigation by the legislative branch of actions by the executive branch, demonstrates how a truly free press makes it possible to hold the government accountable. Students living under a repressive regime had no previous understanding that holding the government accountable to the people is a basic element of democracy.
Teaching American Studies is not a vehicle for boosterism. Students in Azerbaijan and in many other CIS countries are eager to learn about the United States. Things American, from music to jeans to university degrees are tremendously popular, infusing American Studies with that “cool” factor as well. Students may want to copy much from American culture, but it is not possible to import only the positive aspects. Some rich outgrowths of American culture, such as gospel music, are too rooted in the locality to replant elsewhere without major mutation, and some weeds, such as the materialism that accompanies capitalism, will inevitably sneak in. American sellers try vigorously to market their products abroad, whether appropriate for the foreign society or not. Students must learn to identify what should and can be copied or imported, and to try to protect against the undesirable elements. In keeping with the goal of teaching critical thinking, the class should clearly portray the aspects of American government and culture that need improvement. Teaching students thus to take a hard look at the world outside gives them a new ability to analyze their own society. Imparting that new ability is alone reason enough to teach American Studies abroad.
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