Tuesday, April 19, 2011

“Birds of a Feather…”

Several weeks ago, we examined the role of culture in shaping behavior and value systems, specifically a theory that maintains that culture is capable of influencing these components of our lives.  If we are to accept this theory, then we must assume this applies to the culture of educational institutions as well—that these institutions and the prevailing mindsets of the faculty (and students) associated with these institutions create a subculture of substantial influence.  Students typically choose where they want to pursue their undergraduate and graduate educations based on university and college programs that reflect their present ideologies while offering the opportunity to better shape and refine these ideologies.  Some institutions are obviously narrowly focused with little conflicting viewpoints among the influential actors who shape the institution’s culture, but some of us seek institutions where the influential actors are varied and well-grounded in research.  This was my intention in applying to the Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies department: I hoped that the cross-departmental collaboration might offer a more multidisciplinary world view and diverse (perhaps conflicting) perspectives concerning particular issues or topics.  As of yet, I am not disappointed, but the deeper I delve into my graduate studies the more I learn about just how much work I have to do before I may describe myself as a cross-disciplinary thinker. 

I’ve always been blessed (or cursed, as it turns out, when cornered in a particularly heated debate) with the ability to see both (or multiple) sides of an argument.  I’m not quick to dismiss another’s idea as wrong simply because it doesn’t jive with my own but try my best to understand the rationale (or lack of rationale as the case may be) behind the opposing viewpoint.  This forces me to explore my own rationale, and more and more I am coming to understand just how much I have been defined as a product of my environment…specifically as it applies to culture.  My thinking has been shaped: shaped by my parents,  my childhood home, my friends and family, my high school teachers, my teammates, my fellow undergraduates, my professors, my bosses and colleagues, the places I worked and lived, the places I’ve traveled to in-country and out…and so on and so forth.  I’ve tended to surround myself by like-thinking individuals—both intentionally and unintentionally—and the detriment to this has been my assumption that most everyone else thinks the same way.  This assumption is constantly contradicted, and my reason for coming to graduate school revolves around the hope that I might do away with this “assuming” once and for all.  By exposing myself to perspectives and viewpoints and values belonging to a culture outside of my own, I thought I’d build a better base for which to formulate my own. 

There may still be hope.  I’ve certainly been exposed to more divergent modes of thinking these past four months than I did my entire three years in Senegal, and for this I’m grateful.  (I will always maintain that Peace Corps was (and is) an invaluable learning experience, but my service did much to frustrate me concerning how development agencies function and the type of mindsets of the people who work for these agencies.  Another story for another time, perhaps.)  But I am beginning to wonder just how “interdisciplinary” my graduate program truly is.  Or perhaps a better way of framing it would be to express my concern with my ability to absorb all of the fundamentals and background necessary to deeply understand the issues I’m care about in the short time frame I’ve given myself.  The truth is, I’ve been carefully molded over my past twenty-six and half years—molded by the current concerns of my immediate culture (as shaped through my social relations) that know draw very little on the history of these concerns.  I’ve taken many things for granted, as it turns out, and am slowly learning that the way I think it nothing but a product of this history of which I know very little.  This embarrasses me, and I aim to remedy this problem, but at the same time I question: for how much of this ignorance am I to blame?  Perhaps most of it, for is it not my responsibility to understand the formation of the ideologies I’ve adopted as my own?  Perhaps very little, as I am a product of the culture to which I was exposed during my formative years.  The bottom line is, however, that while my cultural compatriots—those who want to engage and understand the current agricultural and food system—condemn those who endorse “mainstream, conventional, industrial agriculture” as being narrow-minded and ignorant of larger pressing issues such as social, ecological, and sustainable concerns, we might not be so different.  If we don’t take the measures to amend our own ignorance, then we are just as guilty of being narrow-minded.  We’ve all been “trained” and “socialized” in our ways, and while we might be inclined to champion or own way as broad-minded, extensive and multi-faceted, can we ever truly be sure?  

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