Follow by Email

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Center of The Universe

The university students here always asked me the same few questions. "Professor, where are you from?" "Professor, where did you graduate from university?" "Professor, what was your major?"

At the time, I wasn't exactly sure what accounted for the remarkable consistency in the questioning. As it ends up, much of what happens in Korea is remarkably uniform. The voice of the Korean teacher meanders down through generations of students. At the end of that river, spills out those repetitive questions, rounded stones shaped by endless classroom drills.

"Well, my hometown is New York," I would say. I always drew the distinction between New York State and New York City, hoping to throw in the small learning opportunity about the difference between a state and a city. "And, I graduated from Boston University." That diploma, was newly minted, at the time. I had only graduated the previous May. "My major, well, I majored in American history."

That particular response would sometimes elicit curious reactions.

"Professor, how could American history be a major? It's only 200 years old. Korean history," it was pointed out, "is 5000 years old. That would be a major."

The mind of a freshly minted Peace Corps volunteer can handle only so much dissonance. I was already dealing with drastic differences in food, living and sleeping arrangements and language between Korea and the U.S. But even this contradiction, was hard to ignore. It was around this time that I realized my country was not the center of the universe, but rather, just another country in a world of nations. At that time, our chapter in Vietnam was just drawing to a close. And so, our more recent story of military excursions with questionable victories was just being written.

Today it seems much clearer. Americans lash out as if we know on some subconscious level we are no longer the center of the universe. Around the world our signature is drawn by the deadly hand of drones and F-16's. At home, we witness and somehow tolerate, almost weekly mass killings wherever people congregate. Our country is run by politicians whose primary reasons for being are to sustain their own power while serving up laws and policies that fill the insatiable appetite of big business. The needs of their constituents are a distant third--if given any serious thought at all.

In his "The Geography of Thought," Richard E. Nisbett, notes, "that the past five hundred years of Western military, political, and economic dominance have made the West intellectually and morally arrogant." He points out that perhaps it's time for us "to consider the possibility that another valid approach to thinking about the world exists and that it can serve as a mirror with which to examine and critique their own beliefs and habits of mind."

In the so-called "3 most honest minutes in television history," actor Jeff Daniels, star of the HBO series "The Newsroom," offers a somber and thought-provoking critique of the United States in its often self-anointed role as "The Greatest Country in the World."

Forty years ago my young Korean students offered me a different frame of reference on the world. Reflection, soul-searching and a change in priorities should be a national agenda for the U.S. Our politicians may have to get out of the way if this process is to be successful. Otherwise, and quite likely, American history will indeed be "a minor" in the scheme of things.