Performing Dialectics

Inter-Culturalism as Unity through Struggle

Rich Gibson

Director of International Social Studies

Wayne State University, Detroit MI

May 1997

When I was in the fifth grade, scheduled to attend a multi-ethnic working class school near downtown Detroit, I was lucky to be in a baby boom so overcrowding my school that my teacher, whose real first name was Hope, volunteered to hold a class--over 40 kids--in the Detroit Institute of Arts. There she let us explore our world---the arts museum and the library across the street--and report back. Early on, she took us to hear a quartet play. When we returned, she waved her arms, had us all humming in less than more unison, and said that we were going to learn to listen to and understand the whole band around us, and that each one of us would learn to play an instrument well.(1) Miss Hope was a classroom conductor. Our task was to find an area of interest and become experts. We worked in small groups, organized around our curiosity. We must have been very loud, probably menacing curators and librarians. I remember that year of discovery as we scouted art, nations, history, politics, time, literature, and science. We read and talked and wrote about what we read. Every morning, she read to us. Miss Hope took a huge, apparently unmanageable, class of kids and turned it into a noisy hunting party. At one point, she suggested that each of us become a nation. We'd draw lots. I was absent (tonsillectomy) the day of the initial draw. I became Albania; saw history through the eyes of Albania's hero, Skanderberg, and wondered how communists of this tiny country halted the advance of Italian and German fascist troops; and whether what they finally won was really a victory. I debated the class Greek about the relationship of democracy and equality---and whose home base was the cradle of what. Today, a Cold War later, I know what it means when the grandson of post-feudal King Zog tries to reclaim his throne, and why Kim Philby played a big role in the Great game. My year with Miss Hope was, to then, the most exciting time I spent in school, perhaps because it was so unlike what I had come to think was school. She never let what Whitehead called the student's "seamless coat of learning", be cut to fit the suit.(2)

I passed scholarship exams for a prestigious private boy's school and enrolled two years later. The first day of school, the headmaster met with boys anxiously waiting to be matriculated into a world where everyone wore suits and ties and chose proper utensils at meals. The headmaster, a white-haired truly gentle man, held up a globe and said, "Gentlemen, this is ours and will one day be yours. You will spend your career here learning how we act on it." Which is mostly what we did. Our classes were much smaller than the public school, about seven in a class. We spent more time there, from 8 to 4:30. There were some tedious lectures, but underlying the work was the headmaster's vision: we were learning to act on the world and make it behave, a vision encased in the belief that what we did counted. Moreover, the method of learning was tied to Miss Hope's approach, knowledge was integrated, not disjointed. History and art were part of the same pursuit. We crafted projects that had purpose, rather than exercises which were their own purpose. Truth was a matter of debate and contest, proofs in the world: not codes on an answer sheet. We table-thumped tactical war maneuvers and imagined plans for real peace. Discipline was assumed, founded in freedom. Voices in class and on the playing fields, rich and scholarshipers, were mostly treated as equal.

I left my private school in the 11th grade; returned to the public schools with my neighborhood friends. There was a different view of the student in school. Tracked internally, unequal within our difference from the private school, we were learning to have the world act on us--and to behave. The curriculum was fixed, lock step. Math had nothing to do with history, history little to do with literature. My old street pals were intellectually quieted, if not exactly quiet. Harmony here was order. The curriculum was to limit intelligent noise, movement, struggle. There was a presumption that we did not know, we should not explore, but learn in the abstract by a one-way form of osmosis. There were tests every week to measure our progress, a term we did not define, and surprise got-cha quizzes to keep anxiety high. Some teachers did all they could to engage us, to bring their own special talents into the classroom. This was no hunting party. We were prey. Most people--teachers and students alike--did school: saying what was required to be heard, memorizing for tests, sucking up on the student council or opting out in lavatories, waiting for spring.

Last year, I went to Grenada on a Fulbright grant to conduct research on literacy and social studies projects. I met with the current Minister of Education, installed by the government selected after the North American invasion about 12 years ago, and the former leaders of the revolutionary New Jewel Movement--16 men and one woman--the once-young national intelligentsia held since 1983 in the 18th century Richmond Hill prison overlooking the most beautiful harbor on the island. Both the Minister of Education and the New Jewel prisoners direct literacy classes, the former in very unequal settings in schools all over the island; the latter in a large hot cell with hand hewn wooden benches. The classes the Minister of Education governs look a bit like my old public high school. Kids are silent, sitting in rows, mostly disengaged, raising hands to talk for special rewards, and dropping out as soon as they can.(3)

Prison sentences are long in Grenada's Richmond Hill jail, not only for New Jewel leaders but for everyone. When I was there a man was sentenced to seven years for stealing food. (Still, another was simply kicked out of the country for delivering cocaine). What might appear to be tedious outside prison could look like freedom inside. Nevertheless, classes inside prison look, in some ways, like Hope designed them. Participants were engaged, noisy, debating, working on collective projects--though much of class time still was taken up by a traditional near-British lecture format. On one visit, the prisoners debated the social impact of the ongoing collapse of the country's water pipe system, investigating the relationship of data about public health measures like closed sewers and illness. Another class traced the path of heart disease. Even so, the underlying purpose of the prison classes was to pass the Caribbean Exams, comparable to nationally standardized tests in the U.S. Test scores from the prison are as high as anywhere on the island. In fact, for the past three years, the success rate on the "School Leaving Programme" for the prison is about three times the passage rate for the entire rest of Grenada.(4) To paraphrase Nietzsche, those who have a why to learn can bear almost any how. Both the Minister of Education and the New Jewel prisoners--one group in jail and concentrating on freedom through proficiency, the other in power and concentrating on skills for adjustment--asked me what I thought could be done to build democracy through education. Both linked democracy with national economic development, economic abundance as the predecessor of educational equality and democratic unity; not the lesson Miss Hope passed along to me, but surely the paradoxical meeting point of socialist and capitalist thought.

All of which is a prelude to say that teaching, every form of pedagogy, is built on a view of the past, an analysis of the present, and some hope for the future. Pedagogy is praxis, a unity of theory and practice with definite ends in mind, conscious or otherwise. In an inequitable society with an exported industrial base, where the role of the national working class is temporarily on the periphery, teachers occupy a centrifugal point. What teachers do counts more than ever. Everywhere rising inequality demands intensified authoritarianism, school becomes more regulated. So, if our work is to make sense, to self-correct; if we are to keep our ideals and still teach, consciousness of the project is integral. The absence of a plan leaves direction to the powerful.

Egalitarian participatory democracy is my pedagogical target as a social activist. How we reach that point is extraordinarily complex. Yet within that complexity, I identify myself with educators like Hope who are democratic through action, egalitarian through self-disciplined consciousness, not decree. In retrospect, part of this project is both multi-cultural and intercultural. Hope experimented, as she told me over tea 20 years later, with meeting an inequitable universe with participatory and democratic methods--in order to influence the world. This pedagogy was tied to a workable philosophy of how people learn, constructing and elevating meaning from examinations and tests of the material reality at hand.

Interculturalism, beyond multi-culturalism, includes the right to speak, to be heard, to discover collectivity, to measure commonality and difference, to test consequences, to create, and to seek control over creation. Interculturalism investigates behind the primacy of culture and language into the foundational, if multiple, bases for racism, the fear of sexuality, the rise of irrationalism and exploitation, and into the extraction and ownership of value and decision-making power. At issue, in the final analysis: Who does the work? Who owns the product? Who controls the processes of the work-place? Why? Who attends the symphony? Who decides what is played, and how?

Interculturalism is a process of uncovering, of listening, and of choice--in school in a reasonably free and trusting space. An intercultural approach investigates and unveils what underlies human relationships, calls to question the matter of consequences--if I believe this where will I go?-- and tests the unity and conflict of human interests to help us decide what is important, what we are, what clouds our needs for clarity, and whether or not we can all get along. What follows is a brief sketch of how this works, and falls short, in practice.(5)

My classes of pre-service and in-service teachers, at Penn State in the mountains of central Pennsylvania and at Wayne State in downtown Detroit, struggle to unravel the contradictions in our own perceptions and standpoints as well as contradictions in texts and the material world.

I insist on participation, but students enter the discussion on many levels. They are required to speak during three presentations in a semester. Presentations are criticized by their colleagues and me in writing, usually over the e-mail. There is an escalating intensity of critique. First presentations are subject only to praise from the student-audience. Discussion leaders are asked to identify the key strengths in their work. We try to establish, and reinvigorate, a comfortable space in which people can become increasingly uncomfortable. By the last presentation, criticism is often sharp, as is self-criticism. Everyone is required to "talk" directly to me or on a class bulletin board on e-mail, twice a week.(6)

E-mail, which Microsoft's Bill Gates describes as his only cultural contribution, is a helpful additional path into students' minds. E-mail offers the chance to interact with particular students, often camouflaged or quiet in class, within a controlled time-frame. It also bridges affective and cognitive areas unexplored in most of my classrooms. Students report things on e-mail they won't reveal in class. Bulletin boards add an activist dimension to student writing. Some engage like doing graffiti, others let political ideas fly on the BB's they were too shy to uphold in class. E-mail allow me to stay in touch with my students as they entered teaching--and wrote back to say their experience underlined, or contradicted, our class work. E-mail discussions, finally, form a data base.

At the end of each week, we take an hour for group meetings, then report to the whole class--to discuss paths we took and where we are headed. I urge students to map, to chart on newsprint, what they see going on.(7) In one special spring class, we were joined by two graduate students who participated in the charting and influenced the entire course. What is offered here are charts based on student work in my class, but diagrams much less complex, much less messy, than the many interpretations of our directions that were actually presented. They illustrate a distillation of my own thinking, influenced by students' perceptions on their own charts, and correctives that students later offered on the e-mail as late as April 1997, some two years after they had begun to teach.

On the first day of that semester, 20-plus students met in an "Adolescent Literacy and Writing " course. In response to an invitation to discuss our purpose, we reached consensus on a trident base: pedagogy (that is, how they would want to teach and how they will come to understand those they will teach), exploration (the understanding that we would agree on a contextual departure point and investigate many paths) and modeling (my contribution from a belief in openly struggling to offer expertise without dogmatism and seeking to rub together rigor and freedom--to ensure they have the room to make many choices, but that those choices are followed with truth-seeking research). This begins to create a milieu where criticism and self-criticism is possible, respected.


We discussed the potential for a curriculum building on a triad of their interests, my expertise, and the resources, concerns and requirements of the university community. We drew on Sun Tzu's "Art of War", a favorite of one student, and formalized a triangle which we conceived as the foundation for gaining and testing knowledge in school. Then, to picture the complexity, we underpinned our base with significant contradictory influences on literacy.


Most participants agreed that literature doesn't stand alone, that it makes no sense isolated from its historical and political context. There was debate here, a sizeable minority suggesting that extraordinary art and literature stands outside politics, outside production, and outside questions of race/class or sex and gender. Nevertheless, a parallel course, in which nearly all of them were enrolled, was centered on North American fiction about the war in Vietnam. It was tactical for some dissenters to see that a weave of adolescent literacy/history and politics might pay off. Even so, the class agreed to invite a graduate student working with Patrick Shannon, author of a book called "Becoming Political", to come and make the point. She did. The students chose to concentrate their first unit on a fictional piece about Vietnam. E-mail records student voices to report a small part of what occurred.(8)

I should first emphasize that the war in Vietnam may be the key inter-cultural event in the post World War II era. It brought together men and women, Asians, blacks, whites, Hispanics, Native Americans--simultaneously united and at odds, depending most frequently on their material positions in society. Their interaction ranged from collective solidarity, including deserting birth-class, to killing one other. Depictions of that conflict now range from a wide realm of fiction, to an expanding base of historical documents, to political, sociological and anthropological studies. In addition, Vietnam may be the most mapped country in the world. There are maps of the air space, the ground, and the virtual underground nation that grew in the tunnels beneath the surface of the country. The World Wide Web is rich with Vietnam bibliographies.(9)

In the sense that the wars on Vietnam represent a complex interpenetration of likeness and difference, the multiple representations of history demonstrate not simply multi-culturalism, the celebration of difference, but inter-culturalism, the commonalties of cultures linked or divided through consciousness and social class. Vietnam may be the watershed of cultural and social understanding in the last quarter of this century. It marks the beginning of the end of the most powerful colonial empires--and the opening of ideological spaces to deconstruct the pillars of wisdom that propped up those empires. Since Vietnam, the liberation of Saigon on April 29, 1975, nothing has been the same. The practical implication is that this structural shift has an impact on every student in any classroom--from direct participants to those whose lives are altered because the entire family must work to live. Few students ever reach Vietnam in typical chronological social studies curricula, so there is a certain appeal to the mysterious.(10)

Vietnam's complex circumstance is the basis of a wealth of debate and literature, if the students can find ways to engage. It is also, in many of their minds, still dangerous terrain.

With this in mind, our class chose an influential part of the North American canon on Vietnam.

Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers, is the story of a platoon slogging through a tour of duty in Vietnam. The book was praised by prestigious reviewers in the Boston Globe and the New York Times and is now listed by the American Library Association as a top-rated text on Vietnam.(11)

These are some early student comments about the book, drawn from e-mail posts to me and on the internet bulletin board.

Student E-mail Responses to "Fallen Angels

1. Candace: "My Step-Dad was in Vietnam. We are not allowed to talk about that in our house and he still screams at night. My mother never let me ask questions about the war. Now when we talk about the war in class I feel tied by my ignorance about it, and my emotions about my father. We never got that far in high school history and I haven't had any history about it here. I guess I didn't know the war until I read "Fallen Angels" by Myers. I think this is a good book, provocative for adolescents. Our soldiers didn't know what they were doing and most of the Vietnamese were stuck in the middle. I guess that's the way it is for regular people in most of the wars. You can't do much. It's horrible but we need to deal with it."

(Candace is hushed young woman whose sense of presence is bounded by her notions of the appropriate weight for American women and whose guarded sense of privacy, as she told me later in an e-mail discussion, is related to a history of abuse. She was unwilling to talk in class but she would talk to me on e-mail, and, over time, she used the class bulletin board to begin to talk to other students. Toward the end of the semester, she began to engage class discussions and to lead. E-mail and bulletin boards are arenas where at least some of these sensitive inquirers feel comfortable enough to publish their sometimes very personal investigations.)

Later in the semester, Candace critiqued her own initial comment in praise of Fallen Angels with this, published on the class bulletin board and backed by her reading of "Vietnam, A Documentary History" by Gettleman:

" I don't know why it is not one of us ever got to Vietnam in our high school classes. When we counted in history class, only two of us got all the way through WWII in any class we ever took. I want to know who gained from this and why the novels and movies so often say it can't be understood. It looks to me like the Vietnamese weren't trapped in the middle, by far most of them were on the other side. They understood. They won. Also, why do we never hear from the Vietnamese, especially the women? "

Candace joined a group inquiring into portrayals of Vietnamese women in U.S. film and literature, and started a classroom struggle described below.

2. Danny: " I don't know why we were in Vietnam but I think this explains part of it, nobody knows. So when those guys got there they had to stick to their sidekicks and protect each other. There is nothing else to do in a war. It's important to show how religious they were and how that made some of them feel protected, especially at the end."

3. Matthew: "I don't know why we always have to talk about bashing this country in college and talking about things like killing Vietnamese. I mean I like this country and I think those troops were right to have fought for their country. We are all better off because they did. But it seems like when we read history like this that it is the things that made this country great, like religion and the Judeo-Christian ethic that always get questioned. But this is the first Vietnam history I have had to read and it was ok. I'd use it in class."

4. Peter: "My family is Canadian and New Yorker. My uncle told me a long time ago that the U.S. was in Vietnam for one thing, money, and that the U.S. lost the war because almost all of the Vietnamese fought them. Candy said that most of the Vietnamese were trapped in the middle. This book says that. From what I learned in class in Canada about Vietnam, it's wrong. And I think it was wrong for Myers to have all of the African-American troops using words like "gook" about the Vietnamese. Maybe they did it but I don't think the rest of this was true so why should this be? Ponder this: history is just whoever won talking, so you can never really tell. Go figure."

5. Dawn: " This book has these young men thinking all the time that they might be just in someone elses' movie which is the way I get to be made to feel as an African American woman all the time. I never had a class on Vietnam so I don't know what it was about yet....There were problems I had with this book. I know enough to know that we have always fought back and that is not here in the book...Anyway, at least Apocalypse Now showed me this is a beautiful country. I'd like to go there. And I need to read "Heart of Darkness."

As we read Fallen Angels, we watched films in groups and reported to the class what we'd seen. We covered much of the pop-cannon about the war: "Apocalypse Now", "Full Metal Jacket", "Platoon", "Casualties of War", "Bat 21", Born on the Fourth of July", "Coming Home", "Good Morning Vietnam". A few somewhat ahistorical students watched "MASH". The multiple texts provided a variety of forms of student access to the talk in class. We discussed the common themes, the development of characters, how they might get their own students to write creatively, and the role of passion in teaching. We also began to note the gaze of the camera, or author--usually the eye of a North American; never in the mainstream the eye of a North Vietnamese or National Liberation Front fighter. We found alternative media. We charted these factors at work.


What was especially interesting here, as with Fallen Angels, was the interlacing of history and fiction. The history canon, to these students, is often pop-culture.

We watched two more films: "Vietnam, Year of the Pig", and part of, "Vietnam a Television History", focused on the Phoenix program, an assassination project run by the CIA which killed more than 40,000 civilians, an operation that the CIA claimed was a "surgical" effort to weed out VC terrorists. In addition, several small groups reported on original historical documents in Gareth Porter's, "Vietnam, a History in Documents".(12)

" Vietnam, Year of the Pig" praises Ho Chi Minh as a respected popular democratic leader and makes it clear, Robert Macnamara aside, that the Viet Cong would win. Part of "Television History" interviews the CIA's William Colby, defending the necessity of Phoenix.

"Year of the Pig" takes up the war in Vietnam from the viewpoint of the defeated French and from the eyes of the Vietnamese. It serves to decenter the discourse from the North American focal point and suggests a democratic role for Ho Chi Minh and the National Liberation Front. Colby's chilling defense of Phoenix contrasts the altruistic claims of the U.S. with on-the-ground practice.

Some student responses were angry. Several students said they felt like I had lulled them with "soft stuff", then hit them with documentaries. They wrote on the e-mail.

Student E-Mail Responses to "Vietnam Year of the Pig" and

"Vietnam, a Television History"

1. Candace: "I can still hear my father screaming at night, going all the way back to when I was a little girl, when I needed a Daddy who would not cry like me in the dark. I think I am beginning to understand why he cries. I believe he may think he was wrong to be there. I don't know. I have never seen his medal. It was a long time ago. But it seems like he shouldn't have been there. I think he didn't have a choice so what was he to do? ....I will not think he was a war criminal."

2. Danny: " This doesn't show much. Colby sounded like he was lying. How many people did the Phoenix Operation kill? I don't remember but it was a lot. He must have known why HE was in Vietnam but the movie doesn't explain that. I can tell the other movies we watched didn't have many Vietnamese saying anything and "Year of the Pig" was all about that. They knew why they were there anyway. This wasn't a civil war as far as I am concerned, it was more like a revolution followed by an invasion, several invasions in fact."

Danny joined a group exploring texts which focused on historicizing William Colby whose past, it came out, was full of assassination squads.

3. Matthew: "My uncle didn't go to Vietnam and I talked to him. He was old enough to go but went to work in a hospital so he didn't get enlisted (sic). He says there weren't any patriots in that war except for the people who were there already. But he didn't think it was right to spend so much time in a writing class on history and I don't think these are good issues for high school students. I wouldn't want to have to deal with the issues in my class because I don't know anything about them, except for the book and the movies. Besides, this is too emotional. It's too soon to try to understand this war."

Matthew joined a group interviewing 40ish people on campus to gather data to write a fiction piece on the war. He was in an auto accident and was unable to complete the class. He hasn't quit. He recently e-mailed to say he is reading Marilyn Young's, "The Vietnam Wars".(13)

4. Dawn: "No Black people got anything from Vietnam, but Black people were always at the front. How is it that people can be so easily gotten to act against what is best for them? Isn't this related to schools? "

Dawn began to write a piece of fiction from the eyes of a French Black troop at the battle of Dien Bien Phu (the battle that drove the French from Vietnam.). She dropped that project when she came on Wilfred Burchette's reporting from Vietnam in the quasi-underground paper, "The Guardian". Burchette wrote from the side of the Vietnamese led by General Giap and Ho Chi Minh, declaring, "Vietnam Will WIn".

Peter did not choose to comment.

Peter led a group looking at the portrayal of women in North American fiction and film about the war. This group turned to took off from viewing the film, "Deer Hunter" and examined hazing and rape in the Greek system as it relates to the preparation of troops and representations of prostitution.

Two other students did voice underlying sentiments in the class:

4. Erica: "These last movies just made me angry and made me feel awful. I think these are strange choices in an English-writing class which is more supposed to be about art and literature...."

5. Sam: "There are many wars going on now but with the U.S.S.R. gone, I don't see what this has got to do with us. I was for "Beans of Egypt Maine" from the start. Next will we be reading books about Bosnia? "

Sam and Erica formed their own group. Erica led a brief report on the role North American women played in Vietnam and their struggle for representation in the Washington, D.C. Vietnam memorial. Their presentation created a debate led by Candace who insisted that the more significant problem was the absence of Vietnamese images at the wall.