What is American culture?
One of my great experiences this year has been to create and teach a college-level class in American culture to perceptive Vietnamese students.
It probably was easier to craft such a class decades ago when I was a freshly minted teacher. American culture was easy to convey when the US dominated the world in nearly every sphere. Unprecedented economic giant, unequaled military superpower, steel mills spewing smoke, car manufacturers on three-a-day shifts, Hollywood and Coca-Cola imperial symbols of American cultural reach.
A lot has changed in a lifetime and a class in American culture has to share the good as well as the blemishes.
In a semester we covered the European arrival, the struggle of the colonists, and the search for religious freedom. But we also explored the contradiction; men who sought freedom for themselves quickly turn to enslave others.
The immigrant arrival with hopes, dreams and successes is balanced by pictures of modern Detroit with its decay.
A journey through music in modern times took students on a journey from the African-American influenced jazz (and segregation), to the swinging Frank Sinatra and the rebel without a cause Elvis. Later stops at Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys highlighted two visions of American in the 1960’s; protest and social justice vs. sun, fun and girls.
The urban poetry of rap and the outlandishness of Lady Gaga also delved into their social message (“Born this way” evoked an hour long conversation on gay relationships – universally supported by the students as a right but universally rejected as a lifestyle).
In teaching I learned a lot and felt a greater awareness of our shortcomings but also the beauty of our American exceptionalism; simple pursuits like baseball, “American” football (football meaning soccer to the rest of the planet), jazz, drive-in theaters, fast food but also voluntarism, our network of nonprofit organizations and diversity.
When my course concluded I asked the students “Ok, what is American culture?” One young man raised his hand and said “America is about freedom; the freedom to be what you want to be”.
And I suppose that answer is as good as any.