Early in my education I was taken by the statement of one of my professors that man invented culture but that today culture determines how people think and determines their choices. This notion conflicted with my Catholic School beliefs that taught a Horacio Alger free will view of the world.
As I explored the role of culture in our lives, I found the notion of a free will troubling because it reduces everyone to the proposition that we have a choice, ignoring economic factors and the totality of society or our social life.
Over the years, I have leaned more to the professor's one line view of society. Nevertheless, I found a strict adherence to deterministic arguments to be too unchanging for my taste. As with my alienation from Catholicism, the application of unbreakable natural laws was equally troubling.
I found that dealing with macro questions often detracted from my quest for answers. Thus I concentrated on explanations of culture that could be tested at the micro level.
When anything becomes too generalized, it loses focus. Without a doubt culture plays an enormous role in determining our emotions and behavioral patterns. But too often assumptions become truth. For example, during the sixties, Oscar Lewis' culture of poverty sought to explain the cycle of poverty by suggesting that the poor failed to break out of poverty because they adapted to their culture.
After an initial honeymoon, critics emerged who countered that poor develop their behavior and beliefs because they have no money. No jobs. No patrimony. They live in poverty because of this; not a culture of poverty.
More recently Secretary of State designate Hillary Clinton said at a Senate rightfully condemned the exploitation of women, saying that the genital mutilation of women was not cultural but criminal.
I agree with the criminality, but culture cannot be absolved; neither can religion which is that part of culture that collectively forms our value system. For example, historically it has been religion that has validated war and sanctioned the bombing of civilians.
Culture collectively programs us. The Holy Office of the Inquisition could not have existed without the approval of the Catholic Church. Neither could the death of millions of Mexican natives or their enslavement. The Church created a loophole saying that the taking of Indian slaves was justified if they were cannibals, taken in just warfare or rejected salvation and accepted Jesus Christ.
Culture has formed the collective notion of Europeans and Americans that their culture and their beliefs are exceptional. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s "The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society" is a case in point. Schlesinger underscores the dangers of ethnic awareness and the superiority of western culture.
His reasoning can be summarize by the proverb "la zorra nunca se ve la cola" (the fox never sees its own tail) ... "ni el zorrillo su fundillo", (nor [does] the skunk [see] his ass.) It reflects the cultural biases of most Americans and their institutions.
In examining the process of cultural change, I find it cultural change nary impossible when it comes to the nation's institutions ÔÇô this is tragic because progress is predicated on institutional change. Only through institutions can you change the common sense of a people.
I have been in academe for some forty-five years. I stayed in the academy because I believed that the Euro-centric culture of society clashed with Mexican American culture and had to be changed before Mexican American students could be accepted and succeed in school. In the process I also taught in the public schools for eight years. Reason would say that I should have contributed to institutional change. Not so!
I can say this although we have a successful Chicana/o studies department that offers 166 sections per semester. But have we changed the institution? Very little!
This is true even though we are on a first name basis with some progressive deans and provosts who say they are for affirmative action, civil rights and voted for Obama. When push comes to shove they defend the institutional culture of the academy.
They are not much different than George W. Bush who had Mexicans in his inner circle. It is not that they don't like Mexicans and Latinos (or Hispanics as they call them); it is just that down under they think that they are brighter than we are and that we should be grateful.
In the forty years I have worked at California State University Northridge I cannot cite a single instance where the administration helped us grow the department. They were and are too preoccupied with how we manage the unit. As long as our enrollment is high, they call us Pete and drop the Pedro.
In my forty years at CSUN I have found that the institution has changed us more than we have changed its institutional culture.
I am amazed at how quickly our Chicana/o studies professors cling on to the PhD after their name, as if it were part of their name. How they obfuscate their titles by dropping the Ed.D and using just Dr. But, should I be surprised? Years ago Ivan Illich wrote about the affect of professionalization and assimilation. We delude ourselves into believing they are accepting us collectively.
How far have we come? At CSUN out of some forty-nine, thirty-two department do not have a single Mexican American faculty member. According to the university, in 1969 3.5 percent% of the faculty members were Mexican American, today if we take Chicano Studies out of the equation the percentage is about 3.9%.
I just saw a disturbing movie, "The Reader." It is about collective guilt and how a society rationalizes itself. The only unrealistic part of the film is that tries to seek some historical distance between generations and absolves the younger generation for the barbarity of the past.
But I question how much generational change takes place within an institution such as higher education? In the end, institutions acculturate succeeding generations. The Catholic Church and academe are cases in point.
Both the Church and academe do not want to change; they believe that they are exceptional.
Some readers will argue that I am too cynical. After all aren't, there more Latino students in the universities today than forty years ago? True, but that is only to preserve the institutions. White people may be taking Viagra, but the ain't having babies.
Eventually we will end the mutilation of women. I have less hope that we will stop barbarities such as the bombing of innocent civilians.
My fear is that we will continue to condemn ourselves and our students to the ovens of academe and make them in the image of American culture..