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December 19, 2006

Common Sayings?

On Mondays I tutor at 826 Michigan and the girl I worked with yesterday had a rather bizarre assignment. She was given several sentences that were supposedly common sayings, but written using unfamiliar words rather than in their common form. Her job was to look up the unfamiliar words and then write the saying in its common form. For example, she had been given given "After the feline has left, the rodents will cavort" and was expected to come up with "when the cat is away, the mice will play." This would probably be a great way to teach children new vocabulary, if they had ever heard these sayings. The problem was that this girl had never heard "when the cat is away, the mice will play" or "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" or "if you can't beat them, join them." Supposedly common or universal sayings are actually culturally specific. Not being a member of the dominant American culture (whatever that may be), this girl hadn't heard "you can't have your cake and eat it too." In fact, she didn't even know that "angel food" is a type of cake.

It frustrates me to no end when people confuse intelligence with cultural literacy. Having grown up outside of the cultural mainstream as well (being not-a-Christian, having divorced parents, and not living in a house), I entered college feeling out of step and simply behind. I had a lot of catching up to do, not academically, but socially and culturally. I felt this sense of foreignness again in a grad seminar where we read Mr. Bligh's Bad Language. Both the author, Greg Dening, and the professors who taught the class assumed that everyone already knew the story of Captain Bligh and the Mutiny on the Bounty because it was part of "our" culture. British imperialism, however, while it is my area of specialty (and hence, I probably should have known about Captain Bligh) is not part of my culture. I grew up in California, which never was a British colony. What relevance could the Mutiny on the Bounty possibly have to my life? And why should a twelve-year-old Muslim girl be graded according to whether or not she has ever eaten angel food cake?

Posted by eklanche at December 19, 2006 07:38 AM

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