Culture and Civilization Courses in Education Abroad

By Downey, Nancy | International Educator, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview
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Culture and Civilization Courses in Education Abroad


Downey, Nancy, International Educator


Teaching culture in any environment is challenging, but it can become even more difficult when teaching it to students who are simultaneously experiencing it while abroad. Because culture is related to practices rather than places, international educators need to think strategically about how to teach culture with the added advantage of teaching it in the place in which it has arisen.

The concept of culture is difficult for a few reasons. First, as Terry Eagleton points out in The Idea of Culture (Eagleton 2000), both the word and concept have been expanded almost to the point of meaninglessness. second, there is an unconscious element inherent in the concept of culture that is integral to the idea as a whole. And third, as a concept, culture is ambiguous to begin with, a point that Eagleton puts forth very cogently as he writes that "like the rough ground of language itself, cultures work exactly because they are porous, fuzzy-edged, indeterminate, intrinsically inconsistent, never quite identical with themselves. Their boundaries are continually modulating into horizons."

And while there are volumes written about culture and the "ism" it has become, those theories do little to help students involved in education abroad. What students are seeking is an encounter with, and understanding of, "the other." So, how should educators be structuring courses that purport to teach about the culture and society of a people?

First, it is possible to engage students quite fully on the idea of culture without getting too theoretical. One methodology that Tom Govero, who teaches culture and civilization in Rome, employs is to distinguish between culture and civilization. He begins by discussing the statement, made by German romance philologist Erich Auerbach, that France has a civilization but Germany has a culture.1

Govero points out to students that Auerbach does not really mean to suggest that France has no culture, but explains that culture is a definition of a general society of habits and adaptations of society based on ethnicity whereas civilization is a synthesis of borrowings, contributions, and adaptations of other cultures. He finds that this approach works well with U.S. students, who generally identify with this distinction because what the United States has is clearly civilization. In fact, he is of the mind that civilization is what U.S. educators are really teaching, often even in the so-called "culture and society" courses. It is edifying to discuss the distinction between these two words, and challenges students to think about the differences as their experience unfolds.

Criteria and Content

In determining content of a culture or civilization course, it is crucial to keep two criteria in mind. First, that the entire gestalt of a civilization cannot possibly be dealt with in a semester or year-long program, so it is necessary to determine salient periods, elements, critical moments, styles, and philosophies. second, such courses must naturally be interdisciplinary. And it is important to present not only those elements that have had a deep impact on a culture, but subtler nuances as well. One example Govero offers is that of gestures. Teaching students about gestures in Italian culture may not seem as intellectually challenging or profound as neo-Platonism and the Sistine Chapel until one draws the parallel between gestures and the Italian Neapolitan theater, Commedia del'Arte, and the impact of the Italian tradition on the Western world. Govero maintains that if courses on civilization prepare students in a philosophical and theoretical way to perceive the Italian tradition of art and its influence on other traditions, they achieve a certain level of independence while experiencing their semester abroad. Teachers can then assign independent projects to students, who will be well prepared to cogently discuss the massive amount of art they will see in Italy.

In this way, the culture and civilization course, if taught properly, provides a context, and frames the program by allowing students to not only gather the information and knowledge imparted, but also to bring sensibility, understanding, and analytical skill to their own perceptions and experiences in all other aspects of the program.

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