My Teachers, Part 2

(Further notes after my first “My Teachers” post, and additional perspective from my prior post on the State Department, Foreign Service Institute, and our Current Ignorance of the World.)

My teachers of Anthropology and Linguistics at SUNYBuffalo, had been working for the U.S State Dept, in the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) during and after WWII. Their work consisted centrally of working (“fieldwork”) in the different Languages and Cultures of the world – advising and teaching State Dept personnel in exploring and understanding the other languages and cultures of the world.

Language and Culture were considered important in understanding and dealing with the world.

Different peoples and nations had to be studied in their “own terms,” in order to understand and deal with them “realistically, effectively…” To be an effective statesman, one should speak the native language In these senses: other countries were different from us, but should be studied in their own  terms, toward good and effective foreign politics and policies.

As Sec’y of State to President Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles had a quite “different” picture of the United States and other countries. They were not just “different” from the U.S., but they were considered as somewhat “lesser,” in the contexts of a kind of “hierarchy” of nations. (Dulles was a deeply religious person with a deep sense of “America-First” – America was a kind of “City upon a Hill.”) His picture of America and the world has persisted well into the present.

In any case, all the Anthropologists and Linguists in the FSI were “fired,” in 1955. E.T. Hall – who authored the “Silent Language” went to be a professor at Northwestern University. His close colleague, George L. Trager, as well as Henry Lee Smith, Jr. went to Buffalo (and hired Ray Birdwhistell) – I was one of their first two students. I had been searching for my true “vocation” – and this seemed to be the way of the/my future!

They were hired by a former State Dept. administrator, who had become Dean of Arts & Sciences at Buffalo (Richard H. Heindel) and knew Trager & Smith, and their works. I “found” them through my partner and, soon after, spouse (Janis/J.) who was student and “live-in nanny” for the Heindel’s daughter. And we thought we were something of a “match.” (I was working as a mathematician, system analyst, programmer of early computers at that time, and looking to move-on; this, after a year in medical school at Buffalo.)

They seemed interesting, exciting: persons as well as subject-matters.

Back to “The Silent Language” as example and metaphor for the study of culture:

“Though the United States has spent billions of dollars on foreign aid programs, it has captured neither the affection nor the esteem of the rest of the world. In many countries today Americans are cordially disliked; in others merely tolerated…Most of our behavior does not spring from malice but from ignorance, which is as grievous a sin in international relations. It is time Americans learned how to communicate effectively with foreign nationals. Americans sent abroad to deal with other peoples should not only be taught to speak and read the language, but be thoroughly trained in the culture of the country. We don’t need more missiles and H-bombs nearly so much as we need specific knowledge of ourselves as participants in a culture.”

— Dr Edward Hall

Frontispiece to “The Silent Language” – paperback edition – 1959.

Importantly for any deeper understanding of our relation to the rest of the world in 2009, “why” we find ourselves in seemingly endless wars with the most vague reasons for being at war – Hall’s comment was totally prescient.

Our understanding of the religious and tribal/ethnic differences in both Iraq and Afghanistan (and Iran) are constructed from ideologies, not much on knowledge of their cultures, languages, thinking…all of what the Linguists and Anthropologists of the Foreign Service Institute tried to teach us.

The deepest and saddest irony of this story, is that Linguists and Anthropologists have been “absent” (literally: none! – as far as I know.) from the State Dept since my teachers were fired in 1955. Political Scientists, Economists, some others, but no Anthropologists-Linguists.

Only in the past couple of years, as the war in Iraq has stalled and stalled, has there been some attempt to talk about “culture.” But, so far, it still seems mostly like “talk” – a  couple of so-called “anthropologist-hires,” but seeming more like appearance than serious “fieldworkers” – more calculated to calm than to study the peoples and thinking of these cultures.

So much for experience, trying to get-into the “heads” of other peoples. I hope it’s time to more deeply explore the peoples of the world in this explosively global moment where the economists and political scientists whom we thought knew something/everything have created only a corroding bottom-line.

The study of language, cultures, experience, thinking of others – coming back to enable/enhance/expand our own thinking in these complicated times.

Time to get out into the world, and study the people(s)…

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