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Cultural Citizenship


by Jane Roland Martin

The new national conversation launched by Martha Nussbaum in the October issue of the Boston Review is timely and important. But while patriotism and cosmopolitanism represent serious responses to current fragmentation along ethnic and racial lines, a discussion of the relative merits of these ideals is no substitute for a conversation about cultural citizenship and the relative merits of assimilation and acculturation.

In The Social Contract Rousseau distinguished between a person's being a passive member of a state -- someone subject to its laws -- and being an active member -- a participant in the sovereign authority. An analogous distinction holds in the case of cultures. It is one thing for an individual to be a passive member of a culture and quite another for him or her to be an active contributor to or potential author of the sovereign culture.

I submit that in a democracy with a culturally diverse population each individual should stand in a dual relationship to the "sovereign" culture. Perhaps in a culturally homogeneous democracy the ideals of justice and fairness would not require the extension of the full rights of cultural citizenship to the few citizens who diverged from the norm. But in a country like the United States, whose population has been marked from the beginning by gender, ethnic, racial, and religious diversity, it is as unjust to limit cultural authorship to a chosen few, demanding assimilation of everyone else, as it is to restrict active citizenship. At a time when the composition of the U.S. population has radically shifted, such limitation is also a dangerous policy.

Assimilation is a one way process. The alternative is acculturation -- active cultural membership -- in which both parties to the transaction are affected. An instructive example of acculturation within the U.S. experience was reported by Nora Ellen Groce in Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language. For two hundred years, Martha's Vineyard had an unusually high incidence of hereditary deafness. Amazingly, the island's deaf inhabitants were fully integrated into Vineyard society: they were active in town government and the local militia, owned stores, and at least one was a minister. How is this possible? In the "up-Island" section of Martha's Vineyard the hearing people were bilingual. Instead of deaf citizens having to learn to negotiate the spoken language of the majority, or else resort to the written word, sign language was part of the hearing majority's curriculum. As a result, deaf people were not considered handicapped; indeed, they were not even thought of as belonging to a group called "the deaf."

I take the Martha's Vineyard story to be a parable for our time, its lessons pertaining to curriculum and culture, school and society. Martha's Vineyard was clearly enriched by everyone's knowing sign language. The deaf inhabitants obviously gained, but so did the general up-Island community: instead of an "outcast" population draining its resources, its pool of talent was significantly increased. In addition, the hearing had at their command an alternate mode of communication.

Needless to say, I am not suggesting that every item belonging to the culture of every group should be incorporated into the sovereign culture of the United States. Nor do I mean to be taking a stand on whether English should be our national language. My call for acculturation rather than simple assimilation does not answer the question of which items from people's "original" cultures should be integrated into the larger common culture or even from which original cultures the items should be drawn. Furthermore, I recognize that extending the right of active cultural citizenship to all is no guarantee that the words or deeds of any given individual will be incorporated into the sovereign culture. As the right to political citizenship entitles people to participate actively in the state but does not entail anyone's actual participation -- much less that an individual's wishes will prevail -- the right to full cultural citizenship simply entitles people to active participation in the culture, thereby making them potential authors of it.

The issues of cultural citizenship and the relative merits of assimilation and acculturation are closely related to the questions addressed by Nussbaum and her commentators. But they are not the same. When Joshua Cohen wrote in his Editor's Note that Nussbaum had changed the terms of the old debate about education and political identity, the earlier conversation he had in mind was, in his words, about "the right way to balance commitments to discrete groups -- religious, racial, or ethnic -- with allegiance to the United States." Yet as the Symposium itself demonstrated, it is quite possible to answer the question of where a person's loyalties should lie without ever considering whether this or any nation should extend the right of active cultural citizenship to all.

For the United States to move on to a conversation about the relatively familiar topics of patriotism and cosmopolitanism without also discussing the equally pressing and perhaps far more difficult issues of acculturation and cultural inclusion would to my mind be a serious error. Fragmentation along racial and ethnic lines will not take care of itself. Nor will it miraculously disappear if cosmopolitanism or patriotism is made an aim of U.S. education. As we know all too well, a person can love his or her country while hating whole groups of its citizens. He or she can also believe in the common humanity of all while treating a whole race, class, or gender as beneath contempt.

To be sure, in light of the acrimony of recent conversations about "the" canon a shift in question may appear to be warranted. A shift in tone is certainly desirable and so is a shift of focus away from a narrow concept of "high" culture onto culture in the more general sense. A shift away from judgments about "greatness" that ignore this nation's changed and changing population and the effects on it of denying active cultural citizenship to so many is also in order. Indeed, these are the reasons that make the Martha's Vineyard story so relevant to our times. Allowing us to get beyond the hostility and defensiveness of the canon wars, it enables one to see the more general and fundamental cultural issues that they have tended to obscure.

It is a shame that the Martha's Vineyard story is not included in the American curriculum. Were this surprisingly upbeat tale of a traditionally marginalized group a recognized part of this country's sovereign culture, we would know that it is far too soon to take the questions of assimilation, acculturation, and active cultural citizenship off the agenda for our national conversation.



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