Letters to the Editor
Thoughtful Insights on Cross-Cultural Assessment
Edward R. Kantowicz, September 1993
As a historian who is trying to write a book about the world in the twentieth century, I found Theodore H. Von Laue article ("Declaration of Interdependence: World History for the Twenty-First Century," April 1993) extremely thought provoking and helpful. I would like to add a few thoughts to the dialogue he has begun about world history.
Von Laue touched on the problem of ethnocentrism, the self-centered attitude that most human beings adopt when they confront people from another culture. I think this problem must be faced more directly. Can we make any value judgements at all about different cultures and societies, or must we relapse into a fashionable historical relativism?
I have been thinking about two ways that a historian can deal with ethnocentrism and make valid comparisons between societies. First of all, a functional approach offers some hope of comparing cultures rationally and objectively. Without making moral judgements, a historian can assess whether a particular culture performs some specific function better than another culture. For example, traditional Chinese medicine including acupunture, herbal remedies, meditation and and exercise, has attracted much favorable attention in recent years because of its "holistic" approach to healing. Chinese medicine treats the whole person, both mind and body, and has produced remarkable results in stress management. Yet traditional Chinese doctors did not develop much skill at surgery, until recently, because Confucian teaching frowned on voluntary cutting of the body. As a result, when Chinese soldiers were mangled by modern weapons in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, they relied on Western missionary doctors to patch up the seriously wounded. Western surgery proved superior for some purposes, but Chinese medicine has shown itself better for others.
Using a second approach to cultural differences, historians can make judgements according to the individual society's own standards. Again using China's confrontation with the West as an example, we can state that Chinese rulers valued order and stability above all; their primary duties were to keep the peace and feed the populace. By those standards, the nineteenth century marked a period of decline as China was marred by numerous rebellions and widespread famines. Europeans, on the other hand, experienced and increase in military power and economic wealth, standards by which they judged themselves in that same century. Therefore, historical realism, not ethnocentrism, prompts us to concluded that China was declining and Europe ascending in the nineteenth century.
Von Laue suggests a third criterion for objectively evaluating different societies, one which I had hertofore neglected, the geographical and climatic inheritance of a society. Obviously a continental country like the United States, well endowed with natural resources and a generally benign climate, is better suited to economic growth than a desert society in sub-Saharan Africa.
In sum, then, geographic factors, a functional approach, and an assessment using each society's own standards can inject some objectivitiy into cultural comparisons. Nonetheless, we must recognize that a values gap will still remain whenever we compare dissimlar cultures. Nineteenth century Europeans were appalled by the practice of footbinding among Chinese women, just as late twentieth-century Americans are disgusted by the practice of female circumcision in Africa. We all judge such matters by our own moral or ideological standards. The best we can do when confronted by such a values gap is to acknowledge it and then agree to disagree.
I would make just one other point about teaching world history. Although I agree with Von Laue that we should "evolve meaningful generalizations rather than dote on detail," I think it is important that we provide narrative accounts of the major events, or turning points, in world history. My experience with undergraduates has shown me that most students have heard about such capitalized events as the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, etc., but now little about them. We should be careful to include concise, narrative accounts of these major events in any world history, so that students will become informed citizens of the world.
Edward R. Kantowicz