Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Across the Street and Around the World

A few years ago, I took a group of senior high school students to the Getty Center perched on a hilltop here in Los Angeles. I suspect many of them had been to a museum before, but I am also sure a few had not. In a room filled with priceless statues from antiquity, several girls moved within inches of the statues and mimicked the poses captured in the marbles. This involved balancing on a single leg, arms outstretched while craning their necks to see the statue they were emulating. The security guards did not hesitate. They quickly moved in to prevent a costly disaster.

Later in the cafeteria, the girls questioned me about their stern reprimand from the security staff. They felt the museum personnel overreacted and embarrassed them. I tried to explain. “Those statues are thousands of years old. Can you imagine what would be lost if you fell against one and knocked it over?”

“It’s not a big deal,” one replied. “They have stuff like that all over Caesar’s Palace in Vegas and you can touch them and everything.”

In a recent posting on YouTube, a UCLA student ranted about Asians and their behavior in the library. Her views were obviously racist and ill-considered, and she not only received an angry response from around the world, but also death threats.

In an article on the Huffington Post by Jonathan Montgomery, Americans are taken to task for their cultural ignorance, and Montgomery argues that this could have worldwide repercussions.

Why should Americans be concerned about their cultural I.Q.? “With the United States graduation rates and scores in math, science, and literacy falling behind other developed nations,” Montgomery writes, “researchers are now looking at ways to give students an edge to compete globally.”

The first step in the process of learning how to compete globally is to develop a cultural intelligence. The Cultural Intelligence Center defines this as “a person’s capability to function effectively in situations characterized by cultural diversity.”

The elephant in the room here is that we have a rancorous debate ongoing in this country over the admission of “foreigners” and “illegal aliens.” We are deeply suspicious, and extremely prejudicial against those who look different, speak another language, or worship a different god. It is an obvious paradox that the most multi-cultural society on earth has major problems with racism, discrimination and prejudice.

Montgomery cites a Metlife/Harris Survey that says “Two thirds of teachers (63 percent), parents (63 percent), and Fortune 1000 executives (65 percent) think that the knowledge of other cultures and international issues is absolutely essential or very important to be ready for college and a career.

Jonathan Montgomery quotes David Livermore Ph.D., author of Leading With Cultural Intelligence, at the end of the HuffPost piece: “It’s less about becoming an expert about every culture and more about developing an overall capability that allows you to become effective and respectful in any cultural situation.”

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