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Monday, August 30, 2010

American exceptionalism

American exceptionalism is an ideology that says that the United States occupies a special place in the world--that it is unique. This emphasis on the unique in American culture goes beyond our concept of nationhood. I have been working on an article that compares US and others in terms of higher education accreditation and quality assurance. While most part of the world are obsessed with comparisons, particularly numerical comparisons and "benchmarking," the culture of higher education in the United Statues sees each institution as not comparable to any other. While other parts of the world have government bodies that mandate particular types of oversight and structures of quality control, including measures, in the U.S. we have the tradition of self-assessing through regional bodies such as the North Central Accreditation Association. And the focus has traditionally been on assessing whether you do what you say you do--are you fulfilling your mission? Generally one institution is not looking over the shoulder of another in terms of their North Central accreditation results and report. In Hong Kong, all the institutions are trying to move up in comparison to other institutions in Hong Kong when they go through their quality review.

Personally I believe the American model is the better one, with the exception of American exceptionalism which at times interferes with seeking out best practices and comparing yourself with others in order to see if how you are doing as an institution. It can keep institutions focused internally. It can continually provide an excuse for not improving--nobody does it like we do so we can't compare...

Hong Kong institutions obsess with rankings amongst reviews. U.S. institutions justify their lack of comparison. Both need to work at development meaningful comparisons FOR THE PURPOSE OF LEARNING! Higher education is about the business of learning. Any form of assessment, including comparisons needs to have this focus.

As a geographer I have always been fascinated by the American exceptionalism that shows up in discussions around family history. Everyone focuses on the unique--an ancestor who came with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. As a geographer I have always been more fascinated by how my family fit into the larger pattern--how they were NOT exceptional. In graduate school I read the classic, Historical Geography of the United States, by Ralph Brown. Brown includes a quote about Faribault, Minnesota in the summer 1857.

" was almost impossible to get a place to sleep at any price. Real estate dealers, lawyers, and business men in general are here by the hundreds. The opening up of the land ofice has drawn them. It is estimated that over 1000 men have arrived within the last two days. Board at the best houses ranges at from 3 to 6 dollars a day."

That was exactly when my ancestors showed up in Faribault.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Significance of Pilgrimage

I have been reading the book, Searching for Tamsen Donner, by Gabrielle Burton. The book recalls a journey taken by Burton with her family in 1976 as they traced the route of Tamsen Donner, one of the notorious Donner party who died in the Sierra Nevada mountains en route to California in 1846-47. Burton's tracing of Donner's route is also a journey through space for herself as she searched for a route that allowed her to be wife, mother of five daughters, but also an feminist and individual.

The power of taking a journey through space, the pilgrimage, is rarely acknowledged in the present day. We have become disembodied and physically displaced people. We need to move back toward the acknowledgment of the physical pilgrimage with the spiritual and psychological pilgrimage. For example, in the Andes Mountains indigenous villages depend on the range of ecological niches found within the extreme changes of elevation to provide crops--everything from tropical crops in the lower elevations to cool climate crops like wheat and potatoes at the higher elevations. They ritual walking through space at both planting and harvest recognize the context in which village life is lived out. In fact, mutual aid among villagers is necessary in order to exploit all zones so through this ritual walking, social relations are also being recognized.

Norman MacLean, who is primarily knows for the book A River Runs Through It, wrote an equally powerful book, Young Men and Fire, about the Mann Gulch tragedy of 1949 where 12 out of 15 forest service firefighters died. In piecing together the literal steps in the tragedy, MacLean shapes the last minutes of these men into the stages of the cross. He states near the end of his account: "Among other things, it was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature."

These are not spiritual journeys alone. Norman MacLean and Gabrielle Burton could not have taken these journeys from their arm chairs. These are physical realities and these concrete, physical journeys are necessary parts of spiritual journeys.

In the 1980s I took something of a pilgrimage. My grandfather Groves died in 1939 from injuries in a car accident. My mother still bares the scars from the accident that took place when she was 9. The absence of my grandfather from the family was always felt. He was gentle, valued education and loved his daughters greatly. He used to have them jump into his bed in the morning and they would then recite the members of Roosevelt's cabinet. His death led to my grandmother marrying again soon, and all the complications of blended families, additional children, and a stepfather with different values. My mother and her sister left home early. The absence of this one significant person led a family down a particular trajectory.

Prior to getting married, my grandfather had homesteaded in Montana. He went there with several sisters but returned to Minnesota in 1919. It was there that I took my pilgrimage. I can't say why Montana was what drew me. My grandmother would occasionally say that he talked about Montana and how beautiful it was. But maybe it was the emptiness of the plains that seemed to represent his absence from our family history.

As you go west from Minnesota the land opens up and mid way through the Dakotas cropland changes to short grass prairie and grazing land. My grandfather went west in a railroad car filled with all his belongings. He arrived in Terry, Montana in March and soon experienced a snowstorm. We have a picture of him along with two sisters upon their arrival. When I got there, it was mid summer and very hot and dry. I met up with my mother's cousin who still lived near by. We drove eighteen miles north of Terry on a gravel road, a mile through grassland, and climbed to the top of a butte. She pointed down below in the distance to a valley and the remnants of a homestead in the midst of acres of pastureland around. I left her on top of the butte and walked down to the homestead site and found a large iron stove, twisted windmill blades and other remnants of his life in Montana. That night I had a dream where he talked with me. The next day I couldn't remember the substance of the dream but could clearly remember what he was LIKE. In describing him to my mother she said, "yes, that was him."

This past semester, when I was in Hong Kong, I ended up having supper with a second cousin who I had never met and who had spent his adult life working in Asia. In a skype conversation with my mother the next day I told her that he seemed like a "Groves man." She responded without hesitation, "He must have been quiet and gentle.