Elephants as Dogs

To a little kid, every animal in this picture could be “doggie”. That’s how our brains begin to form categories.

We’ve all taken small children to the zoo. (Right? This is a normal activity.)

Okay, maybe not.

But we’re all familiar with the idea of a little kid looking at a horse or an elephant and exclaiming “doggy!” We smile, maybe we correct them, maybe we don’t, depending on their age. Either way, we’re not alarmed, because we know what’s happening, whether we can name it or not: the little kid is using their existing categories, or schema, of animals to classify a new four-legged animal as a dog. We’re not worried that the small child is going to grow up unable to identify horses or elephants, because we know that this stage is temporary; eventually, new schema will subdivide the “four-legged animals” category into “dogs” and “horses” and “elephants”.

Humans use schema every day to make decisions. It’s our brain’s way of keeping us alive; we apply what we know about the world to new situations in order to make an educated guess about how to act or react. Big, bared teeth? Maybe don’t pet. Flashing red light? Pay attention. Hot? Don’t touch. It’s a rather ingenious system.

Cultural schemata teach us how to act in situations that are endemic to our cultural milieu. (That was fancy, right? I hope you appreciated the snobbery of that last sentence.) We know how to act because our brain is laying the wiring from the time we are old enough to pay attention, writing and rewriting and adjusting schema based on the experiences we have. Mommy calls ice cream “dessert”. She says I can eat it after dinner. Dessert comes after dinner. Dessert isn’t always ice cream, but it’s always sweet. Sweet things can be eaten at other times of the day, like maple syrup on my pancakes, but that’s not called dessert. Sweet foods shouldn’t be eaten before dinner, because I’ll ruin my appetite. Dessert is specifically after dinner.

Our brains are so smart when it comes to putting these patterns together, and we take that knowledge for granted because nobody sat us down and explained to us what dessert was. The problem is that because these cultural understandings are implicit, we don’t often think to challenge them when we interact with other cultures. That’s how we end up really confused when a friend who keeps Kosher orders dessert first in a steakhouse, or when we’re served sweets with dinner at an Indian wedding. It never occurred to us that the way we do things is less a result of some universal truth and more the result of the practices of our own household, neighborhood, city/state/region/country. (This idea also coincides with the “denial” phase of intercultural competence; more about that in this post.)

Some of these cultural schemas should and will be challenged in our classrooms. (It’s much more helpful for students to encounter these first challenges in a classroom where their emotions can ride all over their faces and if they blurt out something rude their teacher understands where they’re coming from.)

These reactions aren’t bad. They’re a completely normal, reasonable part of human evolution. It just so happens that they’re left over from an era in which the only culture we were responsible for was the one in which we grew up, because travel was too difficult to get to the other side of the world. The more heterogeneous the world gets, the more important it is for students to have a working understanding of the way in which they see the world. They should be able to explain it the way they might identify the beliefs and customs of another culture: not as something that’s right or wrong, but something that is theirs, that defines them, that will sometimes help them and sometimes be a challenge as they adapt to a new set of circumstances.

What cultural schema comes to mind for you? I want to hear your thoughts! Leave me a comment below or on social media!

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