Thursday, December 16, 2010


Why yes, sometimes it is awkward teaching American literature in Egypt, especially when the textbook is written by Americans for Americans. As I read aloud in class I am very aware of how often I say the word 'America' and the pause I make before I read and/or adjust the word 'we' or the word 'here.' Often times I feel I sound like I'm trumpeting foreign values to Egyptian students for no apparent reason, with the effect of coming off as a pro-American, culturally insensitive, and ultimately out-of-touch dummy. But sometimes, just sometimes, there is a particularly American topic that the students can relate to or at least debate. We encountered one of these topics yesterday when we began our unit on transcendentalism.
The book actually had a nice introduction to what is ultimately a tricky concept to grasp. Several paragraphs led us through Emerson's conclusions that the individual should be more powerful than any government institution. Also included was an acknowledgment of Amos Alcott's work to revolutionize the American school system. Alcott believed that students shouldn't be taught on rote memorization. Instead, they should be taught to think critically, discuss, debate, and question everything around them. I paused here in my reading and asked the students to consider this for a moment. Here is a movement begun in 1830's America by one man. Yet now, centuries later, his work and the work of his followers is having a profound effect on their own lives. Thanks to Alcott, I was raised in a school system based on critical thinking. Therefore, this is what I teach now in my classrooms in Egypt. However unlikely, my students have been personally affected by the transcendentalist movement. What was perhaps most interesting was the debate that ensued after I posed the questions at the end of the selection. Again, this being an American textbook the questions asked American students to consider a) Do government institutions or do individuals hold more power in 'our' society? b) Can individuals make a difference in 'our' society? c) Should individuals hold more power 'here' than they do? Now, applying these questions to Egypt yields some fascinating results. Each class agreed instantly that government institutions hold all the power here in Egypt, that's no secret. What I found fascinating was that after some debate and discussion, my two classes came to two separate conclusions. One class believed that if the government could enforce laws appropriately, that power should continue to reside in government. The other class argued that capable or not, the government should remain solely representative of the people and therefore the individual should be given more power. Personally, I was pleased just to create a forum where these students could think for themselves, question the status quo, and ultimately make a solid argument.
At the end of class I read them a paragraph written by an author who had read Emerson in high school. He was 16 at the time, same age as my students, and transcendentalism had a strong impact on him. He thanked Emerson for allowing him to embrace the power we all have to be free-thinkers, to question injustices, and ultimately follow our own paths, whether or not the "in crowd" approved. I told the students that I couldn't promise these essays would have the same impact on them, but that we would pick up here next week.

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