Category Archives: Global Awareness

Properly Identifying the Language of Iran

Persian vs. Arabic

Since the helpful incorrectly labeled the language for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as “Arabic” instead of “Persian” (or Farsi), I thought I would point out a few resources on Persian.

Persian Profile Pages

Compare this to Arabic

UCLA Arabic Profile
Although I think most of us in the U.S. tend to muddle the two, it actually is an important distinction. Not only are the two languages NOT related, but the cultural traditions are different yet intermingled.
You may be familiar with “Persian” culture from the Greek era when they and the Greeks were at each others throats. At that time, Persia was a major cultural and technology center who gave us several nice innovations including paradise, divans, jasmine and other important necessities of life. One important facet is that the Persians of this era were not Islamic (Mohamed would not be born for about another 1,000 years). Many Persians at this time were Zoroastrians, and this belief system has persisted into the modern era (it’s one reason some Iranians left).
Although Persian civilization later embraced Islam for the most part, there is an awareness of a longer pre-Islamic history. Some Iranians view this pre-Islamic past positively, but others are either ambivalent or negative towards it because it is “pagan.” It’s always interesting to see how different groups of Iranians react to pre-Islamic Persian archaeology and history.
Arabic civilization is its own unique entity, but it did borrow from the Persian civilization, which is why the two are often blended together in Western minds.

“Persian” vs. “Farsi”

Another interesting aspect of the language of Iran is it’s English name. When I was college (before this decade), I heard speakers from Iran call their language “Farsi” (although the culture was “Persian.” Now there has been a shift to calling it “Persian” again (but not everywhere)
Here’s some information on the debate with different perspectives

If you’re getting confused, don’t worry – even I got thrown by the Farsi/Persian debate.
For now, I am sticking with Persian, but am prepared switch on a dime. One benefit of the term “Persian” is that people do have a better concept of “Persian culture” than of “Farsi culture” – now you have to make sure we can distinguish “Persian culture” from “Arabic culture”.

Do Americans Talk too Much?

My previous post mentioned Mr Thingamajig, the animated American idiom generator who can really talk your ear off. The funniest thing is that he does mimic a stereotype of the endlessly talking American.
Is it a true stereotype? Well, we don’t ALL talk as frequently as Mr. Thingamajig, but in comparison to some cultures…we sure do gab a lot.

An American at Breakfast

In fact, since you’re here….let me tell you a story.
At one point, I was lucky enough to live in a dorm in Wales with students from Europe and America. I don’t actually consider myself a great talker (e.g. I don’t do airplane conversations and will use headphones when necessary).
On the other hand, I was trained that if you are eating at the same table with someone you are morally obligated to attempt small talk (it’s rude to eat in silence). This applies even at breakfast, especially at a conference.
But when I performed my small talk duties at breaksfast, I noticed my European colleagues would answer, but then get the most delicate of frowns (more like a slight squint). The more questions I asked, the deeper the furrow in the brow. What to do? Apparently the answer was to SHUT UP ALREADY.
I discovered the great truth that many Europeans do not require small talk at breakfast (it is rather early after all). I was off the hook! I could just munch my cereal quietly and absorb the morning vibe. What a treat, but still a little strange. Who knew I could chatter so much in the first place?
A few days later at dinner, I noticed that the conversation lapsed and there was complete silence. Sure enough after about 30 seconds, a fellow U.S. citizen asked another question and conversation began again. I guess you can’t keep a good small-talker down.

Sorry, no Bagpipes: Europe’s View of Wales

It’s a common complaint that Americans are a little clueless on the nuances of external geographic realities. Actually the truth is that Americans are often clueless about what happens in the next state as well as outside the US. On the other hand, the international community doesn’t always fare so well either.
Witness this article on European Views of Wales in which neighboring countries typically consider Wales a slightly exotic region of England and ask if Wales has bagpipes (not really) or if Sean Connery is Welsh (no, he’s Scottish). Some people realize that there is a separate Welsh language, but one person said she only knew that it was “hard.”
Ironically, most of these comments are pretty much what I would in the USA, but at least we have an ocean-wide gap we can use as an excuse!
Actually, this shouldn’t be about playing a blame game about who knows the least geography, but a recognition that we ALL need a little help.
After all it’s just as dangerous for a European to assume that Walmart defines America as it is for an American to assume that the Eiffel Tower defines France.

¿Por qué celebramos el Cinco de Mayo? – What actually happened on May 5

It’s nice that we have a de facto Mexican heritage day (May 5 or Cinco de Mayo) to go along with the Irish heritage day of St Patrick’s day, but if I’m to have any pretensions to lecture on global awareness, I thought I had better look up the background at some point.
To my surprise Cinco de Mayo is a commemoration of a victory over an occupying French army who had come in when Mexico defaulted on their loans. Specifically el Cinco de Mayo remembers the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.
Who’s to blame? Now that’s the interesting part. Everyone agrees that the French did the invasion, but different articles identify different co-conspirators. We have

  • Spain and Britain who sent in forces along with the France.
  • Conservative Mexicans who didn’t like the current administration (President Benito Juárez may have been too indigenous) and invited the French government to intervene.
  • The United States because Mexico went into debt after the Mexican-American war two decades earlier. It should be noted that the Union government and later US government SUPPORTED the native Mexican government – partly so that the Confederates wouldn’t have French support and probably also because of the Monroe Doctrine.

It reminds me of the classic adage that “all politics are local.”
Whoever gets the blame for this episode, I’m glad Cinco de Mayo is one of the times the U.S. and Mexico DID work together.
The stories are

Chinese Keju Exam Angst…with a tangent

Every now an again it’s nice to check to see how non-US cultures handled education. A great example is the Chinese Civil Service or Keju exam. Lasting from the 7th century AD to the last dynasty in the early 20th century, this was an exam which determined if a person was academically qualified enough to become a well-paid government administrator/bureaucrat. Today we have counterparts like the SAT (how good a college you can go to), MCAT (how good a medical school) and the LSAT (law school).
On the positive side, exams like these theoretically allow anyone with the resources and ability to learn enough material to pass to become credentialed. But Dr. Hoi Suen from Penn State feels that this kinds of high stakes exam will inevitably lead to problems.

“With approximately 1,300 years of history and extensive official and unofficial records that were kept throughout this period, China’s is the only examination system that can provide us with a glimpse of what might be some long-lasting chronic problems of high-stakes, large-scale testing programs as well as of the efficacy of attempts to remove unintended negative consequences” — Suen (2006)

The Problems

So what were they? Pretty much what you get with the SAT/MCAT:

  • Keju test handbooks similar to the Kaplan handbooks
  • Violent or suicidal behavior from students who either failed the exam or were studying for the exam
  • Massive cheating in the form of
    • students memorizing entire essays and poems to copy down later
    • bribing test proctors and graders – sometimes they looked for “key phrases” in essays so graders would know who to score highly
    • hiring fake test takers
    • bringing in crib notes
  • Security implementations such as body searches, isolated exam rooms, anonymous forms and physical punishment for convicted cheaters.

Baton Effect

In addition to these issues, Suen also found something called the baton effect – which basically says that Chinese society focused only on learning material on the test, which in this case meant literature and poetry at the expense of medicine or technology. The baton effect shows that high-stakes testing actually can influence what people learn.
Think of how many people today who complain that we don’t study literature and poetry enough because the US students are too concerned with studying “for-profit” fields like accounting, medicine or the law.
So the problem may not be that testing will inhibit education, but that it can be TOO influential. You ideally want a test that matches what your society really needs, and yes there are plenty of diverging views out there.

Any Solutions?

Of course, China and the U.S. are not the only high-stakes testers out there. Most countries today have some sort of high-stakes test for university admissions and some used to have them for high school. And I think it’s safe to say that once a test becomes high stakes enough to count, you will get the cheating and the destructive psychological behaviors described. I’ve heard great academic dishonesty stories from some of my non-US colleagues.
But what are the alternatives? Traditionally the alternative has been “the old boy’s network” or whatever variant you have in mind. I need to hire someone for a task and I check in with my social network to see what “qualified” applicants are out there. Actually, when the population is small scale, this might actually be the best solution.
But once your population gets too large, caste think tends to set in. Anyone not born in the right circles would somehow have to find a patron (possible, but not easy).
Is there a third way that’s more equitable? Maybe the ultimate solution is just to open more pathways to success. We’re not all meant to be doctors or lawyers or government workers, so why should we all be trying? Wouldn’t a system that rewarded something other than academic performance be interesting?
For instance, a highly-skilled welder may actually be well-paid and know quite a bit about metallurgy, gas chemistry and structural engineering. Welders may even need to receive continuous training to keep up with the latest techniques…Some welders even wield their torches to become metal craftsmen (and their art may command high prices).
But how many professors or lawyers want their children to grow up to become welders? (Actually see P.S. 2 for my reasons why not).

Class and High Stakes Exams

All of this speculation leads me to think that the biggest reasons for the problems encountered by the Keju and the SAT/LSAT/MCAT is that they are entries for people to gain or maintain a relatively higher social status. Hence there is much more competition in them (as well as a very strong desire to circumvent the system).
There are actually lots of other high stakes certification exams like the CPP (Certified Payroll Professional) and ones for welding, yet I don’t think the issues of academic dishonesty are quite as prevalent. They’re challenging, but not as many people take them.


P.S. 1 – An interesting development recently is that “chef” has become a much more glamorous profession thanks to the rise of cooking channels. One person admitted that he was glad to have found cooking…because he really hated school.
P.S. 2 – Another annoying quasi universal is that societies often set the highest social class to those who do the least work. Cognitive labor is always above manual labor, and no labor at all can be the best. I think that part of it is that manual labor can be a bit dangerous (welding accidents are more likely than attorney accidents). And it is cleaner, which counts for a lot in our subconscious mammal brains….still many societies have missed out on key technical innovations because the philosophers “didn’t want to get their hands dirty” doing actual experiments.

Prehistory ≠ No History

One of my instructors pointed out an interesting naïve misconception about non-Western cultures most of still have. Basically we naïvely assume the different “non-literate” cultures we encounter in the America, Africa and Australia have 1) never changed and 2) never moved. We also make this same assumption about any “ancient” European culture as well.
Even non-Western Empires are treated as “glacial” entities in which individual political leaders are almost irrelevant to the development of civilization. Compare this to our view of Western history where most of us can still name an Roman Emperor or two (even if we’re not quite sure what they did).
Sadly this view is still perpetuated (or at least not disputed) in many popular press books on “ancient times” and it’s just as bad in History Channel type documentaries.
But the Americas alone had 10,000+ years of time for people to interact with each other, so it’s highly unlikely that nothing happened. And something (actually many somethings) did happen – one of the more prominent tribes, the Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee) was not a tribe at all, but a confederacy of six tribes. and yes they had a formal constitution.
Interestingly the more that historical linguists, archaeologists and anthropologists have investigated these cultures the clearer it becomes that wide trade networks had developed, (the kind that cross modern national boarder) and that there was plenty of “indigenous” politicking around. Linguists are finding that when they’re trying to reconstruct the history of various languages they’re having to carefully sort through “borrowings” versus “native” vocabulary first.
Yet I do sometimes signs of a change. One program about Aztec engineering actually named and tracked the various Aztec Emperors (Montezuma was actually Montezuma II/Moctezuma II). The dynasty may be long gone, but in some ways they left their mark on the West. Without the repressive policies of the Aztec empire, it’s unlikely Cortez would have been able to gather a coalition of native Mexicans to help them overthrough the Aztecs.
It’s just a shame the European colonial powers didn’t learn a lesson from this historic battle…
P.S. It must be said that contemporary European “explorers” and “governors” were aware of the complex interactions and were able to exploit them. This is why different Native American tribes would fight for the French or the English in the French and Indian War.