Professor Nussbaum’s article articulates a worthwhile, noble, and idealistic goal, but not, I think, a practical one. We learn about the greater via the particular, not the other way around. Culture, that mechanism by which groups of people actively share certain assumptions about the way life should be lived, requires reciprocity. It is not sufficient to embrace the world — the world must embrace back, and I don’t foresee that happening unless there is universally perceived to be a temporary common danger that forces cooperative and group thinking. Now, of course, there truly are such dangers — overpopulation, AIDS, pollution — but for most people they are too abstract and remote, too secondary to the exigencies of daily subsistence and emotional gratification, to translate into internalized rather than self-conscious identification.
Culture tends to be of a place, and for most of us — either because of deficiencies in our own educational background or because the alternative is simply too overwhelming to cope with — our “place” is delimited to a territory smaller than the entire planet. Culture is not necessarily a matter of race (Nussbaum’s “why should a Chinese person be a citizen and thus matter more when in America but not when in China” argument is weak and self-evident) or economics, but it does depend on frequent interaction. Perhaps, with the advanced technology of communications, we will all someday individually feel more connected to events far away, but I don’t see much evidence of that happening at any time soon. The Discovery Channel on cable, for instance, offers a 24-hour-a-day open window on other societies, but not all that many viewers tune in.
Perhaps the most telling bit of experience that informs my skepticism about Nussbaum’s cosmopolitan educational emphasis comes from my first ethnographic field work, conducted among Athapaskan speakers in Alaska in the 1970s. Before heading out, I naively assumed that people in a small, isolated village would be fascinated with the diversity of the world, and therefore welcome me warmly if I introduced them to it. Consequently, I brought along postcards and pictures that showed where I came from, and that illustrated some of the natural wonders and cultural artifacts that have long been the pride and delight of tourists and travelers — sandy beaches, urban skylines, Balinese dancers, even photographs of the earth taken from outer space.
Were the residents of the tiny subarctic community where I spent two years interested in these sights they were surely seeing for the first time? Not especially — though, in the manner of friends who come for dinner and then are “treated” to a slide show of the host’s recent trip to Australia, they were sleepily polite. This bored attitude changed abruptly after I had been in the village for a while and took photographs of the local landmarks and inhabitants. When those developed snapshots came back, the people were endlessly fascinated and amused and stimulated to story-telling and historical recountings. They could handle the familiar; the exotic was . . . exotic. Like most other human beings, they were most interested and stimulated by a universe in which they were firmly on center stage. The process of acculturation was for them to instruct me how to see locally, not for me to lead them into a broader world view — a world, by the way, that, if it was aware of them at all, probably would not regard them with much respect or interest.
Were they wrong? Was their educational system lacking? Were they less participant in theoretically universal human traits and aspirations — typically delineated and controlled in their extensions, after all, by the Western elite — by insisting upon defining themselves in the most specific of “we” terms? I think not. By being secure and well-versed in themselves, they were able to tolerate the paradoxes of a multicultural world and still have pride in their own accomplishments, highly significant within their context but irrelevant elsewhere. If they paid too much attention to what they weren’t, they would have lost who they were.
The reality of diversity — the subtle and hard to cross-culturally communicate aspects of a group of people that make them unique — is no less valuably human than those traits and attitudes which, perhaps, we as a species share in common. The tension between the two, between the most narrow parochialism (to study “Nigeria” or “India,” after all, is but a small and often misleading step toward the actuality of the hundreds of separate and distinctive tribal traditions still very much alive in those huge countries) and the broadest, blandest cosmopolitanism, is one of those dangerous challenges that are virtually always creatively out of balance.