Culture determines and describes who we are as human groups and individuals. Persons without a sense of their cultural identity are like trees without roots. Individuals need clarity about their identity, their core values, and their purpose in life. Without purpose or mission, we can hardly set goals. Without a mission and goals, we flounder. Part of an individual’s identity is cultural; we share something with others of our culture—positively and negatively. When a nation is not sure of its cultural identity, its core values, and its mission, it may drift or even begin to founder, like a ship on a rocky shoal.
Historically, nations have been shaped around ethnicity. Colonialism and imperialism distorted such cultural groupings in ways that have sometimes proven disastrous (as with the troubles in central Africa over the past fifty years or so). Globalization and immigration have created multi-ethnic national cultures contributing to cultural richness—yet not without problems of integration and reconciliation. Such is the case with the United States of America.
American Culture! As with all national cultures, it is rich and complex. It will be described in different ways by as many as attempt the challenge of defining American culture.
We are a small family-farm struggling to survive; we are a vast agricultural corporation juggling government regulations and subsidies. We are wealthy families sending our kids to elite schools, rich summer camps and lavish holidays…while being stuck in a routine of social events we dare not miss. We are rural and urban poor wondering how to stretch meager food stocks through the week—or a family living in a car. We are brilliant lawyers and physicians, scientists and financial experts, out of prestigious Ivy League schools forced to work 12, 14, 16 or more hours a day—as we earn the right to privilege.
We have polls and surveys—with no clear consensus on who we are. Like many other nations, we are hooked to our screens and face temptations to lust and greed by what we see on them. For every pain we have a pill, and we numb ourselves with prescriptions or by self-medication. We need “highs,” but often feel low.
One can study American culture linguistically, artistically and architecturally, musically, and perhaps especially through its advertisements. What people are watching on their TVs and going to see at the movies, give further clues. Visit a mall in the United States; in its toy store see what they’re buying their children, observe what they’re buying for themselves, and finally notice what they like to eat. You are seeing American culture.
Can a historical sweep bring clarity to the questions: Who are we, and what do we stand for? Explorers stumbling on a “New World,” Revolutionary ideals of freedom and prosperity, the great western frontier to be claimed regardless of who stands in the way, the blot of slavery and the schism of the Union, industrial explosion, racial prejudice and injustice, global interventions—so many scenes in our story. In the twenty-first century, the U.S. struggles to know how to address horrifying events around the globe. Internally, there are questions and conflicts about economic inequality, cultural wars, and political stalemates. Can looking at our past give us some sense of the American culture? Or does it—along with our present situation—merely pose an impossible conundrum?
Among the nations of the world, America is a Western country, tempered and influenced by its Native American predecessors and African Americans—and then by Latin Americans, Asians, and many from the Islands of the world. Observers have moved from seeing America as a “melting-pot” to concluding it is more like a “tossed salad.” Can we accept the implications of pluralism? Many of us have overcome xenophobia and are welcoming newcomers to our country. For the most part we believe in fairness and opportunity; we just can’t agree on how to achieve such in our society at large.
Some have argued that we cannot claim a single American culture—but rather American cultures (plural). If this in fact true, we must draw on the perspectives and collaborative efforts of people from all perspectives and walks of life. As with the study of any national culture, we need to hear from old and young, rich and poor, male and female, gay and straight—from Native Americans, from Euro-, Caribbean-, African-, Chicano-, Latina- and Latino-, Asian- and Islander-Americans. They all have a view of American culture we need to hear.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
How would you describe American (U.S.) culture in a sentence or paragraph—or would you need an essay?
What is your assessment of American culture these days? Are you most satisfied with American culture of the past, the present, or, what you think it may be in the future?
Would you agree that there are both an American culture and many American cultures at the same time?
Are American culture or cultures of interest to you, or do you think trying to figure out our national culture, the core values and direction of our society, is a waste of time?
What perspective does your own background add to your understanding and perception of American culture? How does it shape how you interact with American culture?
We have all become human through a process called socialization. In other words human infants need to be taught human skills through relationships and teaching of parents, day-cares and schools, friends and media—and perhaps religious teachers. There is a way in which we “American” human beings are different from those in other cultures.
We can’t and don’t want to internalize all the messages and influences of culture, but there are basics that make us feel at home in our culture and as a visitor in other cultures.
We are not only deeply influenced by our culture(s); we also influence culture as individuals and groups.
Many agree it is time for an honest discussion about the direction and values of our culture. This is probably true in most countries in the 21st century.
People of faith speak of being “in the culture but not of it.” Some see the duty of religion to be a counter-point or countercultural community within a national society. Much needs to be thoughtfully discussed on this point.
Hopefully, you will be able to carry on discussions about American culture. We think our topic CULTURE will help you in such conversations.