The final grades are in for my first American Studies course, and the students did well. We began meeting shortly after I arrived in Madagascar (11/18), and we wrapped things up with a party at the cafeteria for the humanities departments recently (2/14). I thought it would be nice to have some food and drink for our last meeting together. It was nice to get together with them outside of class. Soa ny fiarahantsika.
In total, there were 35.5 contact hours in which we talked about the following: traditional American values, religion in America, government and politics in America, ethnicity and diversity in America and whether traditional American values may change in the future and the extent to which they have actually already changed. As we covered these things, I tried to draw out similarities and differences with Malagasy values and culture. This method of comparison was helpful to get a deeper understanding, I think, of both cultures. In the end we covered a lot of ground in our short time. I will be meeting with the same students again in the new semester, and we’ll continue our discussion. I am also starting two other classes as well, which will cover many of the same topics as well as other topics in American studies.
It has certainly been interesting hearing their ideas. The level of sophistication that they can sustain in discussion in their second language consistently impresses me, and their humor, too, stands out in my mind. It was also interesting for me to talk to them about American values at such a unique time in American history, a time when things really do seem to stand at a crossroads in terms of our core values. Many people ask me what direction the country is heading in, and I find it hard to say anything precise or informative. I am not sure where the next four years will take us. Of course, the same uncertainty lies before Malagasy citizens. There is an election coming up in 2018, and it is pretty clear that people have not been satisfied with the political leadership of late and are looking for something new. But who or what will that be? There is not much hope or optimism that a new figure will emerge. I think the expectation is that it will be the same old faces running for president, and that is not likely to inspire a groundswell of hope for the future here. People already seem to be preparing to settle. I have started talking with students in the philosophy club about some practical political issues as well as more philosophical ones. Examining both the respective political situations here and in American has given us cause to reflect on what the most just form of government is. At present, a few of them say that it is a dictatorship. I don't agree myself but their view is not without reason. Their reasoning is basically Hobbesian. A dictator can provide peace by installing law and order, which is sorely needed. We will talk about it more next week, but they hinted that the dictatorship would be a phase to be passed before something more democratic is established.
It has also been interesting to talk about issues of race and ethnicity in the US with my Malagasy students, since I rarely ever talk about race with my American students. Because I am talking about a culture that the students are not themselves part of, I feel more free to speak directly to the heart of the matter about issues of race, justice, assimilation, segregation and so on. I do think that students in the US would like to talk about these issues, but it is sometimes hard to do so in the classroom. One idea I have is to talk more about these issues in my introductory philosophy classes alongside some of the material I currently teach (which mainly concerns the traditional “Big Questions” in philosophy). With the right structure, I think that most American students would welcome such discussions.
I think that the students got something out of the course. I know that I did. I am looking forward to working with them again and the new students as well.