Building Bridges Newsletter

Newsletter Four

This is one of a series of newsletters written by Peter Porr and Paul Sjordal between September 1993 and December 1995 for the purpose of explaining the South-East Asia Center’s Building Bridge’s objectives, philosophy, and approach to learning.


In the last issue of Building Bridges, we discussed the dangers to American society of ethnic separatism by two Pulitzer Prize winning authors Arthur Schlesinger and Dale Maharidge.  The authors are concerned for America’s  future if ethnocentrism divides rather than unites us.  The South-East Asia Center is very concerned that traditional multicultural education often unwittingly supports the separatists agenda.

The Center strongly believes that we should be developing curriculum that counters this agenda by teaching our children to understand others’ perspectives and through historically accurate histories and better cultural understanding learn to appreciate the power that comes from recognizing common goals and harnessing cooperative action.  The Center is developing such a curriculum and teaching it in two Chicago Public schools.

The Center was formed in Chicago’s Uptown community 14 years ago to service recent lndochinese immigrants by building bridges between Eastern and Western cultures and between the various Southeast Asian cultures themselves.

As the South-East Asia Center struggled with answers to questions such as “Why do Americans raise more disobedient children, disrespect elders and divorce more than the lndochinese and, on the other hand, why are Indochinese immigrant children more respectful of old ways and of elders and why does a blind, arranged marriage have more staying power than the American marriage springing from love?”, the genesis of the Center’s multicultural education philosophy began to develop.


For recent immigrants, especially refugees, to survive and thrive in the United States, they should understand the answers to the questions posed above.

The Center found that understanding the answers helped in the formation of a philosophy on how multicultural education could be more effective.  Excerpts from an earlier Center publication, New Life News, in the January, 1985 issue show how this philosophy developed.  The article is relevant today in helping to understand immigrants from many lands and even in understanding immigrants from more rural backgrounds in our own country.

The key to understanding [the differences between these two ‘worlds,’ (Indochina and America)] can be found in comparing the state of technological development in each “world.”  A culture has grown up around each of the two different types of technological environments or “worlds.” Each culture helps people cope with these environmental problems of its unique “world” and best enjoy the benefits.

Indochinese culture sustained itself for thousands of years until the 20th century brought Westerners and advanced technology.  Until that “invasion,” lndochinese society was traditional, respectful of elders, and worshipful of the past.  There was no strong need to change.  The Indochinese saw the usefulness of conformity, homogeneity of culture and the burying of interpersonal differences and conflicts.  This created a relatively comfortable, peaceful environment in which people could be happy and businesses and farms could be run successfully as they always had been.


A hundred years ago when America was much less industrialized, life in the United States was not so dissimilar from Indochinese life.  But the technological/industrial revolution changed life drastically here.  Factories proliferated; workers moved near the factories creating more and larger cities.  Parents working in factories could not educate their children while at the same time work in the family business or on the family farm.

Therefore, schools proliferated to act as substitute parents.  The old American (similar to Indochinese) values of respecting tradition and elders gradually fell by the wayside.

Although Americans have always been more independent minded than Indochinese and even Europeans, the new technological era  made that characteristic quite useful for Americans, in order to keep up with the new rapidly changing technology.  Americans had to be flexible enough to learn new life styles that went along with driving cars, using telephones, using new machines and ways of thinking.  Innovativeness and newness became new  values to replace traditionalism and oldness.

In a rapidly changing technological society the old becomes outdated and sometimes useless.  One can’t take a lifetime to master the timeworn traditions of old, but rather one must constantly keep pace with the new or be left behind.  The advent of the computer age made the old obsolete sooner.  The elderly in America who have not kept pace thus do not possess the knowledge necessary to function in a world which is quite different today than when that older person was growing up.

A glacially moving Indochinese society, however, allows people to accumulate knowledge continually for a lifetime without that knowledge going stale.  The youth in America therefore are worshipped rather than the elderly for the youth possess the latest knowledge, foster fresh outlooks and symbolize newness and change.

Disrespect for tradition can be healthy if progress results.  But America has seen more than its share of unhealthy disrespect that has been dysfunctional.  For example, the disrespect of southern whites caused a monumentally dysfunctional Civil War along with human strife which has racked this country since.  Sometimes unhealthy disrespect by black Americans for American institutions arose from unhealthy white disrespect for blacks.  Black disrespect for American institutions has sometimes been creatively channeled to make positive changes in American society.  But as the above model stresses, the urban, technological society generally demands much more disrespect and flux than the technologically complex society.  This dash of the two “worlds” values often leads to misunderstanding and conflict.


        The center believes that we can all learn to get along better at any age if we emphasize understanding and human similarities rather than our differences.  Improved understanding can help us in America and the rest of the world to live in a more peaceful, harmonious, cooperative and therefore more prosperous world.  That’s an education, as the world shrinks and conflicts become potentially more devastating.            

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