“Strength lies in differences, not in similarities”
-Stephen R. Covey
The last characteristic of the “college and work-ready graduate” is that he/she “comes to understand other perspectives and cultures.” Artifacts automatically introduce students to cultural differences. Every artifact is a product of the culture in which it was made. We transfer our cultural ideas, norms, traditions and beliefs into the objects we make and use. Compare for instance, a mixing bowl from Poland with one from France. Look at eating utensils from China and compare them with those from the United States. What could we decipher about culture from looking at a British board axe and a hand-axe from Washington State? How could an Easter egg from the Czech Republic reveal something about tradition and commitment in Eastern Europe? How would the patterns of a Navajo rug communicate ideas and beliefs of Southwestern culture? What would a chemical analysis of concrete from a Roman aqueduct tell us about that culture? What might a painting from Saudi Arabia tell us about Islam and the relationship of man to his world? Objects are ideal tools for students to learn about other cultures.
By far, the easiest objects to place before students of any age are pieces of clothing. Textiles contain lessons for students in all disciplines. Mathematicians can calculate standard sizes (heights and weights) of the population from samples of clothing. Chemists can determine the elements used in making the item, including the dyes used for color and the sources of the thread employed to construct it. Sociologists can speculate on the status of the person based on materials, design and wear. Historians can examine how an item has changed over time. Engineers might consider how objects used for the same purpose differ in composition and application. Geographers would be interested in the pattern of disbursement across the society. Artists and designers would be interested in the different applications of design, construction and color. And so it goes. By their very nature, objects provide an introduction to cultural diversity and an opportunity to develop cultural empathy.
Even within the same society, take the United States for example, objects provide for greater cultural understanding. Think of food as an object. Try placing grits in front of your students – food is an object after all. What understanding might we have of another, regional culture in our own nation if we examined grits in terms of composition, function, usage and popularity? At the same time, we could use the corn tortilla for the same purpose. Why not start a class with a corn tortilla? Ask, “What is this and why is it important?” and you have fodder (sorry, I could not help myself) for discussion that includes chemistry, industry, transportation, agriculture, geography and economics. The same holds true for any regional or national specialty, be it food or clothing or tools, or containers, or the structure and composition of houses. Objects take students immediately into the higher order thinking skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation, not only with the object under consideration but also with similar objects in their own experience.
Objects reveal the ideas, beliefs, practices and traditions of the societies in which they were made. That transference is inherent. We cannot avoid it. Using objects in the classroom allows students to discover and appreciate the ideas, skills, traditions and lives of others outside the walls of their schools and the limits of their neighborhoods.
Artifacts teach cultural appreciation and perspective.