Invention and the Intersection of Culture
Part I The Question
In the early 80’s, I was a doctoral student at the University of Arizona in Tucson. As a full- time student, I was poor, and when someone offered me some extra work for pay, I jumped on it. Here was the work: Teach a 10-year-old Japanese boy to speak English.
A colleague whose spouse was a medical researcher was the source of the unusual request. A scientist from Japan was visiting UA for a year to work on some specific research. The scientist spoke reasonable English. The family took an apartment not far from where I lived, and so twice a week, I was well paid to have a 1-hour language session with a delightful young man, about 10 years old..
His mother spoke no English and had to negotiate supermarkets, packages, mail, gas bills and other stores with no English skills, so often I helped her as well.
It’s important to note there were three children in this family, my student and two younger boys. There was no talk of tutoring the younger ones. Apparently, an oldest son in birth order comes with unapologetic privileges. Oh, and did I mention I do not speak Japanese?
I did however belong to Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, a sect based in Japan. I knew plenty of Japanese speakers. I knew some Japanese words. Moreover, as a literacy and language student, I understood the principles of language learning. The field of English and a Second Language or English as a Foreign Language was not yet a reality. So, I had to figure out how to teach my student. The opportunity to apply what I knew was delicious.
I organized our sessions around play, and words that went with each situation. I started with school supplies and routines as he was attending a local school. Some days we worked outside with a ball or other sports equipment. Toy cars and toy soldiers were helpful. Sessions went well.
The Mom was trying out things she found in grocery stores. One day, she pulled me aside with a problem. She had an empty box of Jell-O in her hand. If you travel, you have learned Jell-O is a uniquely American food. So, the Mom pointed to the picture on the box, and the bowl of runny fluid in her refrigerator, noticing the picture and reality did not match. It was clear she had been sitting with her Japanese-English Dictionary translating every word of the instructions. But she could not find the meaning of the word Refrigerate, the last instruction.
How can I explain refrigerate? I mimed opening the door, putting in the bowl, pointing to a clock on the wall, showing the passing of a few hours, then opening the fridge door. I could see in her face she understood. Whew!
So, my visits continued twice a week for one school year. In the spring, the family invited me to dinner. I was allowed to bring along a Japanese friend for dinner and translation. Dinner was lovely. The Mom gave me a parting gift – a Christmas ornament made of colorful thread wound around a ball.
But the most interesting part of the dinner was the conversation with the Dad/scientist. He had lots to say. He said he’d assumed his children would be bored in American schools. He was led to believe his children would be far more advanced in math and science that U.S. children. He was still in some disbelief that this was not the case. Clearly, he’d given the topic some thought.
“My children know lots of operations and equations and formulas,” he began. But they never learned the thinking that goes with these math concepts. Here, they learned so much.” He was effusive about all this, animated in the saying of it. He continued. “I think in Japan, our students are taught to look for answers. I think in the US, students are taught to look for questions.”
I was just taking all this in, realizing the incredible compliment to Tucson Unified Schools when he said something even more stunning and which has stayed with me to this day, and has driven much of my thinking about learning.
“Have you noticed that in my country we never invent anything? We take other people’s ideas and might make it smaller or better or cheaper. But we never have a new idea! Why IS that?”
At that time, I did not know how to respond. Even now, I cannot prove his statement that there are no inventions that have come out of Japan. But what a wonderful question.
Investigating the Question
During my 30 years in higher education, I still thought about the scientist’s question: Why does his country of Japan never have a new idea? (his assertion, not mine). A few times, I tried to engage science education faculty to investigate this with me further. They all loved the idea, but had their own lines of inquiry keeping them busy.
So, I did what professors do, I assigned a graduate assistant to work on this some. I directed him to create a figure of the major inventions of the 20th century, and to add columns for the year of the invention, the name of the inventor, the birthplace of the inventor, and the country in which the inventor was living when the invention was made.
The 20th century was a busy time. Lots of inventions. We limited inventions to “major” inventions – in other words things we have all hear of, things that changed life broadly, and internationally, not just in a particular region.
In this way that data can be terribly exciting, I sat down with the Grad Assistant and looked at the figure. Would it surprise anyone that nearly all the major inventions come out of the United States? Many originate in the armed forced with applications for war or security (like fax machines, GPS). The famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology gets credits for several. Our own Kent State University (I was teaching there) gets credit for liquid crystals. Germany gets credit for the car (Mr. Benz was the inventor), although it became more developed and available under the ingenuity of American factories and markets; Italy gets credit for the radio, although their invention did not transmit speech (An American innovation accomplished that). Russia had some wartime thing like a periscope with a different name.
So, the big question then becomes “WHY?” Why are most inventions American? By the way, many inventors were foreign born, but did their big inventing after arriving in the U.S. So, why is that????
Kent State University had a project going via our international center (The Gerald Read Center for International and Intercultural Education located in the College of Education, Health and Human Services). They were helping some Turks create a school in Turkey with an American take on curriculum and some other things. I was one of the faculty sent over to talk about American education and why creating such a school might be a good idea.
I used the figure of the Inventions of the 20th Century in my presentation. I left it on the screen long enough for potential parents to digest it. One of them noticed and said aloud, “There is no Muslim based country on the list.” Hmm. Hadn’t thought about that. There are no “developing countries” on the list.
Again -the big question….WHY NOT?
Oh, I don’t know how to post the figure here, but I will try in the 3rd part of this post, “Thinking about the question.”