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The Onion

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Lesson #1

The Onion or CULTURE 101

Grade: 9th - 12th


This lesson seeks to introduce how we define culture and explores the underlying aspects of culture. We will look at one mode of understanding culture in an effort to decipher reasons behind cultural differences. Goals of this class include:
1. Exploring philosophies of culture
2. Developing a sense of the complex nature of cultures
3. Analyzing aspects of our own American culture
4. Analyzing and comparing aspects of foreign cultures

Central Themes:

The term "culture" is a broad one, which usually includes things such as belief systems, traditions, language, technology, art, etc. of a certain group of people. Cultures are by no means, simple to decipher. Consider the ways in which Fons Trompenaars attempts to explain the idea of "culture" in his book, Riding the Waves of Culture :

"A useful way of thinking about where culture comes from is the following: culture is the way in which a group of people solves problems."
"Culture comes in layers, like an onion."

Solving Problems

Characteristics of a culture can be analyzed by the way a group of people cope with or understand certain problems they face. Think of examples in American culture where a belief, tradition, technology, or trend has developed as an attempt to deal with a problem. Take for example things which characterize, or are productions of American culture: Fast food and the Internet! Both are typically "American". They are products of our culture that can be more broadly defined as "Western" culture. What underlying needs or problems in American culture might explain their development?

These developments might be a result of Americans' fast-paced lifestyle: we want food fast, information fast, etc. What might be the underlying reasons for this "faster is better" mentality? One could attribute this mentality to the competitive spirit fostered in American society. Furthermore, where does this competitive spirit originate? One could possibly answer Capitalism as the root of this competitive spirit. Here, you can see just how complex the cultural meanings of things like Fast Food and the Internet may become.

Now, The Onion

Picture Fast Food and the Internet as the outside layers of an onion. The next layer, as you peel away the first, might be the fast pace of American lifestyle, the next the competitive spirit fostered in America, and so on. Each layer seems to lead to the next. The deeper you go into the onion, the more complex the themes and ideals you find, some of which are not always easy to define. See if you can relate this onion to Trompenaars' ideas of culture: each layer of the onion as an attempt to answer the needs and problems of a people brought on by the environment, societal issues, etc.,

Assignments:v 1. Enter a discussion on Trompenaars's reasoning behind culture in the MESSAGE BOARD. What do you think of this way of thinking about culture? What might be problems with this idea? How might things like a country's climate or environment affect its culture? Can you come up with another theory of explaining the ideas behind "culture"?


2a. Think up one basic aspect of American culture- like Fast Food- and create your own "Cultural Onion" to explain that aspect. Download the therewewere Onion to fill out. Be ready to explain how one layer leads to the next, and of course, decorate your onion!

2b. Research one aspect of another culture, for example, the significance of bread in the Middle East, or the art form of calligraphy in China. Download the therewewere Onion, and use it to explain the deeper meanings of the cultural aspect you have researched.

3. Think of your own original metaphor or simile to describe culture: Culture is like a. . .what? A mini-van? A three-toed sloth? Why? Explain in a concise thought-paper.

therewewere CONSIDER THIS: Cultures are complex and never static, meaning they are continually changing. New cultural characteristics are borne, others become overshadowed. Read the therewewere articles. How are specific cultures changing? What influences seem to be altering these cultures? What are the underlying themes behind these changes: e.g. improvements in communication, economic downswings or upswings?

Teachers, enter your password to see the ANSWER KEY:

 Lesson designed by Erin Edwards, December 19, 1999.

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