Thursday, May 6, 2010

Nine Postulates of U.S. Culture

In 1969 Francis Hsu wrote an excellent little book, The Study of Literate Civilizations, where he attempted to develop a basic working philosophy of U.S. culture to a series of postulates. Hsu was an anthropologist who lived half his life in China and half in the United States. The raw material for identification of these postulates comes from his personal experience, both literary and popular prose, social science studies, and studies of crime and other forms of societal breakdown.

Here are nine of Hsu's Postulates of Basic American Values:

1. An individual's most important concern is self-interest: self- expression, self-improvement, self-gratification, and independence. This takes precedence over all group interests.

2. The privacy of the individual is the individual's inalienable right. Intrusion into it by others is permitted only by invitation.

3. Because the government exists for the benefit of the individual and not vice-versa, all forms of authority, including government, are suspect. But the government and its symbols should be respected. Patriotism is good.

4. An individual's success in life depends upon acceptance among his or her peers.

5. An individual should believe in or acknowledge God and should belong to an organized church or other religious institution. Religion is good. Any religion is better than no religion.

6. Men and women are equal.

7. All human beings are equal.

8. Progress is good and inevitable. An individual must improve himself or herself (minimize efforts and maximize returns); the government must be more efficient to tackle new problems; institutions such as churches must modernize to make themselves more attractive.

9. Being American is synonymous with being progressive, and America is the utmost symbol of progress.

How much of Hsu's selection of U.S. cultural items was provoked by the particular way the items contrasted to the Chinese norm that Hsu expected to find in the United States? We must remember when reading this list that it reflects the observations and study of an anthropologist who was bought up in another culture.

My question to you is how do these postulates measure up to what Americans are in 2010? Please comment.


LiteracyCenter.Net said...

This is wonderful . I am most drawn to these powerful messages of self-reliance and equality. These are the basic tenants of a good education.

Walton said...

These are great and I think they are definitely written from an outside point of view, which is useful for students who plan to come and study in the US. I would qualify #3, we love our country but we are suspicious of our government. And the two are separate. My students often find it hard to understand how that works, that I used to say, "I don't like George Bush and I disagree with him, but if the White House called and asked me to serve the President, I would go in an instant."

I would also qualify #4. From the point of view of Kazakhstani, for example, it is amazing how little we think about what our peers or our family or other people think about us.

Really great talking points!