Personal experiences in cultural relativism

CV High School, La Crescenta

I was raised in Glendale, a southern California town, in the county of Los Angeles during the 1950s to early 70s where I attended public school in the foothills of the Verdugo Mountains, in a small town called, La Crescenta. Settled by Don Jose Verdugo in 1784, it was originally home to the Tongva Indians. In the 1880s, Dr. Benjamin Briggs, a physician from Indiana found the location as a healthy climate and established health clinics and a school shortly thereafter.  Rockhaven Sanitarium was established as a healthy retreat and became the choice for prominent people from Hollywood.  Marilyn Monroe’s mother was a patient there.

Rockhaven built in 1924

Rockhaven Sanitarium

Although the area was chosen as a healthy climate, I remember the effects of smog. On certain days, the air was so contaminated with smog that if I breathed deeply, my lungs would hurt. I can still recall the feeling.  In later years, the Los Angeles Air Quality Management District would set higher standards, so that today, when I visit, I never feel that pain in breathing.
My parents were familiar with the area, as my mother was a native Californian, and my father had been living in nearby Burbank. The school I attended for elementary education was established in 1924 and named Lincoln School after President Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln School, 1924

Lincoln School

Demographically speaking, La Crescenta was mainly Caucasian; many residents came from German ancestry.  As a child, I was unaware of any cultural relativism.  But, this may be due to the fact that there were few racial groups. Everyone was white. Our community was the same as what was broadcast on television – Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, My Three Sons – this is what my culture looked like.  In fact, Burbank, home to the television studios was my neighboring town.

Hiddenburg Park, German ancestry

From the viewpoint of my community, everyone went to public school, obeyed the teachers, and attended some denomination of church service. In kindergarten, we were taught to be nice to others, raise our hands, and take naps on a special little napping pad brought from home.  Parents were only active in their children’s education by paying dues to the Parent Teachers Association (PTA), which was considered good and proper.  Parents did not volunteer to help in the classroom on a regular basis, and one mom, called the room-mother, was in charge of class parties to be held on the holidays.  Christmas was celebrated and we made Christmas art projects and sang Christmas songs.  If there were Jewish kids in our class, I have no memory of such.  There were no Jewish Synagogues in the town, only Christian churches, the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), and the Masonic Temple.

La Crescenta, California

My schools – elementary, junior high, and high school were made up of the same Anglo-Saxon, white Christian families.  We walked to school, car-pooled, rode the school bus, or drove ourselves (high school).  While there were no fences to keep us in, or others out, we had strict rules to remain on campus.  The girls wore dresses, the boys wore pants, and on occasion we might have a special “pants day” for girls.  In high school, there was a small crowd of boys who smoked tobacco, back behind the school, on “tobacco road”.  Long hair was not permitted, and some of the boys wore wigs to hide their long tresses.  I only knew of a few boys who smoked marijuana.
In junior high school, we were tested academically and placed in classes based on our test scores.  If you tested high, the teachers seemed to like you better.  I was pulled out for more testing, along with some other students.  We had tested within the top two percent, and acknowledged as being worthy to be placed in advanced math and English courses.  We were encouraged to go to the school library and read extra books – one being Catcher in the Rye, which was not allowed in the regular classroom.  I responded well to the extra attention, and set my goals to be the best, score the highest.  While this was a worthy accomplishment by my parents and teachers standards, I found that my fellow students would occasionally make fun of me for getting good grades.  I was not part of any clique, but more on the fringe.  From my perspective, this was partly due to my strict Mormon beliefs.  I did not go to parties, I did not drink, I did not smoke, and sex was only for the married (Christensen, 1960).  For the most part, my teachers and classmates accepted me even though my culture of Mormonism had set “truths.”   The general beliefs of white Christians (the dominant culture) were similar to the truths I had been taught to follow, therefore I was not aware of any cultural relativism. The schools remained firm in the truths of a strict policy of dress codes, homework, grades, and Christian ethics.  I graduated valedictorian, and went to college in 1972.

During my college years at Occidental College, in Los Angeles, California, I was more cognizant of my surroundings, and looking back I can check for cultural relativism.  But first, what is cultural relativism?  Initially an anthropological term, it is a way of explaining that different cultures have different perspectives and that those beliefs held dear to one group must be viewed from the outside as relative to culture (Warnock, 1979). It seems to embrace tolerance and diversity – two terms adopted by public schools by the 1990s.  Anthropologists were not to “judge” other cultures through the spectacles of their own culture (Gensler, 2013). The term also claims that there are no “absolute truths” since everyone views truth from their own cultural perspective (Warnock, 1979).  Cultural relativism may go so far as to say, “that good and bad are relative to culture.  What is ‘good’ is what is ‘socially approved’ in a given culture.” (Gensler, p. 44). 

Occidental College

Occidental College was a liberal arts college and embraced diversity and cultural relativism.  The science department was the only area where college did not accept another culture’s belief.  Any belief in God and some form of creation was not tolerated in the explanations of the origins of the universe.  My belief that there is a divine creator that organized the planets was not accepted as a valid answer on any given biology test.  I memorized the evolutionary theories and answered accordingly to receive the all-important grade for my GPA.  My beliefs differ from standard Christians who believe in creation ex nihilio, and from standard scientists who believe in evolution.  Neither my Mormon cultural relativism nor my Christian friends beliefs would have been acceptable answers.  Yet, other areas of cultural relativism were embraced – such as sexuality. This was the 1970s, and the 60s “hippie,” free love era had left its mark.
In 1979, I applied to graduate school at the Keck School of Medicine at USC, to study pharmacology. While being interviewed, one of the professors asked me, “Are you going to hang your diploma in the nursery?”  At first I was confused, thinking of a green plants kind of nursery.  But then I realized he was talking about me later having children.  To this day, I can’t remember what my response was to that question.  Even though I had learned that one of my professors was critical of women in his department, I accepted my invitation and attended the school.  There was one woman professor in the department, so I imagined that there would be no problems.  Unfortunately, I did not feel welcome in the department and only stayed for one semester. I still regret not finishing my PhD.  True, I did raise five kids later on, but this example of cultural relativism set me back.  From my perspective, a woman was fully capable of getting a higher degree, even if she set it aside for a while to raise a family. 

I appreciate the need to respect other cultures.  However, it is difficult to conduct a course of study in a multi-cultural classroom if one group is of the belief that plagiarism is acceptable.  Yet, I recall copying large portions of the encyclopedia in 6th grade for reports. I see the advantage of examples, and even copying good writing to learn to write is not necessarily bad if kept within the context of learning.  Perspective is a much-needed quality in education. We should try to understand another person’s beliefs and respect their culture.  One area that often fails the test is within the home school culture, where recently in Germany, a family of homeschoolers were arrested and taken away from their parents for three weeks.  After the parents agreed to send their children to the state-run schools, the children were returned to their home (Home School Legal Defense Association, 2013). This is an example of a country not applying the principle of cultural relativism to their own people, and forcing their perspective on another person’s belief.  Too often, cultural relativism is applied discriminately – governments and schools choose what to accept and what to reject.


Christensen, H. T. (1960). Cultural relativism and premarital sex norms. American Sociological Review, 25(1), 31-39. 

Gensler, H. (2013).  Cultural Relativism. In Russ Shafer-Landau (Ed.), Ethical Theory: An Anthology. (pp. 44-47). West Sussex, UK: Wiley & Blackwell.  Retrieved from  http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=LxKhwZjkVlIC&oi=fnd&pg=PA44&dq=cultural+relativism&ots=cfP_Uuys3B&sig=M6ChjL1GeLXN2lvvGnMpizJQX2s#v=onepage&q=cultural%20relativism&f=false

Home School Legal Defense Association. (2013, Semptember 20). German officials return homeschooled children to Dirk Wunderlich family on condition of school attendance. The Christian Post. Retrieved from http://crossmap.christianpost.com/news/german-officials-return-homeschooled-children-to-dirk-wunderlich-family-on-condition-of-school-attendance-5255

Warnock, M. (1979).  Cultural relativism and education.  International Journal of Research and Method in Education. Westminster Studies in Education (2) 1. Retrieved from  http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0140672790020103#.Uj4ObWTF1_I

No comments:

Post a Comment

Disqus for Online Learning