A Conversation About Culture
What Our Students Think About Modern-Day American Culture
As we go about daily life, we check off our “to-do” list, compete for first place, pursue unique dreams, and rush so we won’t be late to class. Why do we do these things?
Perhaps you have never considered the deep values that underlie these outward actions – values that are shaped by the culture in which we live. We live in a culture that is both individualistic and time-oriented. Here is an opportunity to examine two cultural distinctions and expose the effect they have on our values, our assumptions of normal and “expected” behavior, and the way we live our lives. Engage with the Cairn community now in a conversation about culture.
- Would you say that the US is an individualistic culture or a collectivist culture? Why?
Yes. All of the interviewees agreed that the US is an individualistic culture. “The US is founded upon the ideals of freedom and opportunity,” Junior Sarah Doorly explains. Kristy Douglas, Senior, references the individualism that fuels the American dream, and Dr. MacCullough speaks of the American mentality: “If you can dream it, you can do it.” From a young age, children are socialized to believe that success is measured by individual achievement, Professor Campbell-Farrell adds.
- What are the positive effects of being in an individualistic culture? What are the negative effects?
America presents its citizens with a plethora of opportunities to pursue dreams and with the resources to accomplish these dreams, Sarah shares. Dr. MacCullough notes that an individualistic culture often leads to great creativity: “The creative endeavor requires the ability to venture out without great support.” Furthermore, Kristy adds that an individualistic culture does not assume that all people are the same. It allows for self-expression and presents individuals with the opportunity to pursue what they enjoy. Ramman Shittu mentions that an individualistic culture gives people “the freedom to think and be as they want to be without judgment or prejudice.”
Yet, individualism has negative effects, too. Sarah states, “When everyone is pursuing their own dreams and endeavors, they oftentimes forget to look to those around them and come together as a community.” Professor Campbell-Farrell explains that when we cannot see others’ needs, we do not know they exist, and when we do not know they exist, we cannot meet them. Having our eyes focused on our own individual lives leads to “loneliness, inappropriate self-reliance, [and] often a harshness around other people,” Dr. MacCullough shares.
- How does being in an individualistic culture affect you personally? Your values? Your beliefs about what is expected?
Professor Campbell-Farrell says that being in an individualistic culture gives her “permission to be anti-social.” This is not good because it can blind her to the needs of others. Nevertheless, living in an individualistic culture has helped Professor Campbell-Farrell develop the positive characteristic of intentionality in pursuing community. In a place where community is not the highest value, the efforts we make toward community are more meaningful because they require us to go against the tide of what is expected. Freshman Seil Park says that being in an individualistic culture has affected him in a positive way because he is able to “become a leader without others’ interference.” Sarah shares her experience: “Being in an individualistic culture brings the temptation of valuing my happiness over my holiness. However, it also produces a continual reliance on God to renew my mind.”
- What does Scripture have to say about this?
Two major answers arise to this question. One is that we are called to be the church; we are all members of one body. The second is that each one of us, as an individual, is called to have a personal relationship with Christ. The life of Jesus provides the faultless example for our lives. Sarah asks, “If Christ was willing to empty Himself for the needs of others, even though He was perfect, how much more should we as sinful people sacrifice our needs for the sake of others?” Professor Campbell-Farrell says, “Jesus took time to be alone.” In an individualistic culture, we each have a choice. Dr. MacCullough states that we, as individuals, can choose to care for others. We are called, not to conform, but to be consecrated to God, Ramman adds.
The second issue addressed led interviewees to discuss a related issue, the time-orientation of American culture. Like individualism, a focus on time often contrasts with the value of spending time with others.
- Would you say that the US is a time-oriented culture or a people-oriented culture? Why?
Compared to many cultures, the US is time-oriented. This is evident in our daily lives. We pass each other in the hallway with a shallow “Hi,” Lindsay White says. A sophomore interviewee explains that “we are constantly thinking about the next thing that we need to do.” Junior Ashley Jackson concurs, referencing the “busyness” attitude. She notes that people rarely say that they don’t have time for homework because they are hanging out with friends. Freshman Cody Skaer mentions that “nearly all of the products sold in the U.S. attempt to cut down on time.” Lindsay adds that even the U.S. writing style reflects time-orientation. It is “based on efficiency and on saying what needs to be said in the smallest space possible. In contrast, other cultures rejoice in ‘unnecessary’ elaboration.”
- What are the positive effects of being in a time-oriented culture? What are the negative effects?
The positive effects of being in a time-oriented culture, Freshman Katie Bruner shares, are that “people are more focused and reliable.” Seil Park notes that a time-oriented culture can foster the characteristic of diligence. Cody Skaer suggests that the time that is “saved” can be used for involvement in the Christian community. In a time-oriented culture, we can accomplish important things if we decide to pursue them.
However, as Seil observes, living in a time-oriented culture often means that we value work above people. Both Caleb Bishop and Lindsay White maintain that productivity does not always equal effectiveness. Lindsay states that having an impact on people’s lives “involves building relationships.” Caleb Bishop shares the insight of a friend, remarking that in a time-oriented culture, we often fail to see that the people we are walking by at Cairn “are all miracles of God’s redemptive grace. We forget how wonderful and marvelous it is to actually walk and sit quietly and patiently in the grand canyon of our miracles that God has created.”
- How does being in a time-oriented culture affect you personally? Your values? Your beliefs about what is expected?
Ashley Jackson shares that, although she places a high value on relationships, living in a time-oriented culture makes it easy for her to hide behind homework and not spend time with people. Being in a time-oriented culture also leads to the attitude of “teachers aren’t respecting my time” when class runs late. Are we possessive of time? Have we fallen into an attitude of entitlement? Cody shares one way that living in a time-oriented culture has affected his values: “I value my friendships because of how much time I have invested in them. The time I spend with them helps me grow closer to them and form amazing friendships.” Lindsay White says that when she looks back on her day, she often thinks about how productive she was, instead of who she was able to spend time with. This is an unbalanced view, she shares, because “without relationships and love, life does not fulfill its purpose. Another interviewee shares that, although she knows that her worth does not depend on how much she accomplishes with her time, it is easy for her to begin believing this in our culture.
- What does Scripture have to say about this?
In regard to time, Scripture urges us to use it wisely. Referencing Proverbs 10:4 and 2 Thessalonians 3:11, Lindsay states that the Bible warns against being lazy. Caleb mentions the Bible’s exhortation to take every opportunity captive to be used for God glory, adding, “Everywhere Jesus went, He used every moment and never wasted it.” Scripture colors our view of time with the lens of eternity. “Why not keep your heart and conversation on eternal things?” Caleb asks. Cody shares James 4:13 saying, “We should do good to all because we do not know when God will take us away from this life. Scripture teaches us to value relationships. Ashley mentions the verse about believers “sharpening” one another as iron sharpens iron. Finally, one interviewee speaks of the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10. “Mary was content to simply sit at Jesus’ feet.” Certainly, there is one relationship that comes before all other values: our relationship with Christ.
To conclude this cultural discourse, two pieces of advice are offered: Let us not seek only to “balance” life. Rather, let us seek to prioritize by placing first what is most important. As we seek to prioritize, let us converse not only with men. Let us take what we have learned about ourselves and lay it before the One who can change us.
1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 says, “But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.” As the deep values of American culture and their effects on us are revealed, do not be discouraged. Instead, rejoice in and uphold what is good; seek to change what is bad. Change often begins with reflection, conversation, and realization. You can begin now by asking yourself these questions. Join in the conversation about culture.