A Little Culture Shock | Dominican University College

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A Little Culture Shock

Friday, June 20, 2014

By Louis Roy O.P.


While I was living in England, doing my doctoral studies at the University of Cambridge, I had a little, amusing, culture shock. At the seminar in philosophy of religion, one of the ‘postgraduate’ students (as the British call them) or, more frequently, a professor, would make a presentation of not more than twenty minutes. Thereupon a long discussion would follow.

After a while, I noticed a remarkable discrepancy between two basic attitudes among the presenters. The British scholars were offering their ideas with (faked?) modesty, suggesting that what they submitted was rather unoriginal, hardly worth saying, most likely to be flawed. Their voice was neutral and subdued. In contrast, the North-American scholars would speak with (faked?) enthusiasm, implying they were sharing with their audience one of the biggest philosophical discoveries of the twentieth century, namely their own discovery! Their voice sounded loud and self-confident.

After the presentation, the convenor would say, with excessive gratitude: “Thank you, thank you very much indeed!” And the convenor would continue: “May I ask the first question?” That question virtually always amounted to a strong blow against the presenter’s thesis. Thereafter each of the other scholars, mostly British, added their own blows.

One day, as I was witnessing, for a second or third time, the succession of such attacks (oh, exquisitely polite, among gentlemen, and yet very tough), a vivid image struck me, as if displayed on an imaginary screen: I saw a huge ship being progressively scuttled by little submarines and slowly sinking. I’m sure my brilliant readers are understanding that the huge ship stood for the presenter’s thesis, and that the little submarines stood for the objections voiced by those who participated in the seminar.

Now, can you guess what insight I received from that vivid image? Well, suddenly I found myself in the presence of two cultures poles apart. First, the British culture, centuries-old, which had come across an enormous amount of so-called bright, new ideas, and had turned rather sceptical. And second, the North-American culture, youthful, perhaps credulous at times, which gets excited with the new – always better than the old, of course!

What did I resolve to do after having experienced this little, amusing, culture shock? As a Canadian, I wanted to integrate both attitudes: being capable of welcoming as well as of criticizing new ideas. Then I thought of Paul Ricoeur’s program: combining the hermeneutics of suspicion with the hermeneutics of recovery.