What does steampunk and multiculturalism have in common? A lot more than you think. Ay-leen the Peacemaker, proprietress of Beyond Victoriana, explains the connection between what we learn in school to how we engage with steampunk in a theory that might change everything you thought you knew about steampunk subculture.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This essay will be posted in its entirety in the upcoming first issue of Doctor Fantastique's Show of Wonders, and will be reproduced at the website of Steampunk Magazine. Thank you to Ay-leen for allowing me to post the separate parts here first.
Part 5 Cracks in the Blackboard--Where the Universal is Personal
Though the concept of multicultural education has been around for fifty years, the influence of Western Canon and the support of a Western ideal still runs strong. To take an example from personal experience, even one generation ago -- 25 years ago -- US schools were immersed in facts that supported cultural hegemony of the West. There is, of course, a political factor to this: the year was 1985, the Cold War was seen as something never-ending. Rhetoric about the West versus the "second world" of the Soviets fighting power squabbles in the "third world" still had a great impact upon the global structure. But even when the Berlin Wall fell and the world political structure changed, the textbooks weren't reprinted overnight. Moreover, on a local level and a national level, the realities of school funding, available resources, and state-wide testing also play a part into what children learn and what they don't learn. And the reality of what should be taught versus what was actually taught still created lingering holes of knowledge that I am still remedying in myself.
I am a young adult who is part of the current "Generation Y" (also known as the "MTV generation"). I was raised in a moderate-liberal part of New England and went to a well-funded public school in a middle-class, white-majority community. Throughout my twelve years of public education, all of my teachers have been white, middle-class, and mostly Christian (I had one Jewish teacher in high school). I learned in grade school and high school about how Christopher Columbus "discovered America" in 1492 but not the resulting native bloodshed, about the role of "white man's burden" in colonizing the world, and how the global threat of Communism aka the "domino theory" had justified proxy wars overseas. The only Asian-American author I read for school was Laurence Yep's Dragonwings in eighth grade. The first black novelist I read for school wasn't until high school with Zora Neal Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God my freshman year; I can only count two other black authors in my high school experience (The Invisible Man and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). I learned about colonial American history and the Revolutionary War during three different years in grade school. I learned about the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. I knew all of Shakespeare's plays and Charles Dickens. I read about colonialism in vague terms as something that the Europeans did during the "Age of Discovery" and in the 1800s. I never learned about the Trail of Tears or the Chinese Exclusion Act (I only heard of them because I skimmed chapters my teacher had skipped). I knew about the Holocaust as atrocity that persecuted only Jews (and not the gypsies or anti-Nazi Christians or homosexuals too), and all I knew about Japanese internment came from one student's class final presentation (who also admitted that whatever America did to them was never really bad, in retrospect). My senior year high school history curriculum concluded with the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War (and I was in an AP-level class--classes designed to teach at college-level for advanced students).
In high school, I was never formally taught the past 40 years of history, the period that, as the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, had impacted my life the most. I read about America's guilt over the Vietnam War on my own time. And even those books contained gaps that I saw in my life. My father is South Vietnamese war veteran and my family had southern government ties on both sides, but if you read US history textbooks, the complexity the Vietnamese faced in fighting in their own civil war is only given cursory acknowledgment. In most war literature and histories available to the general public (that is, outside of university academic libraries), the Vietnamese only exist as the ruthless VC, the poor boat people in need of paternalistic US asylum or a faceless, pleading mass swarming US Embassy headquarters in 1975 á la Miss Saigon. My family's story is rendered as a political mistake that resulted in the deaths of poor American boys. My parents fought for and lost a country, but records of their sacrifice are left in the wayside in my classroom histories. At the same time, I am American too, but I am treated like a foreigner in the only country I've ever known.
I was part of the first high school class that was required to pass a state-wise standardized test in history, literature, math and science in order to receive a high school diploma. While the intentions of state-wide testing are meant to ensure that everyone received the same quality education, the result was the cut-and-paste technique of teaching for a test. A systematic ruler was placed over our teachers' blackboards, and we learned what we needed to know in order to pass. And what we needed to know had been determined not by our own curiosity or our teacher's intentions, but by the silent yardstick of the government. Even today, education is still used as a tool to promote biased views in favor of the dominant culture, such as Arizona's law banning the teaching of Latino-American history to Latino-Americans in school, or Japanese textbooks downplaying their WWII atrocities like the Rape of Nanking.
Learning is an aspect that that is considered key to steampunk subculture. Steampunks speak about their love of learning, the sharing of information, a community rooted in knowledge of the old and the obscure unearthed for today's appreciation. But how much of that unearthed knowledge conforms to the political-geographical areas we had been taught to appreciate, compared with what we hadn't been exposed to at all? Nostalgia for the culture of the past has also contributes to the rise in interest in steampunk over the last few years. In particular, people fall back upon nostalgia--to what they learned, to what they were taught, what had previously been considered as "the norm"--during times of hardship: economic worry, political worry, social worry. And what have we been taught growing up--that is, throughout most of the 20th century and into the 21st? The value and triumph of Western-European hegemony against the non-West, whether it is in the form of Manifest Destiny, the fight against Communism, or the War on Terror.
Education, nevertheless, can be the method in which steampunk's subversiveness can come to the forefront. The anecdote above is deeply personal to me, but I'm sure many people can identify with the realization that certain things they had known as children, what various adults and society had told them, was not always the entire truth. Only when one recognizes the unspoken power in which social systems work --both intentionally and unintentionally-- can one start educating themselves about the true gaps in their knowledge. Not only knowledge like the beard styles men wore in the 1840s or the various evolutions of the steam engine, but also the history of African kingdoms pre-European contact or 19th century literature from the Middle East. This is why I believe that multiculturalism -- a force that subverts the wrecks of history upon the mind -- is integral to the evolution of steampunk's social definition.
THURSDAY: Part 6 Intersection of Steampunk & the Non-West: Endorsing the Hegemony or Rebelling with a Cause?