Cultural Paternalism


Cultural Paternalism

Maybe I was simply naïve and not as aware as I thought I was. For a brief period of time in 1989, the world seemed so hopeful. The memory of it seems so vivid to me now. I was teaching sixth grade in a small suburb of Minneapolis. It was a team teaching arrangement for social studies, math, and science, and I taught social studies. The opportunity to make learning real occurred day after day as we watched the world changing around us. One by one, the communist block of Eastern Europe had fallen in largely peaceful pursuits of change, followed by the Soviet Union. Then, attention turned to China, where Tiananmen Square was suddenly filled with students peacefully demonstrating for change within the party. The aspirations of people around the world were suddenly being realized, and, for the first time, we could watch it all, 24/7, on a fairly new television station called CNN. It seemed to be the best time in history to be alive.

It was at this time Star Trek – The Next Generation became popular on late night television. Each evening I found myself sitting before the television watching this futuristic epic as I wound down from the day. Only, there were aspects of the show that didn’t seem so futuristic – specifically, the prime directive. For those unfamiliar with the prime directive, this is the guiding principle of the Star Trek series. It is the idea of not interfering in the development of another culture or civilization. As I watched this show, and reflected on what was happening around the world, I found myself believing the prime directive correlated with everything that was happening. There was a sense major events in history were taking place. They were fantastic to observe, but there was a sense we needed to permit them to evolve on their own.

It was with some of these ideas in mind that my wife and I made our original decision to go overseas in 1992. As we attended our first recruitment fair at UNI, we prioritized what we were looking for in an overseas experience. We wanted to go somewhere that was centrally located so we could easily go other places. More important though, we wanted to go somewhere we could observe some of this history being made. We also wanted to be able to observe cultures entirely different from our own. As we gleaned the list of job possibilities in the catalogue of positions (yes, a catalogue, not a website), one school stood out matching our qualifications and what we were looking for – the American School of Bucharest. We were fortunate to be offered positions there. Given the news coming out of Romania at the time, I think the Director, Larry Crouch, just about fell off his chair when we immediately accepted on the spot.

Romania proved to be everything we had hoped it would be. Our first year there we never left the country, but instead explored it every opportunity we had. We went to the Black Sea where we enjoyed the beaches, and I went fishing with professional fishermen using nets in a handmade fishing boat. We hiked mountain trails, and skied ungroomed, freshly snowed slopes. On longer holidays, we made our way to points further away from the more populated areas. I remember one trip we made to the Romanian area of Moldova where we met an old farmer attired in clothing that seemed right out of the Middle Ages. He proudly informed us he was 81 years old, and the last time he had seen a foreigner was when the Germans came to the area during World War II. We really were witnessing a culture entirely different from anything we had ever known.

This was an unbelievable time to be overseas. We didn’t know it then, but we were experiencing what came to be the beginning years of an age of globalization. Very quickly a number of factors began to emerge – changes in political systems, new alliances, technological advances, more accessible means of transportation, and consumer expectations – creating an interdependent world. Multinational companies began to expand, and more and more people found themselves moving to other countries as they represented the expanding interests of their employers. As an international educator, the situation couldn’t have been better. Our job security just kept improving as our careers took us to new and different countries. However, as more people interloped into foreign countries and cultures, I began to question whether the prime directive could be considered as evident any longer.

I gradually bean to perceive a change in cultural expectations. Initially, it had seemed that other ex-patriots were intrigued by what they were able to learn and experience from other cultures. Slowly, it seemed the expectation began to be other cultures should become more like Western cultures. It was almost as if ex-patriots were expecting to experience their home culture in these countries they had moved to. I first experienced this in Romania. As more foreigners came, I began to hear more and more complaints about the country and the culture. I remember being shocked one time as I watched a diplomat speak rudely to a Romanian about their culture and how it should be almost like something out of a bad novel. This type of perspective began to be commonplace in many of the countries we lived in. Then, in one country, I witnessed as some people tied monetary rewards, such as loans and pay, to changes in behavior that encouraged individuals to adapt more to the culture of the ex-pat. Probably nowhere was this behavior of imposing the ex-pat culture on to a local culture more extreme then in the Middle East, where culture is closely tied to religion and I listened as some ex-patriots would complain about the culture they were guests in, while others seemed to see it as their mission to somehow change or Westernize the culture.  I really had begun to feel I was experiencing a form of cultural paternalism.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill talked about paternalism in his work, On Liberty. Paternalism, as he describes it, is the interference or control of one person, or group, by another person, or group with the supposed justification of know what is best for that person or group. While Mill does provide there may be times when paternalism is necessary to prevent harm, generally, he argues against it as a violation of liberty. In many ways, it could be stated Mill was arguing for a certain definition of the prime directive. As we spent more time overseas, and as globalization intensified, it seemed that much of what had once excited me in the world, and motivated us to go overseas, was disappearing. There seemed to be a move away from the ideals of the prime directive toward a feeling of paternalism. In particular, it seemed many who joined the ranks of those moving overseas to new countries began to engage in a form of cultural paternalism. Samuel P. Huntington defines culture as “the values, attitudes, beliefs, orientations, and underlying assumptions prevalent among people in a society” (pg. xv). So, when I speak of cultural paternalism, I’m speaking of one group, or person, imposing their culture onto another group, or person, in the belief that one culture is better and so adapting to it would improve the life / lives of the other(s).

It is true, these foreigners were not alone in responsibility for this cultural paternalism. When we first arrived in Romania, people who heard us speaking English would pull us aside and ask in hushed tones if the U.S. was really like Dallas. During the era of the Ceausescu regime Dallas was the only U.S. television show Romanians were permitted to broadcast. It seemed the regime thought it would depict the West as gluttonous and undesirable, thereby creating an appreciation for the world Ceausescu had created for his citizens (he was very paternalistic as well). However, the people asking us if it was really like Dallas didn’t seem turned off by what they had seen. Instead, they perceived a world in which it appeared people had everything under the sun. If that is what adapting to Western culture was all about, who wouldn’t want to change?

Somehow though, I think this cultural paternalism is about more than just what a person has. I think others see it as something more as well. We’ve lived in countries where cultural shifts have occurred and people have change from the cultural values they once had to something they believed would be better. In many of these cases, we’ve often heard local residents speak fondly of the old days, wishing they could return to them. Those days marked familiarity and comfort, even if they represented having less. When we lived in Qatar, the common refrain was to say, “we want to modernize, not Westernize,” in other words, change while maintaining a strong sense of one’s own culture.

Can cultural paternalism be a good thing? I guess it can, and certainly I believe most people have the best of intentions when they try to change certain cultural traditions or behaviors. As Mill said, paternalism can be a good thing when it takes place to prevent harm. I guess the bigger question is, who gets to define what harm is? At what point are we actually imposing our values onto another as though our culture is better? In other words, at what point is the prime directive no longer valid?


Huntington, S. P., & Harrison, L. E. (2000). Culture matters: How values shape human progress. New York: Basic Books.

Mill, J. S. (2010). On liberty. London: Penguin.


 Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

One thought on “Cultural Paternalism”

  1. I enjoyed this gently reflective article. I was not overseas before this shift occurred, but I am very cognizant of the disposition of which you write. I would add the increasing sense of entitlement I see among many international educators. I have heard teachers gripe about lacking the same benefits that expats engineers working for oil companies receive, justifying low pay and long hours for domestic help as it is the norm in their host countries (while applying different rules to themselves as we receive high pay and very short hours, in comparison), and have observed the double standards of our schools as we post on our walls words that purport to be our valiant values while only applying these to ourselves and our students and not to the local support staff who sustain our schools. I wonder, when you first went overseas did your compatriots have a mindset of intrigued anthropologists, whereas we have increasingly become, simply, neocolonialists?

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