On Being an American

A Thought-Provoking Series With an All-Star Cast

by Alice Boatwright

"The strongest cultural characteristic of Americans is individualism," according to Robert Bellah, Elliott professor of sociology emeritus and coauthor of the best-selling books "Habits of the Heart" and "The Good Society."

Multiculturalism and pluralism have only heightened-not diminished-this tendency, he says, and the emphasis on individualism crosses every group. He describes the United States as having a "kind of monoculture where everyone is devoted to self-realization psychologically and economically."

"Our culture is rooted in the frontier," Bellah explains. "People come here to get away from oppressive religions, oppressive governments. The emphasis is on finding yourself as an individual, so we like to think we don't need anyone else."

But, he points out, "What if there's another Depression? We act like the boom will go on forever. No other country thinks this way."

This, says Bellah, is a kind of self-delusion that comes from our being the surviving dominant power of the post World War II era and from the prevalence of English as a world language, the language of the computer.

Bellah's research has shown, however, that these beliefs have dangerously underminded our social solidarity. The loss of community and notions of citizenship are demonstrated in a variety of ways, from the war against entitlement programs and low voter turnout to declining participation in community activities from PTAs to bowling leagues.

This fall Bellah will discuss these issues in the first of a series of four public service programs sponsored by Berkeley Extension that will explore what it means to be an American today from a variety of perspectives. Participants are all Berkeley faculty renowned for their contributions to the dialogue on this subject. Others participating include Barbara Christian, professor of African-American studies; Judith Butler, professor of rhetoric and comparative literature; and Ronald Takaki, professor of Asian-American studies.

Each will spend an evening at Alumni House in a dialogue with the audience and David Batstone, associate professor of social ethics from the University of San Francisco. The following day, the conversation will continue and open up to the world as the previous night's program is posted on an interactive website, www.globalcafe.com.

With the expansion of the dialogue onto the Internet, program developers Batstone and Bula Maddison of extension's Arts, Letters, and Sciences, feel that they are exploring the true potential of "extending the university's resources into the community"-which is, after all, the goal of extension.

"At the turn of the last century," says Maddison, "this meant bringing Berkeley professors to San Francisco by ferry. One hundred years later, we're able to make them part of a worldwide conversation via the Internet "

This fall's programs are an outgrowth of a collaboration between Berkeley and USF that began in 1996.

That lecture series generated so much media interest-particularly from radio and television-that Batstone decided to reformat his tapes of the lectures into a series of 13 one-hour radio shows.

With the help of extension's public relations office, the series was offered to National Public Radio stations across the country for free. Stations from Alaska to Florida, the Navajo reservation in Arizona to Birmingham, Ala., have taken advantage of the offer.

The project as a whole won an award from the University Continuing Education Association as 1996's most innovative continuing education program in the humanities.

Some of the themes that Bellah and Batstone will explore in their "conversation" at Alumni House will be the notions of the common good, public values and civic virtues; the difference between the way we, as Americans, understand the in-dividual's relationship to the community and the way other cultures view it; the prospects for democracy in the emerging global economy; and the question of whether we can ever have a meaningful conversation in America without it immediately becoming commercialized.

Subsequent conversations with Butler, Christian and Takaki will examine the issue from perspectives of gender, race and class.

According to Batstone, the topic of what it means to be an American has such a strong appeal because "it's a live issue. It affects people with money and education and it affects people at the other end of the spectrum-immigrants and the poor.

"What it all boils down to," he says "is who can I turn to? Who can I depend on? And who can depend on me?"

Programs will be held at Alumni House at 7:30 p.m. The Bellah program is free; the others have a $15 fee. (California Alumni Association members and enrollees in Berkeley Extension humanities courses are admitted free.) Programs are co-sponsored by the California Alumni Association.

To register, call UC Berkeley Extension at 642-4111. Additional information is at http://www.unex.berkeley.edu:4243/.



Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
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