Exploring Rushmore and “Arts of the Contact Zone”
Mary Pratt, the author of “Arts of the Contact Zone” begins the article by stating the definition of the term, or concept of what she refers to as the “contact zone”. In doing so, she engages her audience in the story of how her son learnt a lot through baseball; and was able to connect to the world through baseball. The first page of the article is an account of how Mary’s son learnt science, math, history, and even language, through baseball cards. She refers to her son’s relationship with baseball, as her son’s “point of contact” with the world and the basis with which he related to adults and knew a lot of things. From this example, along with the other one involving the Incas (they were colonized by the Spanish and oppressed by the colonizers. They chose to learn the things they thought were of benefit to them in the process), it is evident that culture and extracurricular activities plays a significant role in ensuring that people learn about the world and relate to one another. Max of Rushmore is like Sam. He learns things and various subjects through his interests; in his case, the extracurricular activities he engages in. In exploring the “Article of the Contact Zone”, and the movie Rushmore, in which a teenage boy goes through various life experiences and learns a lot about life and academics, I seek to bring out the relationship between culture, contact zones, and learning models in education.
A “Contact Zone” is a term which was coined by Mary Pratt. It refers to the gap within which trans-culturation occurs; meaning that it is a place where cultures that are different in one way or another come into contact and in the process, either side learns or gets to know one thing or another from the other side(Pratt 34). In the process, boundaries that existed before the cultures came into contact are broken as more interaction happens between the cultures. While looking into the Incan and Spanish case, Pratt gives a story of the relationship of the natives and the Spanish colonial powers and how the Spanish authority over the Incas brought about a new culture in the community(Pratt). The concept of transculturation is brought about; in which the oppressed, in this case, the Incas, chose what to adopt from the Spanish culture, and ignored the rest.
Pratt continued giving various descriptions and cases regarding the contact zone; in doing so, providing more contrasts and ideas surrounding it. She presents her son as somebody who has learnt a lot by involving himself in something that is part of the American culture. Baseball is a popular sport in the American culture. Had he not known about it, he could not have learnt math, history, or geography. This is a model of education which treats school as a cultural womb. This means that schools are places in which students are nurtured, and then set to think about various aspects of life. This is different from the system that is adopted in many schools to teach their students and treat education in schools as an industrial system which produces an end product.
Mary then indulges her audience in the story of how her son wrote a paper about his teacher’s greater authority, and the authority that other people have over him, and turned in the essay. Under oppression, according to Pratt, her son reacted the same way the Incas did; trying so much to either work around authority or resist it. While teaching some students about the contact zone, Mary Pratt indicates that it brought about pain and joy as they learned. The lessons she gave brought them together in different cultures. In view of that fact, it is evident that the other model of education is that which views schools as a place of cultural birth. In this model, a generation is brought up on a set of values and doctrines which they are expected to replicate once they leave the schools they go to. This, as Mary explains, means that students should learn from one another, especially if they are from different cultural backgrounds.
In the movie Rushmore, Max is a troubled teenager who goes through life as a different person from the people who are his age. His grades are not good but he is good at extracurricular activities. Through them, he has been able to learn so many things about life. Just like Sam, Mary’s son, he learns through his interest. His relationship with his teacher and alumnus friend teach him about life love, revenge, and so forth. While he lacks in the capacity to grasp various academic concepts; and even seems to lack interest in the beginning, he has impacted other people’s lives through his positive attitude to life and the activities he loves to engage in; he is an optimist. Max learns about the Vietnam War, about Latin America, and even Latin, through his interests in people and plays. He got interested in the Vietnam war through Mr. Blume and even wrote a play about it; he learns about Latin America through Ms. Cross, and about Latin from his friends at the library.
Looking at Max and Pratt’s son, it is evident that people can learn about concepts and the lessons of life through culture and various points of contact with the world and school. People have different points of contact through which they can connect with the world; and learn(Pratt). While some people are good in academics and grasp concepts in class from the first moment they are taught about it, other people like Max or Pratt’s son must relate to a point of contact to learn such concepts in a better way. There are very many models of education as mentioned above that can be applied in schools to make students learn; both academics and various life’s lessons as shown in Rushmore and Pratt’s article. The more Max learnt about the people he met, the more he got interested in the subjects and topics they talked about with him. For instance, he discussed an aquarium with Ms. Cross and got interested in building ne for her. He then talked about the Vietnam War with Mr. Blume and read more about it and wrote a play about it. If only his teachers at Rushmore could engage him in things that could shift his focus to academics, he could have learnt more of Latin, or math, or the other subjects. Max is just like Sam because Sam learnt more history, geography and so on, through baseball. The more he knew about baseball, the more he got interested in the elements associated with it.
In response to Mary Pratt’s article, a person could ask: If a class is structured in a manner that examines the different cultures of the world, would it not have an oppressive nature, and perhaps force students to create their own culture? This question can be answered in different ways; depending on the perspective that the person answering it takes. Such a model of education would not be student oriented but based on the views and ideologies of the instructor. So many factors have to be considered in such a case. For instance, the level of education the students have received, the languages they have learnt, the mode of instruction, and so forth.
Understanding the concept of contact zones changes perceptions and the sensation filters that people have(Pratt). It enables people to see the world in a new light; and learn from the different backgrounds that the new cultures they come into contact with, present to them. From Pratt’s article, human compassion and understanding can be deepened; and the hate and prejudices that may exist in the world can be limited. Additionally, the feeling of superiority, or other feelings such as revenge, unfair competition, and so on can also be minimized. Such feelings are great mental barriers. Max is presented as a geek who fails in his class but is brilliant when it comes to extracurricular activities. The intrigues between him and the people around him are interesting as he even lies at one point that his father is a neurosurgeon. However, he comes of age and forgives for the wrongs that were done to him. He invites everyone for his last play and the movie ends when with everyone praising him for his talents.
In education, people easily learn the things they are interested in; the ones that they can connect with. The closer a concept is to a person’s point of contact, the easier it is that the person will learn of the concept and have it stick in the person’s mind. Max loved plays and other outdoor activities in school. Through the activities, he learnt a lot. The same applies to Pratt’s son who connected very well with the world through baseball cards. Without such points of contact, it may be difficult for children or student’s to connect with other people around them and the world. As such, educationists should teach of contact zones and allow for the adoption of different models of education in schools. Brilliance should not just be measured on academics only.
Pratt, Mary Louise. “Art of the Contact Zone.” Profession (1991): 33-40.
Rushmore. Dir. Wes Anderson. Perf. Jason Schwartzman, et al. 1998.