The Ugly American

Ugly. The ugly American. Heard of it? It has been some time since the read and even longer since I have heard a reference to it but I find myself using it more and more. Why? Simple. The novel gives us a meme for its time and it sends a lasting message.

The Ugly American expects everyone to act and everywhere to be just like everything he knows.

Think about it. The stranger in a strange land. Not Heinlein or Iron Maiden. Not the Alien.

but close.

What's that you have there, pal?

The teacher, like the student, brings to the classroom every experience they have ever had. And let us be honest, it is much easier to force those in your care into shining metal boxes. So much easier to push, file, stamp, index, brief, debrief, or number than to plan, listen, adapt, rewrite, prepare, adjust, learn, flex, redirect, and so on.

It is important that we acknowledge who we are and what we bring to the situation so we may set it aside and teach from a more neutral space. Not everything that we teach requires connection to our own lives. It does not need to be shown through our lens nor does it require a frame in order for appreciation to occur. Surely, our desire to explain and expound–to mediate through language–often reduces experiences.

I am reminded of my time standing for hours at the edge of the Grand Canyon. In my life to that date, I had never witnessed so much nature and expansive views at one time and decided to spend my afternoon in one spot to take it in rather than to keep moving with a group who had ventured down into the canyon itself. For one rare moment I was without words as every descriptive I could access seemed inadequate. A gentleman walked up beside me. He sighed. His arms folded and unfolded. His limp hands slapped against his thighs as he let them drop. He looked directly at me for a minute or more before he said, “Isn’t it just neat?”


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  • I can relate. I have had a feeling of awe in a few places in the world, mostly close to home… places many take for granted because they are close to home.
    I have come to understand the value of “learning from place.” Taken literally it actually is learning while at or immersed in a place. One of those places for me is Dry Island Buffalo Jump. Thousands of years of history has occurred at this sacred place. Aboriginal people have been going there for that long to hunt, gather and live together. I feel them when I’m there, and you’re right, I didn’t have to “take it all in” to absorb the magnitude of the place.
    That’s where the mindful, almost spiritual element of “place” comes in. Thinking deeply about where I am and what that place has meant to others; feeling what their life may have been there, their experiences, their feelings… it’s powerful beyond measure.
    Learning from place; we all have our “place” and we can get close to those of others if we slow the hell down and simply make the effort.

  • Dr. Timony wrote:

    Thanks for your response, Sean. I’ve also been thinking of the type of activity that comes from familiarity and the ‘normalness’ of space. Particularly from the point of reference of younger students, the shared learning space can be revered and magical. Having worked in a room or building can make it seem so plain to us. We could take a page from the dance or martial arts world where reverence is paid to the place where activity happens.

  • Revered and magical indeed; what all learning spaces should be in the eyes of those immersed in them.
    I think kids have a natural tendency to be mindful and view things “magically.” We drone it out of them sometimes, and sometimes they jsut lose it for a variety of reasons. Perhaps we should be making the effort to retain the “magic?”
    I’ve danced around this a bit before…

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