Saturday, April 26, 2014

Producing Success

Papua New Guinea has contributed to the world knowledge in science, literature, anthropology, medicine, law, and music, arts, and culture. So often we are slow in acknowledging our intellectual and knowledge contributions to the world, perhaps because we ourselves have been slow in saying so or we just don’t care.

In so far as I am concern we need to acknowledge the contributions our societies and people have made to world knowledge and development of our understanding of the world, as we know it today.

As a Papua New Guinean writer I have such a responsibility to tell the world about Papua New Guinea, its people, its social and cultural way of life, and its knowledge systems. With it comes also the responsibility to make Papua New Guineans become aware of the importance of their own societies and the contributions each society has made to the world.

It is often said that Papua New Guinean societies have been ‘overwritten’ or ‘over-described’ in the books, analogues, and travelogues, and scientific volumes of the world.  It is true our societies have been the subject of rigorous intellectual and scientific investigations, since the arrival of Europeans on our shores. It continues even today.

It fascinates me to participate in that creative dialogue and intellectual stimulations that some of these studies have made to our understanding of ourselves, more so to the point of recognizing how little we ourselves have done to write about ourselves in journals and books.

I was having a writer’s block in the last few weeks, but thanks to Peter Demerath’s book, Producing Success: The Culture of Personal Advancement in an American High School (2009), published by the University of Chicago Press, USA. 

Dr. Demerath is an associate professor in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development at the University of Minnesota, USA.

Dr. Demerath and his family were on their way to Pere village in Manus Province, last year when he presented a copy of his book to me.  It was a wonderful gesture to have the visit of Dr. Demerath, his wife Dr. Ellen, and daughters, Olivia and Sophia since the first time I met them in Minnesota, when I served as a visiting professor in English at the University of Minnesota in 2007-2008.

The Demerath family had also been kind enough to invite my family over to dinner at their home in St. Pauls, in addition to making sure my children got to know their children in that short span of time.

Reading Dr. Demerath’s book, Producing Success, I was struck with the inspiration that a Papua New Guinean society has been the source of inspiration for this impressive book.

In his own words, Dr. Demerath says that the “comparative perspective that runs throughout the book has been generated largely by my ongoing relationship with the people of Manus Province, Papua New Guinea.”

Dr. Demerath adopts a cross-cultural view of his study of the culture of personal advancement in an American High School, with that of his experience in Pere village, Manus Province.

“On the face of it, it would be hard to imagine two societies that have less in common: the inhabitants of Pere are relatively poor subsistence fisherpeople who are struggling to achieve a measure of economic development with little outside support.”

Dr. Demerath knows from his long-term relationship with his adopted family in Manus that Pere village ways and life are so diametrically different to those in a small affluent town in the United States.

I sure admire Dr. Demerath’s honesty and sensitivity in dealing with the difference there is. He writes:

 “However, one of the guiding principles of anthropology is that we know best about something when we can see it in a comparative perspective: comparisons throw the cultural basis of specific belief or actions into sharp relief, thereby enabling us to locate ourselves relative to other groups, and ultimately identify potential prospect for change…It is in this way that anthropologists frequently use comparison to ‘make the familiar strange and interesting again.’”

Dr. Demerath recounts the discussion he had with a young sixteen-year old Pere boy in May 1985. The boy had told Dr. Demerath about how hard it was to be in school in Manus, more particularly about the boy’s anxieties about not getting any employment after school.

“Most likely, he said, he would end up going back to his home village, becoming a subsistence fisherman, and trying to “come up good” so that he could pay back the hard work that his parents had put into raising him. I had heard other students say similar things, and I sympathized and said I understood.”

To his surprise, the boy asked one important question that would have an impact on Dr. Demerath’s perspective forever.

“Then, surprisingly, he looked at me and said, “Peter, what do you want to do with your life when you go back to America?” During the ten months I had been there, none of the students had asked me that. “Well,” I said, “I think I want to teach, and try to get a job at a university, and maybe write a book someday.” “Ah,” he said nodding. “So you want to be somebody.” At first I wasn’t sure what he meant. But then, after reflecting for a few moments, I said, “Yes, I think I do.”

That seems to have remained ingrained in Dr. Demerath’s mind and charted his subsequent journey out of graduate school and into the academic environment of teaching, research, and publications.

In some sense the writing of this book has given Dr. Demerath the opportunity to explain to the world his experiences in Manus and in the United States of America. 

Dr. Demerath acknowledges the inspiration Margaret Mead, who had also done research on childhood, socialization, and social change between 1928 and 1974, had on his own research in Pere village.

Dr. Demerath’s excellent book, Producing Success, is intended for educators, students, and parents, as well as for anthropologists, sociologist, and other social scientists.

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