Each year I spend the first few minutes of my Civ Pro class, as I expect so many other profs must do, showing my students the death cage match from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The battle between the “man with no name” and the baby-faced giant, all to decide who really owns a vehicle, sets up a lively discussion about procedural justice and modes of dispute resolution.
The second day I turn away from no-holds-barred adversarial battles and towards topics that are less traditional for Civ Pro classes. For reasons that at first clearly perplex my students, we take our second day in Civ Pro to discuss a book called The Geography of Thought, written by a psychology professor named Richard Nisbett. The book collects the results of decades of research by Nisbett and others, in which experiments are run on the cognitive styles of different cultures. In particular, he contrasts the cognitive style of east Asians – such as my students – with the cognitive styles of Europeans and Americans, such as myself.
The first interesting thing about Nisbett’s results is that cognitive differences are notable in very early childhood. They are in no way genetic – Chinese Americans, for example, test as Americans after a generation or two – but they are sufficiently deeply rooted in cultures that they show up before philosophies or dogmas can be taught with any sophistication.