Toward a 'Cross-Culturally Competent' Air Force

The latest institution to jump on the bandwagon for "cross-cultural" education is one known for foreign operations, but not study abroad: the U.S. Air Force.

January 9, 2009

The latest institution to jump on the bandwagon for "cross-cultural" education is one known for foreign operations, but not study abroad: the U.S. Air Force.

Air University provides professional military education, including degree-granting programs, across the ranks of the Air Force. The Alabama-based institution, which describes itself as "the intellectual and leadership center of the Air Force," is premising its quality enhancement plan, required by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools for reaffirmation of accreditation, on the ambition of developing “cross-culturally competent airmen.”

The university is responding to the Pentagon’s call that culture matters. As for the hoped-for impact of educational change on the overall military – “That’s a set of outcomes that the Southern Association does not ask us,” says Brian R. Selmeski, director of cross-cultural competence at the Air Force Culture and Language Center, created at Air University in 2006.

He adds, however: “It is the fundamental reason, I think, why most of us in the center are here and doing what we’re doing.”

The Air Force Culture and Language Center is intended to be, in the chief academic officer's words, a "catalyst" for the infusion of cross-cultural education across the university's many schools and colleges, which include, as a sampling, the Community College of the Air Force, for enlisted airmen, the Noncommissioned Officer Academies, and the Air War College, which educates senior officers. Air University’s proposed quality enhancement plan – in shorthand, QEP -- is due to SACS this month, with on-site assessment of the plan scheduled for spring.

The proposal is built upon a number of student learning outcomes that, now in draft form, include the acquisition of “foundational knowledge of culture-general ideas and principles.” The focus of the QEP is on general knowledge of culture. For example, students would learn about the concept of kinship, and that it plays out in different ways in different regions.

The draft learning outcomes also include a focus on demonstrating “skills necessary to work effectively in cross-cultural contexts,” “positive attitudes toward cultural differences that predispose learners to effective learning and action,” and, finally, “the ability to apply culture-general learning effectively in specific cultural contexts.” The center’s next hire will be a psychologist who will serve as assessment chair for the effort, Selmeski says.

“The idea is rather than finding anthropologists and co-locating them with military units to assist” -- which describes a controversial initiative known as the Human Terrain System -- “our focus is to get all of our airmen, all of our students, to be able to be sensitive to these cross-cultural concepts and be able to use them wherever they’re deployed,” explains Bruce T. Murphy, chief academic officer of Air University. “Rather than focus on a particular region, rather than focus on a particular language, what are the five or six or seven or whatever it is, basic questions that everybody has to be able to ask before they go into a region, to do their own operational missions but do them with cultural sensitivity?

“For the QEP to stick, it has to focus on student learning outcomes. It has to be a broad-based institutional process; it has to relate to the mission of the institution,” Murphy says. “Because this is perceived as a need on the part of the Department of Defense and the Air Force, we were able to get resources in terms of money and in terms of faculty spaces."

Only recently did Air University hire its first anthropologist; it now has three, says Selmeski. Once it is fully staffed, the interdisciplinary Culture and Language Center will have 9 or 10 academics, and the ultimate objective “is not to teach it all ourselves at the center,” says Selmeski, but rather serve as a resource. "Faculty development is one of our core responsibilities."

Stressing faculty control over the content of their own courses, Selmeski adds: "We’re not in the business in our center of imposing either content or requirements; that’s outside our mandate. We are here to help make sure that the university has set appropriate learning outcomes to achieve the desired impact.”

Those orchestrating the effort have aspirations to infuse cross-cultural matters into the professional military education curriculum for officers and enlisted airmen alike. This spring, the institution will pilot an “Introduction to Culture” class, through the Community College of the Air Force, starting with just 50 enlisted airmen and growing from there. An asynchronous, three-credit distance learning course, it will be built around 15 modules covering various “culture-general” concepts (like communication, kinship, and political systems), and will involve discussion sections among airmen with varied experiences abroad.

“You’ve got to start somewhere,” explains Robert R. Sands, the culture chair and assistant professor of anthropology at the Air Force Culture and Language Center. “Pushing out a course like this that will eventually, we hope, reach perhaps 10,000 airmen a year provides that basic culture-general foundation that is needed.

“As we go through an airman’s professional life, career, whether it be enlisted or officer, we’re looking at learning across that career,” Sands continues. “So when you introduce culture-general at the beginning of that career and then [build on that] through pre-deployment training or other courses that might provide culture-specific education or training, what you’re doing is giving booster shots along the way.”

The U.S. military has increasingly relied on social scientists in recent years, a subject of considerable controversy within the field of anthropology. Particularly controversial is the Human Terrain System, through which anthropologists directly engage with the military in Afghanistan and Iraq -- but any engagement with the military tends to be controversial. Among the critiques levied at a November American Anthropological Association conference was a suggestion that anthropologists who believe they can change military culture underestimate structural barriers to transformation.

In the paper he presented at AAA, Selmeski wrote, "The institution has asked my colleagues and me to assist in a process of institutional transformation…. To help prepare military professionals to operate better in culturally complex situations and in the process transform the armed forces through education. Having looked under the hood and kicked the tires at Air University/the Air Force/Department of Defense for the past year or so, I believe it is a sincere desire and a dedicated effort.”


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