Dilemma of the Drawer: A Study in Cultural Relativism

Mar 20, 2020 1:54:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


In these tiresome times, Mike struggles with a lesser dilemma that demonstrates not all
problems are environmental. Personal ineptitude still has a role to play in the vicissitudes that beset us.

That Which Caused the Dilemma

No sense carrying dreams of Tahiti in your head if you can’t afford the fare
—Philip Roth

I have some very good friends who are semiliterate; that is, they can read a betting slip, the football results, and, at a stretch, the headlines of the popular press. They can do many things that I cannot. The things that I can do, that they cannot, are mostly worthless. They can put a wardrobe together in 11 minutes.

All this was brought into stark and terrible focus recently when I decided (oh fool) to repair a drawer in my partner’s wardrobe which had taken to displaying anti-social behavioral tendencies;  it would neither close nor open -– or, occasionally, it did both simultaneously and unbidden. I began to suspect that the inanimate object had a perverse mind of its own, think of the furniture in The Exorcist. [1]

So, armed with a hammer (the wrong tool I was painfully to learn) I decided to suspend my reading about the unfortunate Cathars of Languedoc (the saintly historian Stephen O’Shea is the guy who knows all about them [2]). I brought my skills, instead, to bear upon the dilemma of the miscreant drawer.

CAPA_London_Stephanie Sadler_Bookshop-1

Where it First Went Wrong

Anyone of my builder buddies (who know nothing of the Cathars of Languedoc and are untroubled by that gap in their knowledge) would have resolved the drawer issue decisively within 15 minutes. Brendan could have done it in 11. Brendan is a master of arcane skills-- can change light bulbs and rewire a house with one hand behind his back and one eye partly closed.

I considered calling him, but I have my inane pride which would permit of no abject surrender to pieces of wood. Thus, with some difficulty and accompanied by ardent profanities, I liberated the sagging drawer, dismantled it, prior to, so I believed, restoring it to its immaculate original glory.

However, should you foolishly decide to go beyond your God-given limitations and engage with the real world, I offer this advice. In the process of dismantling anything, be it a drawer, a cipher machine or a nuclear reactor, it is wise to engrave indelibly in your memory the order in which the constituent parts were originally arranged. This is not pedantry. By way of illustration and to return to the demonic drawer, having disassembled the constituent parts, I then sought to rearrange them into the functional whole from which they had come. There were three problems:

1. I could no longer recall what that had been
2. I had one less part than I ought to have had
3. I then had one more part than I ought to have had

The Intervention of Super Glue

There is a thing called Super Glue – rather an odd concept that implies that there are for sale glues that are less than super. Who would buy those? What are they called? Defective glue? Average glue? Indifferent glue? “Not bad but not as good as super” glue?

To return to the distressed drawer: I was comforted by the idea of a “super” product that the television said would stick wood to wood effectively and eternally. The only unfortunate aspect of this marvelous substance is that will also stick other things to other things in ways you neither desired or anticipated, carpet to face, hammer to floor, finger to wood – without discrimination or concern for the consequences.

Gentle reader ( George Eliot used to write stuff like that and what George Eliot said is worth saying) , you  may at this stage be wondering what if anything any of this has to do with international education I ask for your patient indulgence. The offending piece of furniture is soon to acquire the elevated status of potent symbol.

With renewed optimism I set forth to grapple again with my own special dragon.  I was seduced by my own chivalric metaphor and envisioned admiration for my artisanal skills that would surely ensue. Something along the lines of: “And on the seventh day He ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.” The world would look upon the works of my hands and admire it, for it was good.

It didn’t really work out like that. Over the next several hours I sought a means of connecting (a) to (b), inspired by E.M. Forster’s injunction:

Only connect! … Only connect … and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect … (Howard’s End. 1910)

Sadly, though super glue performed most effectively, (a) had ultimately became unpredictably conjoined with (c), and (b), mysteriously, with (d).

CAPA_London_Stephanie Sadler_Earls Court neighborhood31-1

On Reading the Instructions

Super glue is the spawn of Satan but there will come a time when you may be called upon to engage with the substance (a new version of substance abuse is one in which you swear at the substance).

You may be inclined to offer sage advice along the lines of “read the instructions before beginning.”  There are barriers to implementation: The first and most significant is that people as smart as us never read instructions. What is there to understand? With a terrible arrogance and an entirely unjustified sense of superiority we step along a path that leads inexorably towards suffering and pain. In any case, unless you are a gifted linguist, you are likely to find the aforesaid instructions impenetrable, as they are more often than not in an obscure Chinese regional argot.

Semi-literate people don’t have to read the instructions because they possess an instinctive, miraculous understanding of all instructions whether in Chinese, Swahili, Hindi or dialect variations of these. My friend Brendan hasn’t read anything beyond a betting slip or the soccer scores for aeons. Confronted by an intractable problem (like my rebellious drawer), he begins by (this is truly startling) throwing away the instructions! This is because Brendan and his buddies have been blessed with a gift from God: the grace of an instinctive competence that goes beyond words.

This reveals what Samuel Beckett has been demonstrating for decades. Language is not designed to communicate; it is there to obscure meaning. The words we speak express the futility of seeking to manage the chaotic contradictions in our world, obfuscation in vocalised global reality. The rhetoric of education abroad perfectly embodies the principles of confusion promoted by Harold Pinter:

There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false (2005).

That’s why Brendan throws away the instructions.

International Education and Drawers

The connection between this painful narrative and international education is as follows:

If you are reading this in the USA, I am abroad and I am, therefore, a foreigner.

As I am abroad, these thoughts should be respected because they are, by definition, very important because they are foreign –- and foreign is interesting even when it is not.

Foreign stupidity is not stupid. It’s interesting because it demonstrates “cultural difference.” This proposition proves that foreigners (though we don’t call them that) are always more interesting than Americans, even when they are not. That’s why students should study abroad.

The broken drawer narrative is further evidence of why exposure to other countries is a critical educational experience: a broken drawer in London is not the same as a broken drawer in Poughkeepsie (or any other of the US environments from which our students nervously emerge). This is another example of “cultural difference” and why everybody has to do something called “cross-cultural studies.” These are ideas we believe in even though we don’t know what they mean.  I am, therefore, not incompetent because the drawer episode is a product of something called “cultural conditioning” and an expression of “cultural relativism.” Therefore, it is interesting.

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On Not Being Inept

Not being inept has given me a new sense of personal value. On several occasions over the last month I’ve found my office. Once there I have sent e-mails, some with attachments. I haven’t had any responses but that’s because they weren’t really about anything. Productivity is a relative matter.

In contrast Brendan started work at 6 AM yesterday. First, he installed a lift shaft in a central London skyscraper, then redecorated a four-bedroom apartment in Streatham or maybe Balham (the detail is not particularly relevant). Then, it was time for lunch. He was unhampered by our privileges.

I come from a background where almost no males could do things (women could though). Probably, my distant ancestors could start fires with two sticks and a small pile of Armadillo dung. I am unable to initiate any form of illumination that requires more than “Press Here.”

We have become separated from our instinctive selves. This may be particularly true of those who share my background. Jewish boys from the east end of London were inculcated with values that did not respect anything achieved by the work of hands. Status was conferred by avoiding real work.

The History of Ivor Berman

The concept that Jews were chosen to be profoundly incapable may be stereotypical, but it is, as the history of Ivor Berman demonstrates, largely true. I went to school with him and he was the smartest kid in the room. At the age of 16, Oxford and Cambridge Universities were locked in a battle to recruit him. They lured him with promises of scholarships, taxis, respect, cuddles, and kindnesses to which he was unaccustomed.

Because he was clever, he was subject to ridicule at school and, at home, indifference. That their only child should be an alien wunderkind drove the bewildered Bermans into befuddled confusion and, as Ivor got older and cleverer, it was more convenient and less worrying to more or less ignore him. Ivor was a big disappointment to the somewhat primitive Bermans. In any case, Ivor’s father, a tailor who worked 16 hours a day, found speech difficult as he usually had numerous pins clutched between his lips. This facilitated the seemingly endless process of fixing an infinite number of sleeves to an uncountable succession of jackets. In these circumstances, even if Ivor’s father had been inclined to talk to him (which he was not), the potential for meaningful communication was necessarily limited.

His mother also did not replicate the adoration of Oxbridge. Her preoccupation was feet in general, and, in particular, her own which featured fallen arches and were “a torture. Not even your worst enemies should know of it!” The non-specific anguish that she suffered whenever she saw Ivor reading was a mere footnote in the narrative of agony that defined her world.

Ivor was a great brain, but brain and body were disconnected.

At the age of 16 he was unable to find his shoes and was incapable of dressing himself.                                                 

Conclusion: Siegel, Shuster, and What the Drawer means

This state of brain body alienation was not unique to Ivor. Two skinny, myopic boys in Cleveland became close friends because nobody else would speak to them. They were without any physical abilities at all and, in nerdish alliance, invented a fantasy as far distant from their corporeal reality as might be envisioned; an all-powerful figure who could do everything that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster could not. Out of a brotherhood of ineptitude, Superman was born. Only kryptonite, a thinly disguised metaphor for blonde girls and alcohol, could weaken his amazing power.

There is a genetic trans-Atlantic link between Siegel, Shuster, Berman and Woolf. The drawer is the objective correlative of that inherited ineptitude.

Contemplation of my drawer might teach education abroad students many things: It is a symbol of the power of stereotype. It exemplifies the importance of cultural relativism  which means that foreign things are very good and that even foreign stupidity is better than domestic stupidity; that a clever American is not as interesting as a dumb foreigner; that students need to study abroad so that they can learn that they do not know what is good and what is bad; they will acquire the gift of confusion and, with commitment, will learn not to recognize the difference between what is clever and what is insane, what makes sense and what does not make sense. If all goes well, they will become an expert in cross-cultural studies so that they can then confuse the next generation with phrases like “it’s cultural” and explain all deviant behavior short of murder as “cultural difference.”

Gentle reader, you are, I am sure, anxious to know the denouement. After 4 days of unrelenting struggles with the inanimate offender, I called Brendan. It took him precisely 11 minutes to repair the drawer, which included an 8-minute tea break. I told him of the anguish that he had blissfully relieved. “You should’ve called me before, klutz,” he said, not understanding that my klutziness was cultural. So, I endowed upon him the wisdom of the great Samuel Beckett. This explains everything:

No matter.

Ever tried.

Ever failed.

No matter.

Try again.

Fail better.

Brendan left after the second sentence.


[1] A very ancient movie that few if any readers will have seen. A demon possesses a girl who throws a priest out of the window, but it didn’t really matter.
[2] Stephen O’ Shea. The Perfect Heresy: The Life and Death of the Cathars (2001). A great history of a people who have, thanks to the active interest of the church, disappeared.


Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Mike Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development here at CAPA. His unique role at CAPA takes him around the world to conferences as a frequent presenter and attendee. He serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Curriculum Committee of the Forum on Education Abroad, the Editorial Boards of Frontiers and the Journal of Studies in International Education, EAIE’s Knowledge Development Task Force, and Braun Stiftung für Internationalen Austausch. He has written widely and has published extensively on international education and cultural studies. Most recently, he published work aimed at critically reviewing the core assumptions of study abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: London, England, Diversity Abroad