We begin to learn our culture—the ways of our society—just after birth. That process is called socialization, and it involves far more than schooling. Our culture shapes the way we work and play, and it makes a difference in how we view ourselves and others. It affects our values—what we consider right and wrong. This is how the society we live in influences our choices. But our choices can also influence others and ultimately help shape our society.
Imagine that you encounter a stranger walking down the street. How might you describe the person? What labels would you use? We know that every person is different from any other in countless ways, yet when we encounter others we often rely on generalizations to describe them. “It's a natural tendency,” says psychologist Deborah Tannen. “We must see the world in patterns in order to make sense of it; we wouldn’t be able to deal with the daily onslaught of people and objects if we couldn’t predict a lot about them and feel that we know who and what they are."
Our society—through its particular culture, customs, institutions, and more—provides us with the labels we use to categorize the people we encounter. These labels are based on beliefs about race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, economic class, and more. Sometimes our beliefs about these categories are so strong that they prevent us from seeing the unique identities of others. Sometimes these beliefs also make us feel suspicion, fear, or hatred toward some members of our society. Other times, especially when we are able to get to know a person, we are able to see past labels and, perhaps, find common ground.
The stories in this chapter explore some of the dilemmas people face as they establish themselves both as individuals and as members of a group, and as they define themselves and are defined by others. As the first step in the Facing History and Ourselves journey, this chapter introduces ideas about human behavior and decision making that will serve as a foundation for examining the historical case study in the chapters that follow. Teachers are encouraged to select the readings that match their objectives and the interests and needs of their students.