In the 1980’s I taught as an adjunct professor of anthropology at a small college not too far from where I lived. I taught introductory classes in the subject, and lectures could become dry exercises in textbook repeats except for an open-ended discussion group I ran every week. The group’s purpose was to focus on our week’s lectures and readings. I tried to relate what we were studying to current USA events and culture as much as possible. Some topics were more straightforward than others.
We discussed Cargo Cults following World War II in Melanesia during one discussion session.
Massive amounts of equipment and supplies were flown in and air-dropped during the war to provide the supplies needed to support troops. Inevitably, some of this largesse found its way into the hands of the locals. To them, it was a wealth of a sort that they had never before imagined. However, when the war ended, cargo flow ceased, and locals who had become accustomed to the wealth of foodstuffs and manufactured goods faced a problem: bringing the cargo back.
The cargo cults attempted to lure the planes with their valuable cargoes of goods back. Cult adherents built control tower and airplane mockups. Others drilled on the abandoned airfields to give the appearance that soldiers were still there. But of course, the cargo never returned.
After reviewing the topic, I asked several people to point out movements, or trends, in current American culture that mirrored the Melanesian Cargo Cults. Dead silence. After looking around, I noticed that one of my students was eating a health food bar from a major diet food company. The company regularly used celebrity “Evangelists” to promote its products. I pointed out that emulating soldiers’ behavior at the old airfields had been considered paramount to attracting cargo. Wasn’t emulating celebrities and expecting to lose weight and reshape your body similar?
This comparison did not win me any friends among a particular class segment. Off to one side, I noticed that Chuck was laughing at the discomfort of others. Knowing that Chuck was, like me, an avid woodworker, I asked him if he were so different buying tools touted by famous woodworkers. The ads in the woodworking magazines certainly seemed to suggest that owning Hugo Slemp’s chisels and gouges would ensure that your work too would win prizes. Did he see any similarities?
I had made my point that Citizens of the States were not too different from the Melanesians. I had also dented my popularity with my students. Deciding to go for the gold, I mentioned that they might expect a question on Cargo Cults on the final. Be prepared.
My class was not pleased. But, in my defense, I have to say that I believe as Margaret Mead did that “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”