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Ruth Fulton Benedict: Teaching Tolerance

[ photo: Ruth Fulton Benedict ]

Teaching Tolerance

A student and later a colleague of Franz Boas, "the father of American anthropology," Ruth Fulton Benedict, Vassar class of 1909, was one of the principal architects of modern cultural anthropology, "known for her theory of culture and personality, for her studies of Pueblo culture and Japanese culture, and her concern with 'enlightened change' in all societies." According to New York Times reviewer George W. Stocking, Jr., Benedict "was one of the few anthropologists who mattered outside the discipline." Her books, particularly Patterns of Culture (1934), but also The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), were best sellers, written with the intention of changing the prevailing racist notions about heredity and environment. "Her work as an anthropologist was pedagogical," wrote Judith Modell (Women Anthropologists, 1989). "[S]he taught her audience the virtues of 'seeing how other people arranged their lives,' the necessity of tolerating individual differences if a society is to survive, the power of culture over nature. Human beings, she wrote, can change the terms of their existence and, with insight brought by anthropology, can make these changes wisely."

Interestingly, in 1943, Benedict collaborated with a colleague, Gene Weltfish, on a pamphlet, "The Races of Mankind," published by the U.S. Public Affairs Committee and intended for use in training U.S. soldiers who might find themselves fighting alongside men of other racial and cultural backgrounds. The pamphlet "disputed such Nazi ideas that there are Jewish or Aryan races, that superior character is inborn, and that intelligence stems from race" and was distributed widely - until 1944 when it was banned from the armed forces libraries because of "a dispute over whether or not the pamphlet showed northern blacks as smarter than southern whites."

Benedict was right: human beings can change. But not that fast.

Women Anthropologists: Selected Biographies, 1989
"Character as Culture," New York Times, May 22, 1983
Photo credit: Archives and Special Collections