Book by Merriam, Sharan B. and Associates
Review by Catherine Buyarski
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

All advisors have had experiences with students from different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds.  In an attempt to be culturally sensitive, advisors try to understand the cultural perspectives these student bring to the advising conversation.   Through the presentation of eight perspectives on learning and knowing from across the globe, Merriam and Associates offer a broadening of the framework used to work with students from diverse backgrounds by delving into questions of the construction of knowledge, learning styles, the role of instruction, and the purposes of learning; all of which impact a student’s views and participation in our western system of higher education.

Advising conversations often revolve around academic planning including choices of what to study (both in terms of a major/minor and course selection).  Undergirding these conversations are larger questions about what is considered knowledge, what are the acceptable means of learning, and for what purposes and to what ends is it important that people engage in learning.  While these questions are not often thought to be part of advising, they do impact the advising of students from diverse backgrounds.  

Perhaps the most powerful message from this book is that learning and knowledge must be contextualized in a student’s culture.  While the Western view of knowledge is deemed worthy if it has undergone rigorous scientific testing and is disseminated through formal learning structures, knowledge in other cultures may be, for example, spiritual or revealed knowledge that is learned through meditation or introspection. Furthermore, knowledge is often grounded in one’s personal experience rather than the objective world as is seen in the West.  Therefore it becomes critical that advisors be open to a student’s definition of knowledge while serving as a “cultural guide” in helping students understand the nature of what is considered legitimate knowing and learning in traditional U.S. institutions of higher education.

Beyond the obvious role advisors play in interpreting the curriculum and communicating academic expectations for western-based learning, advisors may also benefit from the text’s discussion of cultural perspectives on why learning is important. For example, in Islamic culture lifelong devotion to knowing and learning is firmly grounded in the journey to becoming closer to God. American Indian culture focuses on learning for the betterment of the community (versus the individual). All advisors have experienced the disengaged student who struggles to find meaning in his participation in higher education; this book offers additional perspectives that might help frame a student’s search for meaning in the academy and facilitate student engagement and motivation.  

This book is well-written and very interesting. The wide array of cultural perspectives on knowing and learning -- ranging from liberation theology and learning in Latin America to Confucian ways of thinking -- provide a breadth of perspectives which not only expand the reader’s knowledge of perspectives on learning but clearly exhibit the range of views that may be part of students’ frameworks for experiencing higher education. The book is written with the purpose of expanding the literature on adult development and, therefore, advisors may find the text limited by its lack of attention to specific strategies for working with diverse perspectives on knowing and learning.

Non-Western Perspectives on Learning and Knowing (2007).  Book by Merriam, Sharan B. and Associates. Review by Catherine Buyarski. Melbourne, FL: Krieger Publishing. 204 pp. $27.50. ISBN # 1-57524-280-X
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