Who Wants to Know? Understanding Other Cultures through Better Questions

01 September 2015 Written by   Anthony Aveni
Anthony Aveni Anthony Aveni

I’ve had some really excellent feedback on my book Class Not Dismissed, especially from readers who ended up, like me, working in a place they wouldn’t have dreamed of nor planned for.

In the book I tell the story of how I got started in archaeoastronomy, or cultural astronomy, when I took students, purely on a whim, to Mexico to see the pyramids—a clever ploy to escape the frigid winter weather. My astronomy students and I stayed up late into the night debating astronomers’ questions about the ancient Maya. How did they do such accurate astronomy without telescopes and computers? Did they know the earth was round? And that the earth travels around the sun? And that we live in the gigantic Milky Way Galaxy? And that it’s all part of a vast expanding universe that was created in a big bang 14 billion years ago? Our questions focused on astronomical phenomena.

It wasn’t until a few years later, when I began to get serious about Maya studies, and especially when I became acquainted with archaeologists and cultural anthropologists, that I realized that ours were naïve questions, because they tended to measure the sophistication of a culture by comparing it with our own. Being exposed to disciplines on the other side of academia, I began to ask better, more revealing questions. What did sky phenomena have to do with their social customs, their religious beliefs, their politics? What did the sky mean to them? I began to ask questions about the people.

My interdiscipline of archaeoastronomy combines looking up at the stars with looking down into what remains of ancient cultures beneath our feet. You need to do both if you really want to understand what the sky means to different people. The reward comes in realizing the wonder of diversity: the sky isn’t the same to all people. Unwittingly, I ended up changing the questions I ask. That’s what I like to encourage my students to do in support of their learning, to ask better questions.


Anthony Aveni is the Russell Colgate Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy, Anthropology, and Native American Studies at Colgate University, where he has taught since 1963, and one of the founders of cultural astronomy. He has researched and written about Maya astronomy for more than four decades. He has been awarded the H. B. Nicholson Medal for Excellence in Research in Mesoamerican Studies by Harvard's Peabody Museum. Aveni was voted National Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education in Washington, DC, and named one of the ten best professors in the United States by Rolling Stone in 1991. At Colgate he has received, among other teaching awards, the Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching (1997), the Balmuth Teaching Award (2011), and the Phi Eta Sigma National Honor Society's Distinguished Teaching Award (voted by the freshman class of 1990). In 2013, he was awarded the Fryxell Medal for Interdisciplinary Research by the Society of American Archaeologists.

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