Friday, October 18, 2013

A thought on culture and development

I had an interesting conversation yesterday about cultural heritage and development. It got me to thinking.

I suppose development is about changing society in ways that help people live better. The definition will vary from culture to culture, but living longer, healthier lives is probably seen as desirable in most cultures, as is reducing hunger (or at least reducing undesired hunger). Reducing physical and mental disability prevalence would also be seen positively in most cultures. Not having members of the society killed violently would also seem to be desirable.

However people in a culture define the goals of development, I think cultural change is historical fact. The ancient Egyptians may have lived within a constant culture for centuries at a time, but today cultures are changing all around us. I would not characterize cultural change as a good thing, but surely some cultural changes not only promote achievement of societies' goals, but are the right paths to those goals.

Eradicating polio is not only a global goal, but would seem to be a good in every culture. Who wants to see people die as they lose the ability to breath enough to sustain life? Who want to see children crippled for life? (Even if there are such monsters, they are a tiny minority that all societies want to repress.) The eradication of polio depends on immunizing the vast majority of the susceptible populations. In a few places (the frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan, northern Nigeria) there are cultures in which leaders are deeply suspicious of polio immunization campaigns. That is a cultural meme that has to be changed for development to progress.

Cultural heritages come in all flavors. My own comes with a heritage of slavery, Jim Crow, Indian wars, and Indian removals. It also comes with a heritage of being a nation of immigrants, offering refuge and a better life to millions upon millions of people. The question seems to be whether knowing our cultural heritage can help to make those cultural changes that contribute to what we hope to be development, and to avoid those cultural changes deleterious to development.

Culture is complicated. Cultural memes are all reveled up with each other. Who would have thought that the introduction of rock and roll music and blue jeans would contribute to the fall of Communism? Certainly not the Communist elite who worked very hard to maintain their hegemony over their societies.

Still it is clear that schools and other institutions can play a role in the modification of culture for development, including in the use of cultural heritage for that purpose.

I am interested in UNESCO and its cultural programs. One of UNESCO's problems is that when it was created in the aftermath of World War II, the focus was on high culture -- museums, galleries, literature -- and the sharing of the greatest achievements of high culture among nations. Concern for culture in the broader sense used in the social sciences and culture in the sense of "culture for development" is a more recent concern, and one that often loses place.

Still I think high culture has an important place in "culture for development". Certainly literature, ethics and other aspects of philosophy should play a role.

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California
How does one create an appreciation for nature and a concern for the preservation of both some of the natural heritage of mankind and assurance of a more rather than less livable environment? For Americans, the natural park system is a part of our cultural heritage -- the first national park was created here (Yellowstone) and national parks are a great idea born in this country that has spread worldwide. American support for natural parks was in part created by the artists and photographers who brought images of great American sites to the population centers; their images taught Americans how to look at Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, and brought them to recognize that they were a national treasure shared by those who visited, and even those who simply knew of their existence.  I can think of books, movies and even television programs that have helped propagate the ideas. It is also the case that scientists have brought their "high culture" approach to environmental conservation and the preservation of biodiversity, and have used all sorts of media to communicate the import of their findings to the public.

source (1864 photo)
In short, high culture can be used in conjunction with appreciation of cultural heritage (and cultural history) to promote the kinds of cultural additions and deletions that contribute to development. Indeed, it may be a cultural change is needed to help a society articulate its goals for development,

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