Tuesday, September 09, 2014

A thought on the teaching of cultural heritage

I was recently corresponding with someone about what children should learn about cultural heritage. It seems to me that that is a very serious question.

All humans share an important heritage from our pre-human ancestors -- that we are a social species with culture. We have language, use tools, cook our food. It is a heritage that got our distant ancestors through a bottleneck in which only a few thousand humans survived, and that too is a critical cultural heritage that we all share.

Children should appreciate our technological heritage. Perhaps foremost is our heritage of agriculture, and that is a world heritage. Crops were domesticated all over the world: wheat in the middle east, potatoes, corn and beans in the Americas. rice in Asia. Our clothing derives from the people who first had the idea that the fibers attached to cotton seed could be spun into fiber and the fiber woven into cloth, and the cloth made into garments; we owe a similar cultural debt to the folk who thought to cut the woolen coat from sheep  and use it to make clothing, those who havested cocoons to make silk, and the people who taught us to make artificial fibers. People all over the world developed houses, getting us out of caves, and many cultures have contributed to modern building technology.

Children should also appreciate our institutional cultural heritage. Where would we be without money and markets? Government helps us to organize our societies which have grown  so big, and people all over the world have contributed ideas on how to make government serve people better and more efficiently. Government in only one form of formal organization, and there is a rich cultural heritage of organizational culture.

The great religions of the world are another cultural heritage, not least because they all share the heritage of teaching the golden rule -- to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Notice that I have come to the arts late in this post, but of course children should celebrate the heritage in music, painting, sculpture and drama. As travel and communications have become more global, and as we share the arts via movies, radio and television -- and now the Internet -- each of use draws from a more diverse and global heritage in the arts.

I think we should also emphasize our heritage in knowledge systems. Schools are a wonderful invention, and more and more of the world is coming to enjoy schooling. The modern university combining  education, research and service is also a cultural heritage worthy of note. I think science -- the scientific method, peer review, professional societies -- is also worthy of special note. Today we find that scientific knowledge not only grows rapidly, but is ever more rapidly mobilized to inform the development of new technology.

Children should appreciate especially their cultural heritage of play, and in the grown up form, sport. Hundreds of millions of people followed the World Cup of football this year (soccer to us Yanks); the Olympics games in 2016 should also draw the interest of people around the world, as well as teams from many countries.

Our cultural heritage is not all good. It includes slavery and organized crime. Mankind has indulged in conflict during its entire history, and world wars killed tens of millions of people in the last century; new weapons of mass destruction make the threat of war ever more terrible.

I have been interested in UNESCO for many years, and note that its World Heritage program has now recognized more than 1000 sites. While I think it appropriate to recognize such sites so that they can better be protected and so that more people will appreciate what they represent, it seems to me that we should be careful that we honor only heritage of which we are justly proud. The pyramids of Egypt, for example, were built to provide men who believed they were gods a path to a heavenly afterlife that we now think to be based on pure superstition; moreover, thousands of poor people labored for great lengths of time to build these monuments to superstition. If we are to declare sites as world heritage which can be understood in such dysfunctional ways, then we should be explicit in honoring the artistic and engineering enterprise that led to their construction, and perhaps in teaching children about the less desirable heritage that they also represent.

Perhaps the most important lesson for children is that they should choose the best elements of their cultural heritage to build a legacy for future generations, while consciously eliminating dysfunctional cultural heritage. I am especially impressed by the way that the Japanese and Germans have explicitly tried to eliminate aspects of their heritage that led to World War II and to atrocities during that war, while emphasizing the beneficial aspects of their rich cultural heritage.

I feel that it is best that people within a culture make such choices themselves. All too often others have sought to impose cultural choices on others, and all too often that has resulted in oppression of the weak by the strong while failing to instill beneficial cultural elements and to eradicate dysfunctional ones.

1 comment:

John Daly said...

UNESCO honors Yosemite, Yellowstone and other places as World Heritage sites. The appreciation that these places should be maintained in their natural state is another cultural heritage that we should share with children, so that they too will value these places and conserve them for posterity. I am proud to say that this appreciation is a cultural gift that the USA made by creating the first national park in the 19th century, a gift that has been widely shared as other countries have created their own national parks.