Magazine article Liberal Education

Teaching Culture

Magazine article Liberal Education

Teaching Culture

Article excerpt

UNDERGRADUATE EDUCATION has not kept pace with knowledge about the role of culture in shaping human and social behavior. Many professional and even liberal arts majors emerge from general education programs unsure about the "nurture" part of the nature-nurture equation-simply ignorant of or inadequately confronted with the challenging issues associated with cultural construction. The deficiencies can and should be repaired, but some real innovations are essential to the process. Despite the challenge, there is a real opportunity to parlay research advances emerging out of the recent "cultural turn" in a variety of disciplines into some exciting gains in important outcomes of liberal education.1 The opportunity to encourage students to think critically about basic beliefs about how people and social institutions operate, which is central to cultural analysis, goes to the heart of liberal education.

Cultural analysis

The core features of cultural analysis are not complex. They involve examination of the impact of fundamental beliefs and values-culture in what is most simply viewed as the anthropological sense-on social patterns and personal behavior. The subject includes, at the more conventional end, attention to the ways ideologies-religions, philosophies, political "isms"-shape social institutions and also assumptions about phenomena such as race, or poverty, or gender. It also includes attention to such issues as the role of beliefs and values in child rearing, or the definition and experience of disease, or displays of emotion. Recent work even explores the impact of different cultural systems on the senses, with variations, for example, in the balance between smell and sight as sources of information about the immediate environment. Overall, the core focus in cultural analysis is on causation: determining what a relevant culture is, but then going on to determine what role it plays in shaping individual or social experience. In fact, this same focus promotes a critical understanding of categories of behaviors often regarded as fixed or immutable.

Defining a culture is, of course, easier said than done. Researchers often begin with prescriptive materials, the lessons given by preachers and imams, child-rearing experts and manners gurus, medical popularizers and fashion authorities (depending, of course, on time and place). Prescriptions have impact, but one wants also to get at "real" beliefs as evidenced by clusters of ordinary people through such vehicles as rituals, court testimonies, linguistic usages, and popular images. Values encountered in play or leisure constitute another angle, sometimes reinforcing core beliefs, sometimes providing deliberate contrast or relief. What, for instance, is the relationship among modem media violence, daily values, and resulting behaviors? And how did this relationship emerge from Victorian efforts to shape moral recreations, and what consequences did this change have? The interplay among recommended cultural guidelines, deeply-held values, and actual behaviors is challenging and complex, yet the cultural field has registered real gains in knowledge in recent years-the basis for further opportunities.

A number of disciplines have just gone through a period of intensive research on culture, often called the "cultural turn." Branches of sociology, anthropology, history, English, and even an admittedly maverick strain of psychology participated in the cultural turn, and the interdisciplinary amalgam called cultural studies was heavily involved as well. The cultural turn had some drawbacks, which we will examine later. But it did significantly advance knowledge. Topics that once seemed reserved for purely scientific inquiry, like emotions, turn out to have substantial cultural dimensions, and in turn we know more about emotions than we once did thanks to the (still incomplete) cultural exploration.

In focusing on the cultural dimension of how things work in the human experience, cultural analysis fairly obviously centers both on comparison and on change and continuity over time. …

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