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    Taylor on Cultural Knowledge

    July 15, 2008 by Brandy Vencel

    I promise I am almost done quoting Poetic Knowledge incessantly. But I realized that there was something I forgot when I did my two recap posts.

    Actually, this is a subject I’ve thought about a lot because there is a big push to educate children from a perspective of the entire world instead of the culture in which they live. This has never made sense to me, and the main reason for that is my own experience. I was educated right before there was a super-huge multiculture push. So I primarily experienced my own culture, and then a bit of Mexican culture, but then I’m not sure that is a bad thing seeing as the town I lived in was actually about 50% Mexican immigrants. Becoming familiar with Mexican culture a bit helped me get along in the world I was in, I suppose.

    When I entered college, I began to really appreciate other cultures. For the first time, I tested foreign foods {and found that I liked a lot of them}. I read books about exotic places and was captivated by them. And I think that I appreciated these cultures because they were so other than the culture I was raised in.

    It was all about contrast.

    Today, kids are told that they need to learn about so many other cultures from the time they are very young. Children’s books are packed with stories of African tribes and South American adventures and such. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, but I think that there is something to be said for first immersing a child in their own culture, and then later moving on to familiarizing them with other cultures.

    We also seem to be becoming a people without a culture {popular culture being not a real culture}, and I think it might be connected to not treating any one culture as our own.

    Here is a somewhat lengthy quote from Taylor:

    In the school of the poetic mode of education, there are very few books indeed, and the ones used, in a sense, choose us before we chose them; that is, these are the books of our tradition, which is the Western tradition. No amount of forced multiculturalism in the schools can change the fact that we are born at a certain time into a certain culture and tradition, and no amount of study of, for example, the culture of the East, will make us any more Eastern when reading translations of Tibetan folk stories, as will be our culturally instinctive response to the world of the stories of Grimm and Andersen. And, turning this the other way, a school in the Orient would do well to read those stories that have been handed down to them by their tradition. It is not a question of being exclusive or xenophobic; it is rather to recognize that the taking on of another’s culture and traditions is unnecessary and inappropriate at this level of education. The study of Chinese literature, for example, would be a very good thing to do, gathering as much information about Chinese philosophy, politics, life, and manners, not to mention some attempt at learning to translate the language–all necessary collateral studies precisely because the story or poem was not written in our tradition and we would need to do as much ‘homework’ as possible to recreate the circumstances for its appreciation. But to accomplish the conditions for reading stories from China is the work of the graduate student on the way to becoming a specialist, an expert in a particular field. The school of the poetic mode remains a school of beginners. {emphasis mine}

    Now, I would never take this to mean the children should exclusively be exposed to their own culture to the point of crazy measures like avoiding missionary stories or speaking to widely-traveled persons! However, this quote is referring to the school. What do we take the time to study?

    I was thinking about this also in terms of literacy. For instance, why does the mariner in Kipling’s Just So Stories say that his natal home is the “white cliffs of Albion”? Well, if you are doing Year 1 of Ambleside {which is focused on Western, English-speaking tradition}, you learned {by reading Fifty Famous Stories Retold} the story of Albion and Brutus and just how Britain acquired its name. Your six-year-old therefore makes a connection to ancient folklore {and knows that the “white cliffs of Albion” refer to Britain} while reading Kipling, something many adults are incapable of.

    If we rigorously study many traditions from a very young age, my hunch is that our traditions will become a mere curiosity and have very little, if any, depth. Any culture doing such a thing might be jeopardizing itself.

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  • Reply Anonymous July 17, 2008 at 1:02 am

    I think most of you mis-understood the purpose of teaching multi-culturalism in our school system. It was intended to deflate Western civilization by trying to make all cultures equal and to diminish the value of Christianity.

    According to F. A. Hayek it was not an accident that Western Civilization and its Christian influence basically ruled the world for centuries. It was superior to other cultures and it is the belief of liberals that is what causes wars. Just think about John Lennon’s song “Imagine” was all about.

    Imagine there’s no Heaven
    It’s easy if you try
    No hell below us
    Above us only sky
    Imagine all the people
    Living for today

    Imagine there’s no countries
    It isn’t hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people
    Living life in peace

    You may say that I’m a dreamer
    But I’m not the only one
    I hope someday you’ll join us
    And the world will be as one

    I am not saying learning about other cultures is wrong but if it is to diminsish the role of Christianity as a superior religion and thought process then it is.

  • Reply Rahime July 15, 2008 at 11:37 pm

    Exactly. I like your description of of the zoo-like perspective. In fact, I’ve been on the other side, being viewed as one of those zoo animals, and I think it’s a pretty appropriate comparison. I think that the humanness factor is hugely important in any form of multicultural education, and that is very hard to teach through abstract lessons. Your comment above brought up another important point: It probably can also make a child (or even a teacher, depending on the teacher) think they understand a culture when they really don’t, which is possibly dangerous and maybe also disrespectful. I won’t go into that beyond saying I agree, at the very least it’s something to be cautious of.

    One of the most important defenses against xenophobia is interaction with those who seem foreign (and in today’s world, I think it would be difficult not to eventually interact with different people). It seems, though, that that can happen much more naturally in a real-world setting.

    An analogous example would be that of people with disabilities. Many people in our society have a fear or repulsion when they think about or see a disabled person such as someone who is wheelchair-bound. However, few of those “xenophobes” have a disabled family member or are in an ongoing relationship with disabled people. Once given the chance to interact, they soon learn that the disabled person is human and the disability does not make them any less so.

    The broad/shallow vs. specific/deep education is a whole topic on it’s own, but it does seem to me that the way our system of liberal education is set up certainly favors the former (though I really doubt the average college student today is in danger of reading too much). In contrast, the UK’s system favors liberal education only through grammar school. Then in secondary school, at 16, the students typically start to specialize in a more specific area of interest. College students rarely study anything outside of their degree.

  • Reply Brandy July 15, 2008 at 10:02 pm


    I was hoping you’d comment because I knew you’d have an interesting perspective. I agree with you that real interaction is superior to reading about other cultures (especially at young ages). In fact, as I keep thinking about this, sometimes it seems like reading about other cultures the way small children sometimes do gives them almost a zoo-like perspective on that culture. You know, as if they were studying something in a cage rather than appreciating that those people are real people.

    I also liked what you said about different cultures actually having many commonalities. It seems like finding those commonalities would also help in making sure that children view other cultures as human.

    More to think about indeed…

  • Reply Rahime July 15, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    Hmmm…probably my background, but I’m a fan of exposing young children to cultures other than their own. However, I’d much prefer it be done in “real” ways (interacting with people of different cultures…preferably in their native environment) rather than abstract ones (reading books about cultures, talking with teachers about culture). This could require a large travel budget, but in many parts of the US it is not hard to find cultural enclaves and it can be as simple as visiting a Persian grocery store or a Mexican taco stand. And within one’s own race, there are different cultures: many aspects of a farmer’s cultural heritage are different from those of a city person even though there are some shared traditions and perspectives.

    I don’t think that multi-cultural education as it is taught in CA (or probably the US in general) is the way to go. One of the big problems with multi-cultural education today is that it really up-plays the different-ness of various cultures in superficial ways. Different ways of greeting people, eating, or dressing are the focus of multi-cultural stories. Although different cultures have different values, oftentimes core values are universal: family relationships, security, honesty, etc. are valued by most every culture even though the particular ways the values are exhibited may be different.

    I would agree with Taylor that focused study of other cultures and trying to see the world from the perspective of someone from a different culture is best left for a later phase of education AFTER the student has a strong understanding of his own heritage.

    For the young child, I think the importance of interacting with people from different backgrounds comes largely in overcoming the “fear of other” and in the realization that you can have real relationships with people whose background and lifestyle. This is much better done in natural ways than through intentionally studying and reading about other cultures.

  • Reply Rahime July 15, 2008 at 9:32 pm

    Really, Kris, you didn’t thoroughly absorb the finer points of the Divine Comedy or the City of God in the weekend allotted to reading them? I’m shocked! 🙂

  • Reply Brandy July 15, 2008 at 9:25 pm


    Just kidding, you two. 🙂

    A few quick, shallow knee-jerk responses: Nate, I do think that the emphasis that I’ve seen in education is breadth over depth. I also think that multiculturalism (as taught in the classrooms that I am familiar with, at least) is part of that overall trend. It probably can also make a child (or even a teacher, depending on the teacher) think they understand a culture when they really don’t, which is possibly dangerous and maybe also disrespectful.

    Kristie, I am positive that you fully understand Dante because, after all, you read it in a weekend, not just one evening. 🙂 On a more serious note, I was wondering what you thought about your education in retrospect. There is a part of me that regrets not participating in the Honors program because of all that I know I wasn’t exposed to. However, I have enjoyed educating myself slowly over the course of the last eight or so years, and I can see the benefit to slow absorption…

  • Reply Kristina July 15, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    Hmmmm…. Nate, are you implying that I didn’t gain a full depth of understanding of the entire Great Books curriculum in college? Because I think I did. I totally understood Dante’s Divine Comedy, which I read in a weekend. (This is sarcasm. I am simply agreeing with all of the above. I definitely could have benefited from shorter reading lists in college!)

  • Reply Nate July 15, 2008 at 5:49 pm

    Just a few quick thoughts about the following remark:

    “If we rigorously study many traditions from a very young age, my hunch is that our traditions will become a mere curiosity and have very little, if any, depth. Any culture doing such a thing might be jeapordizing itself.”

    I haven’t thought about this much, but it seems like you’re pointing to a more general worry: if children are given superficial exposure to a lot of different things (e.g., lots of books, lots of different cultures, lots of different sports), there is little chance that they will learn much about any of them. Of course, a child’s education should NOT be myopic. But it’s important to remember that in teaching them about a subject matter, we’re also teaching them habits of thought and learning. We need to teach them how to gain a deep and thorough understanding of a topic, even if this sometimes means sacrificing breadth. Their future success depends on this skill.

    I have often thought that college students would benefit from syllabi with shorter reading lists. Students often learn more from reading one book carefully than from skimming twelve books. I can’t imagine that things are much different with young children…

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