Second post—Identity, language and culture: A more impersonal view

Following on from my previous post, and continuing the same theme, I then sent my colleagues a statement that was deliberately more impersonal and explicitly addressed to students. It is an incomplete draft—after all, this a huge topic—and I know it says too little about language, but I post this second statement here nonetheless and invite further conversation on this theme.

Culture, identity and language: a theme statement

The Master of Education (International) includes core units and project-based alternatives that deal with various aspects of global learning. This raises the question: “What is global learning, and how is it different from any other kind of learning?”

This short position statement attempts a partial answer from the perspective of a particular theme: Culture, identity and language. Some staff in the School of Education at CDU have been grappling with issues that are relevant to this question and theme for most of their working life.

It might be useful at the outset to outline a social constructivist view by asserting that a tertiary education course such as this Masters is a kind of civic space in which principles of respect, freedom and reciprocity are important. Such a course makes possible a time and place where dilemmas, controversies and simplifying, unifying, reductive claims about culture, identity and language can be discussed impartially, analysed and respectfully contested.

The notion of culture originally related to the idea of tending or caring for something, and thus we have permaculture, aquaculture and agriculture. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ‘culture’ took on values associated with bourgeois capitalism (art, opera, salon music and the like). Following the work of anthropologists such as Malinowski and Levi-Strauss culture began to signify the set of social and symbolic practices that influence individual behaviour. Structuralists helped reinforce a belief that cultures and languages are unique, unitary, contrasting systems. A social constructivist would argue though that, while this might seem true, it is an outside view. Viewed from inside, a language or culture appears more indeterminate and is therefore harder to delineate clearly. Many varieties or  hybrids can be distinguished. Some are likely to be socially valued, others to be stigmatised.

From a historical perspectives some societies can appear to be static—think of conservative agricultural communities, medieval Europe, China just before the Boxer Revolution or the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the same time period.

One might imagine that learning in these societies served to equip people for their roles as clerks, imperial officials, rice terrace farmers, or coopers, and so was primarily functional, reinforcing existing social roles and ascribed identities.

At other times societies seem to be in ferment, disrupted by war, radical ideas, invasion, emigration or new technologies. Leading thinkers have begun to advocate changes in the way we think and act because of the threat of environmental catastrophe indicated by bleached coral, warming seas,  the swirling island of plastic rubbish the size of France in the north Pacific near Hawaii. Terrorist acts and frequent, hostile confrontations have become the ugly face of identity politics. Suddenly, it seems, there is a need for students to take on board these global complexities and to begin learning more, and caring more, about sustainability and tolerance.

A new global civilisation is forming, said Vaclav Havel in 1995. He likened it to a single epidermis, or skin, that has formed and now stretches across a teeming multitude of people, cultures, languages, identities, historical backgrounds and religious and non-religious viewpoints. The new global citizens, in a sense, are building on and benefitting from the philosophical achievements of the last few centuries—the universalistic proclamations of the French and American revolutions, and the Enlightenment—every bit as much as the technological revolution that allows them to sit in inner city Starbucks or a Melanesian village, their smart phone and tablet within reach, communicating and learning, no longer conservatively immersed in the particularities of their background, language or culture.

Global learning is exciting, but it comes at a price, and it brings with it a responsibility. To understand the present state of the world should lead to action to improve it. Otherwise, why bother? Professionals who do not contribute to the betterment of society risk becoming mere careerists. Students who do not translate learning into action face a life of irrelevance.

The Master of Education (International) provides an opportunity to explore topics as diverse as the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages, or whether it is educationally useful for three-year-olds to be allowed to spend time on electronic devices if they want to, and as broad as “What contribution can I make, as student and professional, to making this planet a safer, more sustainable and wonderful place to live?”

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One thought on “Second post—Identity, language and culture: A more impersonal view

  1. This is a reminder that we should live our lives with the knowledge that we are connected to others and our actions should reflect what we wish others to care about and pass on to the next generation. Our collective memory is our culture.

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