Culture is Dead

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Stand up if you believe things were better in the past. Good, the door is over there, we will stay because life is more interesting than that.

Culture dies – because one day everything dies, even the universe. However, if culture dies we can still make it live again, we just have to care. That is WE have to care, rather than complain that other people do not care. We can sum up culture as the sum of people caring, rather than the sum of people complaining.

When something is new it can seem interesting, then we get bored with it, pushing it to the back of our drawer of life.Sometimes, though, we are rummaging around in our past and we rediscover this forgotten thing. We buy a suit or dress, love it, forget it and then we or someone finds it and calls it retro.

  • Love
  • Forget
  • Retro

This is an important concept if we are teaching culture, because when we are at the bored stage someone else might be still at the interested stage. For years the Communist era was uncool in Poland, for example, but now people are rediscovering some of the gems from that era, like furniture they used to have. Foreigners have a different perspective: they have not been through the cycle, they are still at ‘Love’.

If we are teaching culture, what is boring to us may be very interesting to those we teach, the trouble is that we cannot know beforehand what will be interesting, because other people will never love all the things we have. And they will love things that we never did.

To make things even more complicated – we do not know some of the things that we could love, and our students cannot know everything that they could love. No questionnaire can discover the things we or anyone else do not know that we do not know. In other words questions imply that we know the question, just not the answer. However, what about a question addressing a completely new piece of technology that will appear in ten years time? We lack knowledge of questions as well as answers.

A good example is the British TV series ‘Escape to the Country’, where a couple is presented with two houses that fit the desires they list, and then with a house that goes beyond the list. The latter house is chosen more often than either of the two that fits the knowledge they brought with them to the program. The unknown element can be more interesting than the known. Questionnaires tend to question the status quo, of things in danger of slipping from Love to Forget.

Next… if we teach culture we need to experience some of it, and keep experiencing it because things keep on a-changing. We need to watch films, go to theatres, visit factories. Our students come from varied backgrounds, and they are usually polite enough to pretend that what we present is what they want. Education is often a bludgeon of compliance, preventing us from believing that things could be different, but is that our hand on the bludgeon.

Are we mindlessly programming our students with classical views that they will never really enjoy?

Are we mindlessly programming our students with culture we do not really understand?

Are we mindlessly programming our students full stop?

The argument goes something like theatres will not continue to exist unless we teach about them in culture classes. My counter-argument is that theatres do not continue to exist because a bunch of mindless teachers force the idea of theatre on students. Theatres continue to exist because actors make them interesting and interested people find the money to keep them doing what they do so interestingly, and this process picks up fresh people incidentally for the most part.

The hard truth is that not only must we experience culture to teach it, we have to accept that our way of experiencing it may not be the only relevant way, or even be close to the most interesting way.

Consider clothes shopping, a common element of modern culture. When you go shopping you might do what many people do: enter the shop, find a rack and then start going clack, clack, clack down the rack and onto the next one, looking for interesting clothes, colours and sizes all at the same time. Often people spend about 20 minutes in a shop, and see about 40 different items.

Consider my clothes shopping: I enter a shop, scan the clothes as I walk around, looking for interesting colours and patterns. If I see something interesting I approach it and put my hand on it to feel the quality. If it passes that test I might investigate further, if not I continue around the shop and move onto the next one. In 20 minutes I might see 1oo-200 items in 3-5 shops. I see more clothes, and only look for sizes if something passes all the visual and texture tests, so the chances of me finding something interesting is several times higher than the average shopper.

The point here is that we need to experience culture, and we need to do so in ways outside our previous experience. To find out how we need to experience culture with people from very different backgrounds.

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