Culture


Culture

Prepared for UNESCO June, 1993

The development of civilization over several millenia has produced extraordinary achievements in science, technology, social institutions and material prosperity. Education and culture represent the summit of this development. The relationship between culture and development is a subject of intense controversy. Experience in some places shows that cultural traditions can be a substantial barrier to rapid progress, whereas in others cultural factors seem to propel the development process. Much of the controversy is resolved when we distinquish between the external forms and behaviors associated with particular cultures and the inner content of values that informs and supports these external expressions.

Societies differ widely in their external forms and norms of behavior, i.e. the language, dress, fashions, arts, customs and habits surrounding family life, economic, social and religous activites. Different forms of identity, behavior and expression come to be associated with different classes, castes and ethnic groups. These external forms change over time and lose their homogeniety and uniqueness as societies come into greater contact with each other. History describes an endless intermixing, imitation, borrowing and adaptation of external forms which is gradually leading to the emergence of common global culture that is highly tolerant of variations in form and behavior.

Customs constitute the external forms of culture, values are the inner content. These values represent the essential knowledge of life which society has accumulated over time and passes on to new generations as guiding principles for successful living. As society imparts skills and information to its youth to help them understand and control their physical environment, it imparts values that support the survival, growth and development of the individual and the society. These values inform the heart of every culture, giving it life and sustenance. All great accomplishment, all development, is based on the acquisition and expression of one or more higher values--physical values, social values, organizational values, psychological values and spiritual values. Cleanliness is a physical value that is at the root of achievements in hygiene and medicine. Punctuality is an essential value for all productive activity, whether it is the timely planting and harvesting of crops at precisely the right season, the delivery of export orders faster than the competition, or quick administrative decision making that clears away bureacratic hurdles to rapid action. Systematic functioning and coordination are organizational values that promote efficiency and expansion of modern institutions. Communication and teamwork are social values that enable people to work together harmoniously. Honesty, a work ethic and a sense of responsibility are psychological values which enable people to rely on each other for mutual benefit.

Together these values constitute the foundation for the tremendous developmental achievements of the past two hundred years. The Japanese commitment to teamwork consensus has been a key factor behind its phenomenal economic progress. A unfailing commitment to discharge all family debts lies behind the great commercial success of the most prosperous community in South India. The refusal of the American Quaker shopkeepers to charge exorbitant prices led them to introduce the concept of 'fair price' two hundred years ago and made them highly successful retailers. The German dedication of quality has made them preeminent engineers. The commitment of Dutch traders to partnership with other countries rather than exploitation made their sailing vessels welcome in all ports and enabled them to build lasting commercial relationships around the world.

The crucial role of cultural factors in development can be illustrated negatively by instances in which the necessary values are absent. The reluctance of the poor in many developing countries to assume responsibility for repayment of their debts makes it extremely difficult to persuade financial institutions to extend credit where it is most needed. The lack of appreciation for the value of time makes many Third World producers unreliable suppliers for critical raw materials and components. The effort to rapidly transform the countries of Eastern Europe into market economies has severely underestimated both the importance of values in any economic system and the conscious effort needed to promote appropriate values. The centrally controlled command system functioned on the basis of authority, obedience, conformity, and security. The market system depends on values of individual initiative, innovation and risk taking.

Development is retarded by the slow pace at which society acquires new values. Normally this change occurs with a change of generation. Those accustomed to the old ways are gradually replaced by a younger generation more open to something new. But values can be consciously and systematically introduced in order to abridge the time needed for transition.

The controversy between the relationship of culture and development is complicated by the fact that development both creates and destroys cultural forms and values. Every developmental achievement results in an abandonment of old behaviors and attitudes and acceptance of new ones. Those attached to the old way feel a decline in culture, just as the 18th and 19th century aristocracy of Europe perceived the turn to democracy as a breakdown of social and moral order. Development destroys survival-based traditional values and creates achievement-oriented values. Over the last two centuries in countries around the world development has strengthened expansive values that encourage greater freedom, tolerance, individual initiative, self-confidence and self-respect, dynamism, risk-taking, efficiency, punctuality, organization, communication and cooperation, openmindedness and respect of new ideas, innovation and creativity. At the same time development has weakened values that support respect for tradition and hierarchy, senority and authority, self-effacement and humility, patience and perserverence, generosity and self-sacrifice, and unquestioning acceptiance of the status quo.

Development is widely regarded as the cause of declining moral values in society, as the source of increasing corruption, crime and violence. These negative consequences of development are partially the result of declining values, but also due to the fact that values such as freedom are extended to vast sections of the population which were confined in the past by rigid social barriers and minimum expectations. Development has swept away many of the barriers and raised the expectations of people at all levels everywhere. The self-restraint that formerly was the result of lack of opportunity, of fear and repression is now replaced by a self-assertion that has not yet acquired the positive productive values needed for achievement. While it is true that corruption it more prevalent today than ever before, it is also true that the entire global economy functions on the basis of a faith, honesty, openness and tolerance that would have been inconceivable in the past. We mourn the loss of the cloistered values of the past which were very often accompanied by narrow rigidity and provincialism, while failing to recognize the enormous growth in positive human values that has made possible the incredible progress of the past few decades. The 19th century tolerated values based on the exploitation of people over people through slavery, colonialism and war and the domination of man over nature. The guiding values for the century now commencing are freedom and respect for the individual, social equity and diversity, and harmony with the environment.

Culture is not only a product of human development, it is also a powerful lever that can be utilized to accelerate it. In past centuries the local culture of a community was acquired and handed down to future generations through the family. For a number of reasons this is no longer sufficient. The family is losing its preeminent position in social life due to increasing mobility of people, the breakdown of the extended family and the growing role of other institutions such as the corporation in value formation. Education is taking over many of the functions earlier performed by the family. Until now education has focused primarily on the transfer of information, ideas and mental skills. But education can also become a very effective vehicle for imparting higher development-oriented values to youth.

Integration and tolerance for diversity are crucial values for the further development of the human community. Yet the increasing speed of globalization has accentuated a contrary tendency toward increasing fragmentation. Smaller social groups are reaffirming their own cultural uniqueness on ethnic, linguistic and religious grounds and demanding separation from larger heterogeneous groups of which they form a part, such as the nation state. The movement toward fragmentation within previously integrated communities fails to take into account the advantages of consolidation and association that the society has discovered in the past. When fragmentation is insisted upon, it usually leads to violence and almost inevitably leads to an economic decline that has not been fully anticipated at the time of disunion. Recent events in Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union are dramatic illustrations of the enormous costs and social disruption resulting from this tendency. The same force retards efforts at increasing integration within and between nations, such as the present efforts toward the economic and political unification of Europe and the economic cooperation in North America. This type of resistance will continue to grow in strength and visiility until such a time as society comes to fully accept and appreciate the value of integration. The pull of fragmentation cannot be countered solely at the political level. Education--both formal and public--is the best means for rapidly communicating and imparting the benefits of this value to the largest numbers of people.

In order to fully harness cultural potentials for development, we need to better understand the natural process of value formation in society, to discover the circumstances and conditions under which new values are accepted, and the factors that retard or faciliate this process. In other words, we need to evolve a theory of value formation which will ultimately enable us to consciously identify and instill values that are most conducive and supportive of a peaceful, prosperous living for all humanity.


Future Education Conference

We are pleased to invite you to participate in a one-day conference on Future Education in India being organized at Anandha Inn, Pondicherry on January 28, 2018 to consider the changes needed in our schools and to examine successful strategies that are already being applied by schools in India and overseas. 

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