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The Intersection of Culture and Invention Part III

I’ve been an educator since 1973. In that time, I taught elementary children, middle school students, and teachers. Mostly teachers. Once I was in higher education, the opportunities to experience and visit different countries and cultures fed my intense curiosity about peoples of the world.

I visited 50 countries (so far). But, moreover, I visited schools in many parts of the US, but also Canada, Thailand, the Bahamas, Denmark, Sweden, China, Taiwan, Kenya, South Africa, Cuba, Italy, India, Turkey, Jamaica, Barbados, Australia, and New Zealand (so far).

Additionally, over the years, and enjoying working with international colleagues and students, I have made friendships or have mentored folks from Japan, Taiwan, Trinidad, Korea, the Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, India, South Africa, the Philippines, Malaysia, Egypt, Morocco, Ecuador, Brazil, Turkmenistan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Australia, New Zealand, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.

All these experiences inform what I am about to say.

How we raise our children and young people, both in homes and in schools, matters greatly. I don’t mean just what they learn, but how they learn it. And, how the curriculum and instruction reflect the deepest and underlying values of a culture.

If you sit all your children in rows, and they are wearing the same thing (uniforms), and their hair is cut the same way, and you teach them the same things, and test the exactly the same way, and discourage dissent, disagreement, or “standing out,” then what are the chances of having a new idea? An inventive thought?

Many schools around the world believe strongly in uniforms. It’s said that it ‘equalizes” the children, economically and socially. Chuckle if you must, because it does not work. In the Bahamas, children wore the same uniform, but then they were seated by their test scores from one corner of the room all the way to the other.

I feel certain in any setting the children know their hierarchy, whether it is economic or academic. When I was in 7th grade in a large urban junior high school, we were tracked academically, using test scores. The administration had scrambled the 16 section numbers to hide the hierarchy. We’d all figured it out by the end of day 1.

If you think, in the name of fairness or equity, all children need the same lessons at the same time in the same way, then where is the room for creative thinking? Questioning? The room for invention?

If you think all students need to read the same books or stories, chosen by some “other” authority, then where is the space and the attention to “grand” conversations – one in which readers see the mirrors of themselves, and find their identities in what they read?

If the most important thing in your culture is tradition, and honoring the past, and honoring the ancestors, and fitting in, then isn’t too much emphasis on tradition an antidote to invention? Can you want something your ancestors never had? Does it dishonor them? Does it violate some dearly held ideas? Can you have a new, radical, revolutionary idea (I don’t mean like a war, but more like a cellphone or a computer)?

One summer, colleagues and I had a short conference in Denmark. The Danes were wonderful hosts and I think we loved every minute of getting to know them. We were housed in a type of school building where students board. We ate our meals in the sort of cafeteria where students ate.

We came from a long session, hungry, to find a wonderful buffet of meats, cheese, and breads. We were all Americans or Canadians. We took a plate and picked things we liked and went to a table and made ourselves sandwiches.

We were not the only folks staying in the facility and eating there. Some were local. The Danes stared at us. We didn’t know why.

Later, we learned from an American who had lived overseas, that we were not supposed to make sandwiches. We were supposed to eat those things separately, AND in a pre-determined sequence. She showed us a Danish child’s lunch box, with individual trays stacked inside a box, each for the correct part of the meal. Of course, we didn’t know.

If you have to eat your meals in a certain order and there are rules attached to how you eat (other than manners), how does this influence thinking? Invention?

Let’s mention China. I greatly respect the many Chinese colleagues I came to know in my career. We know many world inventions came from China, like silk making and gunpowder.

BUT, all those were very long ago. What sort of inventions are coming out of China since the “cultural revolution” and under Communism. What happens when during a political event, your academic elite are …..missing? How does that influence national and cultural thinking for the next century?

I believe there are indeed intersections of culture and invention. I think under closer examination, one would find that the countries with lots of inventions value diverse thinking. Value new ideas. Value positive changes. These are expressed in their systems of education. These shape the people their children become.

I would dearly love an academic conversation on this topic. It’s been on my mind for decades!

2 thoughts on “The Intersection of Culture and Invention Part III”

  1. Glad to read Part 3, Wendy. This is so interesting, and a challenging question for all educators. I loved reading about the conference and dorm in Sweden. Not sure if it was the time I was there with you or another, but I loved that trip. Wasn’t that the trip I accidentally ordered almost all food on the menu in the Italian restaurant? And I truly enjoyed viewing your beautiful desk. I’m impressed with the organization! Always look forward to reading your work. Keep it up.

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    1. Kitty, yes, this was 1990. You and I started in London, went on to Denmark where you ordered 4 entrées in a restaurant.We went on to Sweden where you ate so many Magnum bars your clothes no longer fit, so you mailed them home. We went on to the USSR where we stood on line to buy books, avoided a drunk taxi driver, ate in a local restaurant where we drank champagne because the water was unsafe, and accidentally shopped on the black market. Such adventures we had.

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