Information and Education: Other Cultures, Other Views

I’ve had the good fortune to be able to start finding out about how other cultures deal with information and education. This is important for several reasons. Firstly, it helps to remind me that the perception of the dominant monoculture is both primarily a perception and an accident of history, geography and timing. Secondly, it reminds me how easy it is to slip into the monocultural assumption. Finally, it helps me to prepare my students for a world that could be very different from this one.

I’m not a true relativist, I think that some cultural practices (including but not limited to formalised child abuse and female circumcision) are indefensible because they are far too great an imposition on the individual. So let me get that cultural bias onto the table to allow you to frame what I say next. Some ideas, especially when we start dealing with the value of wisdom, and the specific roles of the knowledge keepers in the dispensation and passage of that wisdom, fascinate me but I am still not sufficiently versed to be able to discuss it with any authority or detail. I can, however, discuss ideas with my students such as secret knowledge, without being a Mason, or gendered knowledge, without being of a practising culture, because to do so allows them to realise that there is more to the world than European-derived cultural norms. We don’t have to necessarily agree with all of these other ideas, especially where gender discrimination is preventing access to essential knowledge or limiting advancement, but it is important to understand that it exists.

The role of the knowledge keeper varies with culture and it can be quite confronting for my students to encounter a situation where a single person has the knowledge and may not be available all the time. At the recent Adelaide Computing Education Conventicle that I ran, two presenters from the University of South Australia presented work on integrating Australian Indigenous Culture into ICT project work and discussed the way that it changed the projects. The person needed is in hospital for treatment? Then you’ll have to wait until they get back because they are the person that you have to talk to. A friend has told me about this before in the context of geological information in the Australian Outback. You want to know about this section of the land? Well, you can’t ask the men about it, it’s not their land. If you want to ask the women, then you’re going to have to work out who can ask it and what can be told in a way that can be viewed from people outside (and men).

Just because we want to know something from a specific culture does not give us the right to demand it and getting this across to students is, I think, one of the most important steps in establishing a mutual respect between cultures and a way of avoiding misunderstandings in the future. It’s easy to start jumping up and down in that tiresome Western manner about this kind of information management but I think we can be pretty sure that the majority of the indigenous population of Australia would have quite a lot to say about having to conform to our cultural norms, so we should think pretty carefully before we start placing our rule sets over their knowledge.

Uncle Lewis O’Brien, Elder of the Kaurna people, noted once that it was common to welcome newcomers to your land, to show them around so that they could see how good the land was and how much care was being taken of it, but it was always done in the understanding that, one day, the visitor would go home. As he noted, wryly, perhaps his people should have been clearer on that last bit with the original white settlers. But we were here now.

Cultural issues are important to the people in that culture and working out how we can marry these requirements allows us to demonstrate our maturity as people and our level of comfort with our own beliefs. If, one day, somebody shows me something so amazing and truthful that I start believing in a new belief system or an entirely new way of living, then I hope that I would be able to cope with it and make sense of it. In New Zealand, Maori medical researchers are working through the cultural taboo of handling the dead in order to meet the educational requirements of working with tissue samples. If we can work with closing shops on Saturday or Sunday for Synagogue or Church (as we did for centuries), then we can have some thinking about incorporating the living beliefs of other cultures without dying of shock or making racist statements about ‘backwards cultures’. You go and thrive in the middle of Australia for a while and tell me how much knowledge it required to avoid dying of thirst on the third day.

I’m always worried when we start rejecting other cultures because monocultures are not strong, they’re weak. By definition, they are static and immutable – the rock, not the water. They’re prone to a single attack vector and, if they fail, they fail on the massive scale. I’m not talking just about our unnatural dependency on one banana or one wheat, I’m talking about real disasters that have occurred because of a lack of resistance to animal-borne diseases. The current thinking is that both North America and Australia were far more heavily populated than the original European explorers thought, but that earlier contact had introduced devastating levels of disease that almost wiped out the populations – making the subsequent colonisation and seizure of land easier. These were accidental resistance monocultures, caused by geographical isolation. Now we are connected and we have no excuse for this.

What my students have to understand is that the world of three hundred years ago was not the world of two hundred or one hundred years ago. Empires rise and fall. Cultures come and go. Today’s leader is tomorrow’s footnote. Learning how to work with other cultures and how to reduce the dependency on a single strand may be what changes the way that our history unfolds. I’m not naive enough to believe that we’re at the end of history (the end of conflict) but I think that we’re sufficiently well connected and well informed that we can tell our students that not everything different is wrong and scary, and that not everything familiar is right and just.

I wonder what they’ll be saying about us, in 2112?

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