Introducing AN Forum: Commentary From Around the Globe

AN ForumAntiquityNOW is launching AN Forum, a new platform that encourages global conversation about the importance of cultural preservation and the enduring influence of the ancient past on our modern lives.  Periodically, we will post articles, commentaries and other posts from the web’s trove of opinion and reporting that spark our curiosity, enlighten our understanding and strike our fancy. Please feel free to share your own original writings or articles you come across of particular interest on topics exploring our cultural legacies from around the world.

John DalyToday’s Author: John Daly is recently retired after 50 years of a development career in more than 35 countries. He currently serves as a volunteer editor of Zunia, an online site for knowledge exchange and networking among development practitioners, where he manages its section on Monitoring and Evaluation of development projects and programs. Daly previously was Vice President of Friends for UNESCO. He served as the acting Work Program Director of infoDev and as a consultant to the Development Gateway group at the World Bank, which included work on the Millennium Science Project in Uganda. He worked for two decades for the U.S. Agency for International Development, including serving as Director of its Office of Research. He has taught at the University of California (various schools), Universidad Santa Maria (Valparaiso, Chile), Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso, Universidad del Valle (Colombia), the University of Maryland and George Washington University. This blog appeared on his website and also includes some comments he made in correspondence with AntiquityNOW.

*The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of AntiquityNOW.

Children and Cultural Heritage: “Start From Where You Are”

AN:  What would you think would be the main points to tell children about the importance of cultural heritage?

I would want children to recognize that they should be selective about the parts of their cultural heritage to preserve, the parts to reject and the parts to try to improve upon.  I think all cultures include elements that their children would be better off abandoning. Culture is what makes us who we are. The key is intelligent choice. And I think that the choice is best made by the members of the culture themselves.

Bob Textor, an anthropologist, used to talk about tempocentrism — the tendency to look at culture from a perspective of our own time. The values that children will share when they are adults are probably different than those of the adults in their communities now. That is as it should be. One hopes that those children, looking back from the future, will be pleased with the changes that they have made.

“Start from where you are.” That is a rule for nation building, and I think it a good one more generally. (Arthur Ashe added, “Use what you have, do what you can”)

All humans share an important heritage from our pre-human ancestors — that we are a social species with culture. We have language, use tools, cook our food. It is a heritage that got our distant ancestors through a bottleneck in which only a few thousand humans survived. That is a critical cultural heritage that we all share.

Heritage comes in many forms, shared through time and built over millennia. Children should appreciate our technological heritage. Perhaps foremost is our heritage of agriculture, and that is a world heritage. Crops were domesticated all over the world: wheat in the Middle East, potatoes, corn and beans in the Americas, rice in Asia. Our clothing derives from the people who first had the idea that the fibers attached to cotton seed could be spun into fiber and the fiber woven into cloth, and the cloth made into garments; we owe a similar cultural debt to the folks who thought to cut the woolen coat from sheep and use it to make clothing, those who harvested cocoons to make silk and the people who taught us to make artificial fibers. People all over the world developed houses, getting us out of caves and many cultures have contributed to modern building technology.

Children should appreciate our institutional cultural heritage. Where would we be without money and markets? Government helps us to organize our societies which have grown so big, and people all over the world have contributed ideas on how to make government serve people better and more efficiently.

The great religions of the world are another cultural heritage, not least because they all share the heritage of teaching the golden rule — to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) honors Yosemite, Yellowstone and other places as World Heritage sites. The appreciation that these places should be maintained in their natural state is another cultural heritage that we should share with younger generations so that they too will value these places and conserve them for posterity. I am proud to say that this appreciation is a cultural gift that the United States made by creating the first national park in the 19th century, a gift that has been widely shared as other countries have created their own national parks.

Notice that I have come to the arts late in this post, but of course children should celebrate the heritage in music, painting, sculpture and drama. As travel and communications have become more global, and as we share the arts via movies, radio and television — and now the Internet — each of us draws from a more diverse and global heritage in the arts.

I think we should also emphasize our heritage in knowledge systems. Schools are a wonderful invention, and more and more of the world is coming to enjoy schooling. The modern university combining education, research and service is a cultural heritage worthy of note. I think science — the scientific method, peer review, professional societies — is particularly vital. Today we find that scientific knowledge not only grows rapidly, but is ever more rapidly mobilized to inform the development of new technology.

Children should appreciate their cultural heritage of play, and in the grown-up form, sport. Hundreds of millions of people followed the World Cup of football this year (soccer to us Yanks); the Olympics games in 2016 should also draw the interest of people around the world, as well as teams from many countries.

However, our global heritage is not all good. It includes slavery, violence and organized crime. Mankind has indulged in conflict during its entire history, and world wars have killed tens of millions of people in the last century alone. New weapons of mass destruction make the threat of war ever more terrible.

I mentioned UNESCO earlier. I have been interested in UNESCO for many years. Its World Heritage program has now recognized more than one thousand ancient archaeological and ecological sites. While I think it appropriate to recognize such sites so that they can be better protected and so that more people will appreciate what they represent, it seems to me that we should be careful that we honor only that heritage of which we are justly proud. The pyramids of Egypt, for example, were built to provide men who believed they were gods a path to a heavenly afterlife. Thousands of poor people labored for great lengths of time to build these monuments to superstition. If we are to declare sites as world heritage which can be understood in such dysfunctional ways, then we should be explicit in honoring the artistic and engineering enterprise that led to their construction, and in teaching children about the less desirable heritage that they also represent.

Perhaps the most important lesson for children is that they should choose the best elements of their cultural heritage to build a legacy for future generations, while consciously eliminating dysfunctional cultural heritage. I am especially impressed by the way that the Japanese and Germans have explicitly tried to discard aspects of their heritage that led to World War II and to atrocities during that war, while emphasizing the beneficial aspects of their rich cultural heritage. Think of the Japanese who after World War II rejected their aggressive military past, embraced democracy and maintained aspects of their culture from kabuki to sumo wrestling.

Ultimately, I believe that it is best that people within a culture make such choices themselves. All too often others have sought to impose their own cultural choices, and all too often that has resulted in oppression of the weak by the strong while failing to instill beneficial cultural elements and casting off injurious ones.

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