Cultural Genesis Friday morning lectures remain a challenge. Thursday nights I toss and turn. Again and again, I consider new approaches to issues I want my classes to understand. Will my methods work? Are there gaps of reason that might leave new ideas unconnected? Peace finally comes to me when I reconcile myself to accepting that, even if my attempt fails, I’ll learn why it did.
In that sense, my students are critical to the process of education---theirs and mine. On Friday, I wanted to convey the origins of culture(s) and how the development of their component parts serve as microcosmic insights into the design and spread of civilizations. The big challenge was for my students to understand all of that in four minutes. And in that short time, they would be asked to teach themselves.
To do that, I separated them into two groups. Each group was set in a different room. Both groups received the same instructions: they could not use pencils or paper. Nor could they use words!
In four minutes, each group had to find a way to organize themselves to defend against invasion by either an unfriendly group (or tribe) or a savage animal. Also, they were asked to assign role models for each gender.
Twice I checked on each group. The second time, I let them know they only had two minutes remaining.
When they returned to my class, both groups reported that they had developed a method of communicating. Both were similar; one group had one of its members go to the outside of their cave. When that member attempted to enter, he or she was blocked.
The other group also instructed one member to act as an invader. When that person approached the group, he or she was kicked and attacked, driven away.
“Who thought of this?” I asked each group.
A man from each team raised his hand.
“Good,” I said. “Without saying it, you showed your group that leadership was important.”
It seemed that both men beamed. They appeared to like being leaders. I compared
their leadership roles to those of shamans, the visionaries of the first human tribal groups who were able to communicate with or translate the intentions and designs of the spirit world.
Shamans also shaped the personality of the group. Whether peaceful or menacing, the leaders set the standard for the group to follow.
That seemed to make sense; my hope was that they wanted to learn more. To facilitate that, I showed them a 1988 video, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, a Mystic Fire documentary prepared for PBS. (That video was the third of five tapes in the series.)
As Campbell explained myths from different groups and societies around the world, he illustrated how all of them sought to comprehend and connect with the unknown,
the spiritual shadow of the concrete world. Although each culture was different, each had the same goal.
When I explained that every culture is learned and that each one is ethnocentric (certain that it knows its approach is best), they were quietly assimilating Campbell’s message.
Indeed, they had felt what it was like to take part in the rudiments of cultural creation. Next week, they’ll learn how to differentiate cultures as they grow from societies and nations into civilizations.
B. Koplen 2/10/13
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