What is Culture?


French Quarter, New Orleans

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question lately. I find it interesting that when you say culture,” you could be talking about art, or biology, or a process of enrichment. Joshua Rothman wrote an article in the New Yorker discussing this very issue when Merriam-Webster declared “culture” as their 2014 Word of the Year. There are so many definitions, and I don’t find any of them ultimately satisfying when discussing global education. The concept is loaded, fraught with contradiction, appropriation, and nuance. I guess this one from dictionary.com works pretty well for me: “the sum of attitutes, customs, and beliefs that distinguishes one group of people from another. Culture is transmitted through language, material objects, ritual, institutions, and art, from one generation to the next.” I like it because it covers aspects of the term that apply to many groups not necessarily thought of as cultures. Families have cultures, schools have cultures, geographic regions within a particular country have cultures, associations and sports teams have cultures; and ethnic groups and nations have cultures. How should we think about all these different cultures? How can we learn more about our own culture and increase understanding about other ones?

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Woman from the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation

Often in my work I am asked if global education can be done locally, and if so, in what way(s). See my recent blog post (link) for one discussion of this issue. Although I will never give up on my quest to help more young people experience life in a different country, I also understand that we can and must look for ways to learn from others in our own neighborhoods. I am impressed with schools that are making efforts to do this in meaningful ways. Students from Trinity School in New York spent time in New Orleans exploring attitudes and beliefs in that region (see blog post). Palmer Trinity School in Miami sent a group to the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation in South Dakota to learn about the people and the social institutions in that place.

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Apple packing line at Broetje Orchards, WA

This fall, Lakeside School in Seattle will send its entire eighth grade class in small groups to six different locations in the Pacific Northwest for a week to get to know the cultures represented in each. In addition to the Native American and Mexican American cultures they will encounter, the groups will learn about farming culture, fishing culture, and timber culture.They will explore global education through its local manifestations, broadening their minds and expanding their hearts as they learn about sustainable ways of living and working locally as part of a global economy. This project is a part of Lakeside’s extensive Global Service Learning program which I had the good fortune to help create. I love seeing the direction this Middle School portion has taken, including pre-trip curriculum and ties to the yearlong global issues eighth grade course. I am excited to see what they will learn about all the different cultures within our region and how they will tie                                                                                 that learning to their own cultures of family, friends, classes, teams,                                                                                and school when they return.