We learn much about a people when we live among those who are not like us. As a Native, not living on the reservation, most people with whom I interact daily are not like me, culturally and ethnically. As a young person, I didn’t get to interact with a lot of people outside my developmental sphere--with the exception of the kids at school. As an adult, I think I’ve made up for lost time. I live in an area of Kansas known for its cultural and ethnic mixes. Of the 26 counties that make up Southwest Kansas, the three population centers (densely-settled rural) and one frontier-rural are Minority-majority. In our region, we have about nine African, six Asian, 12 Latin American, and about three Caribbean countries represented. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some. It is a lovely mix of varying faith beliefs, foods, dress, music, folkways, and morés. I’ve made this area my home and celebrate it in my work as a researcher.
When we speak of culture, I feel sad when I ask my students to tell me about their cultures, individually. Many of my Anglo students say, “I don’t really have a culture”! So, I ask about their family traditions, foods, behaviors pertaining to their families, holiday, etc. Then a light comes on about their own cultures. What is culture, in the non-bacterial sense? We social scientists might say it’s our attitudes, our customs, and our belief systems. Humans acquire their cultures from the influences of place, time, socio-economic status, origins, and belief systems. Our cultures set us apart from one another in the fabric of humanity. Every human population has a culture. We transmit our cultures through artifacts, language, rituals, and through the creative arts. Let’s focus on the arts. Think of your favorite artist. Perhaps you have favorite artists across many disciplines: music (within or across genres), visual arts (within or across media), written word, and spoken word. I know I’ve omitted a medium, but you get the picture (no pun intended!).
What have you learned from observing, listening, performing or, perhaps, owning a work of art from a culture different than your own? Though I graduated high school 40 years ago, I continue to be influenced by my high school music teacher, Mr. Bauguess. Because of his talents as a teacher, I learned other languages, like Latin: by singing masses by Franz Schubert and Antonio Vivaldi; learned German by singing folk songs by Johann Sebastian Bach, and I learned French singing the music of Guillaume DuFay. Language became important to me. I am a collector of words. Learning those languages also sparked interests in me and my fellow students to learn more about the cultures of those composers who were touching our lives some 100-500 years later.
A perfect example of transmitting culture and chronicling history reaches back to medieval Spain, then called Castile-Leon. King Alfonso X ruled his kingdom by laying down laws and teaching morality through more than 420 songs/poems (written and commissioned by the King, himself) and corresponding works of art based on the teachings of the Virgin Mary. He used the fine arts to teach a largely illiterate kingdom how to behave “properly”. Fast forward to early 1800s to England, Scotland, and ultimately, Boston. Harvard professor Francis James Child collected his “English and Scottish Popular Ballads”, some of which were broadsides, a sort of news clipping of the day, to tell the stories of broken laws, love, betrayal, and current events. To this day, musicians and performers are still telling the stories collected by Child. We call them the “Child Ballads”. You’ve heard of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair”? Child called it the “Elfin Knight”. Do you remember Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole”? The rock band used the same name as it was collected by Child. We learn much about a culture from its music and other forms of art. Even more contemporarily, think of how music and other forms of art are used to express political views. We can learn a lot from the arts and culture of others. We may incorporate some of what we learn into what we transmit to our children and grandchildren.
I am working very hard to make sure our grandchildren know their ancestries. After all, they reflect the pluralistic society that demographers predict for the U.S. by 2040. My wish is that we keep teaching our cultures through the arts and other forms of creativity and intellect. I hope we keep learning from others who are not like us. The more we know about each other, the more the lines of difference and class fade.
Dr. Debra Bolton is Director for Intercultural Learning and
Academic Success / Multicultural Student Affairs at Kansas State University