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Defining Culture?

Why do we need to define it at all? Because, if were going to talk about something, we need to know what we mean. However, almost every single body, group or organisation that concerns itself with culture seems to feel a need either to spend hours discussing what it means or, to save time, to adopt some broad and inclusive, politically correct definition that has already been concocted by some other (presumably wiser or more knowledgeable) group or organisation. We are working in a political environment! We have to be as inclusive as possible and to try to show that culture (whatever it is) is a good thing for everybody. We have to convince people that culture is important and should be promoted. In effect, we are trying to cultivate culture! The paradox is that, whilst we are trying to arrive at a definition of culture that is as inclusive as possible, the very act of defining something must, by definition, make it exclusive! Why not be concise? The Oxford Paperback Dictionary is admirable, giving three clear definitions of culture that are relevant in this context:1. the appreciation and understanding of literature, arts, music etc. 2. the customs and civilization of a particular people or group. 3. improvement by care and training. Blackies Compact Etymological Dictionary is even more precise:improvement, development, refinement; the result of this. We need to improve, develop and refine our definition of culture. First of all, I think we must accept that not all culture is good! Even in the field of literature, arts and music there is plenty to be found that is bad though one could argue that by encouraging the appreciation and understanding of it, one might hope, at least, to enable some people to be a little more discerning. Also, there are plenty of customs and civilisations of plenty of people and groups that are certainly not acceptable in our society. Not everything that has been improved, developed or refined is good or worthy of promotion (some criminals improve, develop and refine their skills in prison). Perhaps, unfortunately, culture is the wrong word. We know what we mean by it (or we think we do) but it means so many different things to so many different people. If we are going to define culture to decide what to include and what to exclude, to decide what is good or bad and to decide which aspects of culture are more or less worthy of our support then it will hardly be surprising when those who happen to disagree with us turn round and accuse us of unfair discrimination, cultural snobbery, bias and prejudice. I think we probably all want to enable and encourage everyone to have a better appreciation and understanding of literature, arts and music etc. Im pretty sure that most of us want to preserve and cherish at least some of our (good) customs and to live in a more civilised society. And it is a safe bet to suggest that we would all like to see everything that is worthwhile being improved, developed and refined. The question is: who decides what is worthwhile? And the answer must be We not just us but we society as a whole, people living, working and playing together. Thatcher was pretty stupid when she said there is no such thing as society because, if there is no society, there is no culture and there is no we! For example, I think the term multi-cultural society is a contradiction in terms. Culture defines society and, if we have a multiplicity of cultures, then we have a multiplicity of societies. We also talk frequently about youth culture but do we really want to segregate our young people and treat them as separate from the rest of society? Do we want to encourage them to see themselves as a different society? Shouldnt we be encouraging them to want to grow up? When I was young, I always wanted to be treated more as an adult!

Of course, there are countless different groups and communities within our society. Most people feel a need to identify with others of similar origins, backgrounds, beliefs, customs, interests, tastes etc. I wouldnt suggest that we must all integrate or that anyone should in any way forfeit their identity (thank God we are all different), but we are all part of a wider society it is called humanity and we must surely make our decisions and judgements on the basis of what we think or believe is best for everybody. So, I dont think culture is something that can (or should) be defined; nor is it a list of activities, hobbies, interests, pastimes or aspects of life-style; nor is it a wish-list of things that (we think) might improve our quality of life. I think culture is just a word, but it is a word that expresses our attitudes to everything it is all about the way that people think! If we think that white people or heterosexual men are superior, then we have a racist or sexist culture and, if enough people think that way, we become a racist or sexist society. It is only by improving, developing and refining our thinking and communicating this to others that any of us can do anything to change our culture for the benefit of humanity. If you look at it that way, it becomes immediately obvious that culture is, primarily, about education! If we want to improve, develop and refine our culture, we need to change peoples attitudes and to persuade them to think in a different way about their lives and how they interact with other people and the world around them. It is not a question of us deciding what is good, or right, or best, and then trying to persuade people to agree. It is a question of giving people information and experiences, encouraging them to learn and to think and enabling them (hopefully) to improve, develop and refine their own ideas about what is good, valuable and worthwhile in terms of the quality of not only their lives but the lives of everyone else in both the present and the future. Al Gore has it absolutely right! The only way that any of us can actually do anything meaningful to combat climate change and stop the insane and potentially catastrophic pollution of this planet is for us, first of all, to change our attitudes and then to use our powers of persuasion to change the attitudes of those around us. The only way that politicians will ever take any notice is if they realise that the voting public i.e. everyone else thinks that global warming is a serious problem. If they think that they will lose votes if they dont do something about it, then they will do something about it! And the best way to change attitudes is through education. I talked above about giving people information and experiences, encouraging them to learn and to think, enabling them to improve, develop and refine their own ideas surely this is exactly what education is (or should be) all about! Unfortunately, we seem to have forgotten this. Our education system is geared almost entirely towards testing and examinations; pushing children to jump through meaningless hoops, in order to gain meaningless qualifications, in order to gain access to the next tier of so-called education, in order to gain yet more qualifications with the ultimate aim of being able to get a better job. Yes, of course we should give our children the necessary knowledge and skills to enable them to lead fulfilling and productive adult lives but we can do this so much better if we can ignite their desire for knowledge and teach them to think for themselves. Admittedly this is difficult, especially when the media, television in particular, are doing all they can to reduce everyone to a state of total passivity apart from trying to persuade them to buy rubbish they dont need with money they havent got. Culture is all about education and education is all about culture and if we are going to do anything about improving, developing and refining our culture, the culture of the society in which we live, then we have to start by changing our attitudes to education. Xenophon Kelsey (May 2007)