|Prospects - Quarterly Review of Education, Vol. 25, No. 4, 1995 (Issue 96) - Education and Culture (UNESCO, 1995, 264 p.)|
|OPEN FILE: EDUCATION AND CULTURE|
G.R. (Bob) Teasdale (Australia)
Staff member of the School of Education at Flinders University, Adelaide, South Australia, for the past twenty-five years. His teaching and research interests are in the fields of international, comparative, indigenous and cross-cultural education. He has worked extensively in the South Pacific region.
During this final decade of the twentieth century we are witnessing a profoundly significant movement in many regions of the world. I refer here to the re-affirmation of indigenous knowledge, wisdom and learning. Initially the movement has had a cautious and rather tentative quality, rather like a hermit crab re-emerging from its borrowed shell after a period of prolonged threat. It is growing steadily stronger, however, as indigenous groups acknowledge with greater confidence the significance of their own traditional ways of viewing the world. The papers in this special issue of Prospects provide examples of the movement from a variety of indigenous cultures in Africa, Asia, Oceania and South America, and explore some of the implications for education. Readers who wish to review examples from North America may wish to refer to a recent special issue of the Peabody journal of education (Lipka & Stairs, 1994) on the theme of indigenous schooling.
What exactly do we mean when referring to 'indigenous knowledge, wisdom and learning'? There are three elements: content, process and context. Thus, if we take a particular cultural group, we can identify:
1. The actual knowledge and wisdom that gives meaning and purpose to the life of the group, and to the lives of the individuals within it. Although this body of public and private knowledge may share content in common with that of other groups, it does have unique features that help to define the group's identity.
2. The processes whereby that knowledge and wisdom are analyzed and stored, and by which they are transmitted from generation to generation.
3. The actual settings or contexts in which knowledge and wisdom are analysed, stored and transmitted.
The papers focus predominantly on indigenous rather than transposed cultures, for it is here that the movement has been strongest. The word 'indigenous' is used to refer to the first people to occupy a particular land or territory, and to their descendants who continue to inhabit the land and to identify closely with it as their particular place in the world. In some cases, as Sheila Aikman points out in relation to the Amazonian Indian people, the ties to the land have a deeply intimate and spiritual quality that play a major role in defining the cultural identity of the group.
Prior to the European colonization of the past five centuries, most indigenous peoples existed in relative isolation. Their systems of knowledge, and their processes of knowledge analysis and transmission, were generally stable and coherent. The arrival of the Europeans in most parts of the world, however, had far reaching consequences, for they brought with them their own languages, religious beliefs and political systems. They were certain of the superiority of their own knowledge and wisdom, and in most cases imposed it unquestioningly on those they conquered. Hence, they introduced systems of education that were based exclusively on their own processes of knowledge, analysis and transmission. Indigenous knowledge and learning were suppressed, often in quite deliberate and systematic ways. As a consequence, many indigenous groups were marginalized. Peter Gale, for example, notes that the situation of indigenous Australians has been one of exclusion from education, especially at the tertiary level. Michael Mel speaks of the annihilation of many cultures in Papua New Guinea as a consequence of the colonizers' failure to accept and understand local systems.
Belief in the superiority of the modern scientific world-view has been especially strong and pervasive. Its emphasis on certainty, objectivity, predictability and instrumental rationality has dominated the education systems introduced by the Europeans. As Capra expresses it:
In the past three hundred years [...] we have been driven by the belief in the scientific method as the only valid approach to knowledge; the view of the universe as a mechanical system composed of elementary building blocks; [...] and the belief in unlimited material progress to be achieved through economic and technological growth (Capra, cited by Beare & Slaughter, 1993, p. 57).
While these modern ways of knowing and understanding have been of great importance to the development of the human race, they also have led the colonizers to assume an inherent intellectual ethnocentrisman intrinsic sense of the superiority of their own ideologies and value systemsthat has resulted in the denigration of indigenous knowledge and its processes of analysis and transmission. However many indigenous peoples now are becoming increasingly confident in their assertion of the validity of their own knowledge and wisdom. There are several interrelated reasons for this:
1. At an international level indigenous groups are gaining increasing support for their rights. The United Nations World Decade for Cultural Development (1988-1997) and the International Year of the World's Indigenous Peoples (1993), for example, have affirmed in significant ways the rights of indigenous groups to maintain and develop their own languages and cultures. As Peter Gale emphasizes, these are not rights based on the disadvantaged status of many indigenous minorities, but on a collective right, based on their status as first occupants of a territory, to autonomy, self-management and self-determination.
2. In addition to affirmation from without, there is also evidence of a new sense of cultural distinctiveness and autonomy emerging from within. Marshall Sahlins (1993, p. 1) has coined the term 'culturalism' to describe this new sense 'cultural self-consciousness' that is developing within many small indigenous societies. He considers it one of the most remarkable phenomena of the late twentieth century. While its manifestations in some parts of the world are overwhelmingly negative, leading to bitter wars and rivalries, in other countries it is finding creative expression in areas such as music, drama and art, and in a new sense of intellectual and spiritual freedom.
3. In some countries where indigenous peoples have been a small and dispossessed minority, we are now witnessing a newly emerging sense of national pride in the unique contributions they are making to the wider society. In Canada, Australia and New Zealand, for example, despite continuing expressions of racism in some settings, indigenous perspectives are increasingly being celebrated as an integral part of the national identity of each country.
4. Finally, there is evidence that the intellectual climate in some parts of the world is changing. Underlying theoretical shifts are facilitating the acceptability of indigenous cultures of knowledge and learning. In the humanities and social sciences, for example, post-modernism is challenging many deeply held assumptions, and undermining the certainties of the scientific approach to the study of humans and their societies. In the physical and natural sciences the changes are even more profound. Quantum mechanics and chaos theory have challenged the very core of scientific thinking. The universe now is being perceived as complex and unpredictable. The rational-empirical approach, with its certainty and objectivity, is no longer fully accepted by many scholars. In fact, there is a growing belief that long-term solutions to the environmental and social problems currently confronting the human race may well depend not on scientific rationalism but on the more holistic and spiritual world-views of indigenous peoples (Teasdale, 1994).
Although the impacts of the above changes in attitudes and theories have been uneven, they are beginning to create a climate of acceptance of alternative cultures of knowledge and wisdom in education, at least in some parts of the world. This is reflected in many of the papers in this issue. Zane Ma Rhea notes how major attempts are being made to bring older local and religious knowledge back into many of the regional universities of Thailand. In this way students are being encouraged to look at their nation's own store of knowledge and wisdom, while staff are seeking more culturally relevant teaching methodologies which recognize the importance of context-based learning. Unaisi Nabobo and Jennie Teasdale give an exciting account of a teacher education course in Fiji that draws on the content and processes of both indigenous Fijian and Fiji Indian cultures of knowledge. From an Indonesian perspective, Elias Kopong explores the implications of a new law that allows local people to develop a supplementary school curriculum for the purpose of enhancing their own particular cultural values, beliefs and practices.
It is of vital importance to note, however, that this re-affirmation of traditional systems of knowledge and wisdom is not a retreat into the past. It is not a process of putting traditional knowledge into a sterile glass case, as in a museum, and seeking to preserve it in a lifeless and artificial way. Rather, it is a dynamic process that reflects a search for cultural continuity amidst constant adaptation to the new. At times it becomes a process of appropriation, of improvisation, and of invention. It involves constant change, yet it retains the deep values of the culture, and ensures a strong sense of cultural identity.
Let me give an example. One of the contributors to this issue, Michael Mel, is currently completing a doctoral thesis. He is from the Mogei culture in the Melpa area of the western highlands of Papua New Guinea. As a child, he was strongly grounded in the knowledge and wisdom of his own people. In writing his thesis Mel is drawing on his own indigenous store of knowledge, fusing it with contemporary Western theories and insights. He sees himself working at the cutting edge of culture change where the two cultures of knowledgethe Western and the indigenousare in constant and creative interaction. His processes of knowledge analysis are especially interesting. The theoretical chapters of his thesis begin by telling a story that provides a context for an overview of key issues. The issues are not separately identified and dealt with sequentially. Instead he approaches his research question by 'walking around it' in ever decreasing circles. At various stages other stories are told to clarify and explain. His approach to knowledge therefore is holistic rather than compartmentalized. He makes use of the oral literature of his own people, as well as drawing extensively on Western literature and theories.
Essentially, Mel is engaged in a dynamic process involving the creation of new knowledge out of the interaction of the Western and the indigenous. Yet his work also reflects a constant search for cultural continuity and identity. We see the same processes at work quite vividly in Aboriginal Australia, especially in the areas of art and music. One particular music group, Yothu Yindi, from Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land, has received worldwide acclaim for its music. Led by Mandawuy Yunupingu, a university graduate and principal of the local Community Education Centre, the group is creating lyrics that are a vibrant blend of traditional Aboriginal and contemporary popular music. When one listens to the lyrics, one cannot separate out the Aboriginal and the popular. They are a fusion of the two a new creation a new form of music. Yet for the Aboriginal people the music has a deep continuity with the past, affirming their unique cultural identity.
Edna Tait's paper provides a fascinating account of how a large secondary school has been able to create new approaches to school management, curriculum development and classroom instruction from the fusion of Western (Pakeha) and indigenous (Maori) cultures of knowledge and learning in Aotearoa New Zealand. Kurt Seemann and Ron Talbot explore the interface between the holistic thought processes of Aboriginal people in the central desert of Australia, and the delivery of modern technical education. Their paper gives a remarkable example of the synthesis of these seemingly antithetical processes. Even in China, where the education system has been slow to respond to indigenous learning needs, there is now evidence of attempts to fuse local and national perspectives, as Keith Lewin shows in his account of the Yi people of Sichuan province.
What of the future? Clearly the re-affirmation of indigenous knowledge, wisdom and learning has developed considerable momentum. Several of the papers in this issue provide evidence that the movement is starting to lead to more holistic, interdisciplinary and even metaphysical approaches to knowledge analysis, and to modes of knowledge transmission that are more learner-directed, person-oriented and contextualized. However the movement can be further strengthened in at least two ways:
1. There needs to be continuing, careful description of indigenous systems of knowledge, wisdom and learning. Thoroughly researched ethnographic and sociolinguistic accounts like those of Sheila Aikman, Avinash Singh, Elias Kopong, Pat Pridmore, Konai Thaman and John Lowe provide an important data base for ongoing comparative analysis and synthesis. Hopefully the documentation and dissemination of accounts such as these will lead to a deeper understanding and acceptance of indigenous cultures of knowledge by non-indigenous educators. This is not easy to achieve. At least half of us who have contributed papers to this issue of Prospects are non-indigenous and, despite our best intentions to write in culturally sensitive ways, many of our perceptions and representations remain those of 'outsiders'.
2. There needs to be strong and continuing recognition of the rights of indigenous cultures to ownership and control of all aspects of the education of their people. At the Rarotonga seminar in 1992, for example, indigenous participants from Oceania recommended that they should have full control of education, including administrative and resource decisions, and that there should be an 'absolute guarantee that no veto be exercised by any other cultural groups' (Teasdale & Teasdale, 1992, p. 6). This also implies that indigenous scholars and educators must have the freedom to create their own modes of knowledge analysis and transmission out of the interaction between their own cultural traditions and those of the West. Such processes cannot be imposed by others. They only can be generated from within. The most useful role outsiders can play is to discard any belief they might hold in the superiority of their own knowledge and wisdom, and to affirm the validity of indigenous ways of thinking and knowing.
We hope the papers in this special issue of Prospects will inspire indigenous peoples in all parts of the world to continue affirming the importance of their own systems of knowledge, wisdom and learning, and to continue exploring the dynamic fusion of their systems with those of modern industrial and post-industrial societies. We hope, too, that non-indigenous educators will come to recognize the significance of indigenous perspectives for the survival of the human race, and begin to incorporate these perspectives into all aspects of the management and delivery of education in their societies. Several of the papers in this volume give clear examples of how this might be done. Nevertheless, as Angela Little points out in her conclusion, many questions still remain, and we therefore look forward to continuing description, analysis and discussion in this important area.
We express our warmest thanks to the fifteen invited contributors to this special issue of Prospects for their commitment and patience, and to the staff of UNESCO's International Bureau of Education for their support. We also acknowledge with gratitude the encouragement and inspiration of Jennie Teasdale, whose ideas have given us a clearer sense of direction.
Beare, H.; Slaughter, R. 1993. Education for the twenty-first century. London, Routledge.
Lipka, J.; Stairs, A., eds. 1994. Negotiating the culture of indigenous schools. Peabody journal of education (Nashville, TN), vol. 69, no. 2. (Special issue.)
Sahlins, M. 1993. Culture and modern history. Cited in: The University of the South Pacific bulletin (Suva), vol. 26, no. 6, p. 1-2.
Teasdale, G.R. 1994. Education and the survival of small cultures. In: Dubbeldam, L.F.B., ed. International yearbook of education, vol. XLIV, p. 197-224. Paris, UNESCO: IBE. [Also available in French.]
Teasdale, G.R.; Teasdale, J.I. 1992. Voices in a seashell: education, culture and identity. Suva, University of the South Pacific, Institute of Pacific Studies. (In association with UNESCO.)