Thursday, November 27, 2008


The study of human beings and their associations and accomplishments is truly a vast and many-faceted undertaking. After the great historian, Will Durant, and his graduate student, later wife, Ariel, had spent several decades writing eleven monumental volumes of The Story of Civilization, they wrote a 100-page conclusion they titled The Lessons of History. The introductory chapter of Lessons concludes, "Since a man is a moment in astronomic time; a transient guest of the earth; a spore of his species; a scion of his race; a composite of body, character, and mind; a member of a family and a community; a believer or doubter of a faith; a unit in an economy; perhaps a citizen in a state or a soldier in an army; we may ask under the corresponding headings--astronomy, geology, geography, biology, ethnology, psychology, morality, religion, economics, politics, and war--what history has to say about the nature, conduct, and prospects of man. It is a precarious enterprise; only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions. We proceed."

The mysterious concept "culture" tries to capture the essential characteristics of human groupings and their accomplishments. The definition of "culture" I like best is, "the interlocking network of language, beliefs, and practices of a group of people, and the child-rearing practices that perpetuate these."

There have been tens of thousands of identifiably different cultures on earth. There are today certainly several thousand. A few dozen are hidden away in the Amazon rain forests or jungles of New Guinea, isolated from and bewildered by the trails of jet airplanes they see crossing the sky high overhead and the loggers and poachers who infringe on the margins of their worlds. Many others interact with one another, and are even proprietors and custodians of the great machines and ideas and interconnections we think of as "the modern world."

But each of the thousands of cultures is unique--different from all the others--and generally considers itself the "best" or "only" way to live. "We are right and they are wrong" is an almost universal mantra. Eric Berne said that Western European-American culture is the only cultural grouping, of the hundreds he had studied, that holds "cultural relativism" as a core cultural value. In other words, ours is the only culture that believes, as one of its root values, that alien cultures have valid points of view.

Were you surprised to see "child-rearing practices" as part of that very short, tight (hence incomplete) definition of "culture" that I chose? And yet a group of people who cannot teach their children to teach their children to teach their children...their core language, beliefs, and practices, cannot endure--cannot pass the test of time--the test of making their own unique history.

So we come to the central problem: trying to uncover and refine our child-rearing practices.

It is obvious that adults are different from one another in many ways, including their emotional reactions. Confronted with a sudden and unusual event, one adult will feel frightened, another amused, another curious, another angry, and others will experience many other reactions. There are certain common elements to the biological startle reaction--focused attention, rising blood pressure and racing heart, etc. But it is axiomatic that a lot of learning--including early childhood learning--goes into modifying the reaction. Each culture--each set of child-rearing practices--sculpts the body's startle reactions toward different cultural expectations. Similarly, each sculpts every other biological process and reaction toward the cultural mold.

One further complication. As children grow, they change radically in their openness to learning certain things. A child, for example, who has not learned--because of social isolation, deafness, or other physical or emotional disability--to speak a native language by the age of five, will never be able to learn any language with fluency--native language, foreign language, sign language, or any other. A child's brain seems to awaken to learning sound groupings, symbols, and meanings and if the child is not stimulated to learn the crucial language steps at the crucial times in development, the child's brain can never be awakened to those possibilities and connections again. The same is true for various steps in manipulation of numbers, in music, and in many other sensory-motor skill sets.

Human cultures vary widely. But they all depend on teaching their children to become adults in the culture's mold. This is complicated by the fact that children's learning abilities come and go as they grow. How these variables interact is at the essence of who we are as individuals, and what we can become as a human species.