Indigenous Knowledge – Forever the supplement and never the main event?

I wonder at what point the world went from being a thriving mosaic of local cultures to becoming divided into two main parts: a hegemonic Western (urban) culture on the one side, and the collection of indigenous cultures on the other.

Was it perhaps the industrial revolution that set the ‘modern’ man apart from the societies that still followed the ‘traditional’ ways of living, learning, and working?

I know I am part of the hegemonic Western culture, and even though I recognize the value of indigenous knowledge, I still struggle to see it as a true challenge to Western knowledge systems. There is no doubt in my mind that the human race would benefit from reconnecting with nature and the spirit, but will this idyllic view ever move out of the realms of myths and sagas and into the ‘real world’? Are we too far gone to ever ‘go back to our roots’ so to speak?

There is no doubt in my mind that the human race would benefit from reconnecting with nature and the spirit, but will this idyllic view ever move out of the realms of myths and sagas and into the ‘real world’?

These video clips show various ways in which indigenous knowledge and practices have proven valuable. we In Tanzania traditional healing methods supplements expensive Western medication.  In Uganda, applying modern technology (e.g. solar panels and walkie talkies) to traditional knowledge has help reduce maternal mortality. These examples illustrate how Western technology can improve communication and implementation of traditional practices.

I do not, however, identify in which ways traditional knowledge affects/improves Western knowledge systems. Is this new-found open-mindedness simply a new way of the West to ‘take pity on’ the non-Western societies? Are these modern-traditional collaborations just a romanticized façade covering up the continued influence of Western value systems?

Collier (2009) and Lambert (2009) both discuss how Māori practices (such as interpreting symbols in nature, and using chants in education) might contribute to the current curriculum in state schools. I wonder whether such additions would simply be perceived by students and teachers as a ‘fun fact’ section instead of a serious input to their education system.

Sámi national costume (Norway)
Sámi national costume (Norway)

Guttorm (2009) considers the perception of Sámi art in modern society, finding that we still are very much trapped in the notion that indigenous knowledge belongs to the past, and is difficult to integrate into the present. I grew up with Sámi TV shows and songs, and politically correct news anchors speaking Sámi (by law, a percentage of all broadcasting in Norway must be in Sámi). However— as we saw Sámi children dressed in traditional costumes living in Lavos (Sámi tee-pees), catching reindeer and communicating with the nature spirits— I never remember thinking that these were valid contribution to my own knowledge system. The Sámi culture remained a mystical tradition of the past (“back when man and nature lived in harmony”), and I never seriously considered any of this knowledge an actual contribution to my Western way of thinking. This was perhaps a result of the fact that all these glorious indigenous appreciation was supported and presented through the frameworks of Westerners…

Would we be as inattentive to the impact of pollution, over-fishing, oil spills, deforestation, and so on, if we had grown up with a stronger notion of a Mother Nature?

I would love for the world’s citizens to heighten their awareness of the connection between nature and man. In most indigenous traditions, Mother Nature is held in great esteem, and any violation against ‘her’ has direct impact on our way of life. Would we be as inattentive to the impact of pollution, over-fishing, oil spills, deforestation, and so on, if we had grown up with a stronger notion of a Mother Nature? Would we have allowed the destruction of the Earth get to this point, had we been raised in an indigenous knowledge system? What about human exploitation, racism, and gender violence?

Sweatshop workers
Sweatshop workers

From what I’ve read on indigenous cultures, there is a strong focus on each individual’s role in the world. We all have something to contribute; we are all connected to each other, like parts of a great machine. With this sort of reality conception, would we allow slave-like work conditions in the bottom floors of capitalist enterprises? Would we look away when we saw abuse and discrimination? Would it be as easy to turn our back to problems that did not directly concern ourselves?

Those are all aspects of indigenous knowledge I would like looking into, and that would be interesting to research. Despite my interest in indigenous knowledge, however, I still question whether we will ever see a genuine recognition of traditional practices outside of the status as ‘cultural add-on’…

References:

WINHEC. (2009). Selby, R. (Ed.) Indigenous voices Indigenous symbols. Sàmi University College. Norway.

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Does the spread of English necessarily lead to the displacement of local languages and cultural identities?

Many of the concerns related to the “take-over” of English language across the world, is related to the perceived negative impact this will have on local cultures and languages. I feel this panic is unconstructive — even harmful — to the preservation of local culture.

English will continue to spread, as will Western culture. Trying to stop it will only result in a failure to come up with real solutions: it will misdirect our efforts. We must find a way to combine the use of English with our local language. We must find a way to combine and appreciate the mixing of local culture and foreign influences (whether this be American influence in Africa, or maybe Arabic influence in Europe).

English will continue to spread, as will Western culture. Trying to stop it will only result in a failure to come up with real solutions: it will misdirect our efforts. We must find a way to combine the use of English with our local language.

Phillipson (1992) and Crystal (2003) often refer to Scandinavia when deliberating on the power of English in displacing local languages. This is true. We do see a lot more English in tertiary education in Scandinavia, especially as most textbooks, Internet sites, and research papers are written in English. I do want to underline, however, that primary and secondary school is entirely in the local language, as is any governmental institution.

The introduction on English does not mean the death of the local language. Bilingualism is a natural human capability, and while some people are worried about the increased use of English in Scandinavia, I remain positive. The Norwegian government, for example, have firm policies at hand to ensure the continued use of local Norwegians languages, while still enhancing English as a Second Language in schools. Every Norwegian citizen should speak Norwegian and English fluently. In fact, I hope we will see more trilingualism in the years to come, hopefully with emphasis on Arabic, French, Chinese or Spanish.

There should be no dialectic between English and the local language – instead there should be an embracing of bilingualism.

Crystal (2003) contends that the “need to a global language is particularly appreciated by the international academic and business communities” (p. 13), and this trend needs to continue. With one common language we can share more information. The issue to me is not the diffusion of English across the globe, but the acute necessity to ensure that all people learn English. I am excited about the prospects of a global language, and am not the least worried about the loss of local languages, AS LONG AS proper policies are in place to ensure the continued use of local languages.

There should be no dialectic between English and the local language – instead there should be an embracing of bilingualism. I see Norway as a good example, where every aspect of public life is in Norwegian, but the school places a heavy emphasis on English as a foreign language, so that every citizen is proficient by the time they graduate secondary school.

References:

Crystal, D. (2003). English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Crystal, D. (2003). English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

What we can learn by studying groups like the Uyghurs

I would argue that a lot of the people reading this post have grown up in relatively Western cultures. We have grown up with American movies and CNN news. We have attended schools where students sit by desks in square classrooms. Many of us think that majority rule (i.e. Western democracy) is a fair system – a system so fair, in fact, that it should be promoted in other parts of the world. The majority of us have completed a Western education, most likely taught in English. These are some features making up our culture.

We study minority cultures, we read about “exotic” life views and rituals. But why? What value does the study of unknown cultures hold, other than expand our cultural horizons; entertain us; make us reflect for a brief moment on our own view of reality? Will the study of groups like the Uyghurs (sometimes written with an ‘i’) ever lead to anything more than research papers circulated in a tiny group of academics?

Why do we read and write in English in graduate school? Because at some point in history, the English-speaking world won a “battle”.

We can say the same about studying Somali clan culture or Aboriginal knowledge systems. Yes, these are interesting facts and stories, but how (if ever) will they counteract the hegemonic influence of Western values?

Gardener Bovingdon (2004) notes that, “single-stranded narratives intentionally suppress evidence of historical alternatives [and that] they write competing narratives out of history” (p. 354). Why do we read and write in English in graduate school? Because at some point in history, the English-speaking world won a “battle”. The winners write history, as we all know, which is why we all understand terrorism as a bad thing. Suicide bombers, killing embassy workers in the Middle East are universally understood as “the enemy”, right? What, then, about the Western forces bombing Afghan villages, killing civilians, spreading fear, terrorizing the local population? How would the future history books read, if the villagers wrote them? The same can be said of the Uyghur civil/separatist movements. The US and UN agreed with China in 2002, in the labeling of such groups as terrorists.

History is not unbiased or true, yet the history books tend to portray them as such. It is easy to forget that, “official histories […] depend on tendentious interpretation of key terms and events” (Bovingdon, 2004, p. 356).

History is not unbiased or true, yet the history books tend to portray them as such.

The importance of studying unknown groups and narratives, then, is perhaps not to change policies or revolutionize systems. Rather, it is to continue reminding us that history is biased. The narrative of historic events that we learn in school; that we see in the news; that we read in books, are not true; they are a version of the truth. By studying the Uyghurs, we are not just learning about an alternative narrative of Chinese history, but we are also reminded that all history was once written by the “winners”. That, to me, is the most valuable argument in favor of the preservation and diffusion of indigenous cultures. I would never expect indigenous languages and cultures to challenge the current “ruling” systems, but I would expect them to function as reminders that there always are alternate perceptions of reality and history.

References:

Bovingdon, G. (2004). Contested Histories. In Starr, F. (2004). Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, pp. 353-374.

Colonial residues in education

The pros and cons of colonial legacy in Africa and Asia. Was education the significant factor in sending the “Asian Tigers” on their way, while most of the African colonies sunk into poverty?

Discussing former colonies, Hassana Alidou’s (2004) states, “Political independence does not necessarily lead to educational or economic independence” (p. 195). We can especially see how former colonial powers has continued its economic influence through The World Bank’s structural adjustment programs in the 1980s and on. As the Human Capital Theory (HCT) linked education with economic growth, controlling and influencing national school system became more important. Not surprisingly, Tan (1997) notes that, “the first signs of a major reorientation in education policy appeared in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War” (p. 303). This was when the field of development truly accelerated, and as soon as education was seen in connection with national growth and development, schools became battlefields for power struggles. Now, several good things can be said both for HCT and Western influence on education in the Global South. For one, it brought legitimacy and validity to expansion of national education…

However, I see the (post)colonial influence on education as bittersweet: one on hand increased availability and the establishment of secondary and tertiary educational institutions, but on the other decreased local autonomy and relevance.

With roots in the colonial system, the school system is often hierarchical and didactic, undermining the value of local languages and ways of life

In Palestine, for example, the restriction of access to education has been a way to control the population, both through limiting access to higher forms of education, and by threatening teachers and students. The Israeli policy on targeting education as a method of punishment was first seen during the second Intifada (Abu-Saad & Champagne, 2006).

In much of post-colonial Africa, Western influence has brought about the establishment of universities, and a massive expansion of public schooling. However, as Alidou (2004) points out, all these improvements have been built with European templates and languages. With roots in the colonial system, the school system is often hierarchical and didactic, undermining the value of local languages and ways of life.

Unlike Africa, a lot of Asian school systems opted for national languages of instruction and locally relevant textbooks. Indeed, we learn from Tan’s (1997) article that Hong Kong and Singapore both made efforts to localize the curriculum. Could this choice be the reason “The Asian Tigers” prospered, while large parts of Africa suffered from negative economic growth?

References:
Abu-Saad, I. & Champagne, D. (2006). Introduction: A historical context of Palestinian Arab education. American Behavioral Scientist, 49(9): pp. 1035-1051.

Alidou, H. (2004). Medium of instruction in post-colonial Africa. In J. W. Toellefson & A.B.M. Tsui, (Eds.), Medium of instruction policy: Which agenda? Whose agenda? NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum (pp. 195-214).

Tan, J. (1997). Education and colonial transition in Singapore and Hong Kong: Comparisons and contrasts. Comparative Education, 33(2), 303-312.