The concept of cultural transmission comes from the social sciences, where its simplest definition is that of transferring a society's cultural norms and knowledge from one generation to the next. Anthropologists have studied cultural transmission among groups of people for decades. Sociologists study how culture is infused in the group and psychologists study how it is internalized by the individual. Parents and family have initial responsibility for cultural transmission, but education theorists have applied the concept to the classroom where a teacher conveys a common body of knowledge and cultural norms to students, either formally or informally. Some critics such as E. D. Hirsh argue that a core knowledge base is being superceded by multiculturalism. Some educational theorists say that cultural transmission goes beyond conveying facts and the focus of education is to prepare its students to adapt to the constantly changing culture and its demands.
Keywords Culture; Cultural Anthropology; Cultural Literacy; Cultural Transmission; Multiculturalism; Psychology; Sociology; Transformative Education
The National Commission on Excellence in Education presented its report, "A Nation at Risk," to the American people in April 1983. The paper was alarming as it painted a picture of young Americans slipping in educational achievement and lagging behind their counterparts in other industrialized nations. Japan, with its very homogeneous culture, was targeted in particular as a competitor who threatened the United States' dominance in business and industry.
"A Nation at Risk" appeared at a time when the country had shifted into a conservative mode and was still trying to absorb the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s. It was primed for E. D. Hirsch's 1987 book, Cultural Literacy, which became a bestseller. Hirsch, a Professor at the University of Virginia, who saw a standard public school curriculum diluted by multiculturalism and irrelevant courses, argued that all American children should be taught common facts in order to be able to engage equitably in the culture (Hirsch, 1987).
Hirsch's critics view his arguments as simplistic or worse. Some vilified him as a racist and sexist as they thought that most of his core knowledge facts were drawn from Eurocentric white male culture. In 2002 he revised his book and also wrote the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy which was more inclusive.
There are many definitions for the word "culture," but a relevant one is offered by psychologist Jerome Bruner (1996) in his book, The Culture of Education. He says that it is the "… way of life and thought that we construct, negotiate, institutionalize, and finally … end up calling 'reality' to comfort ourselves" (Bruner, 1996, p. 87). But what does Bruner mean by "comfort?" Educator Mary Stone Hanley (2006) interprets it as an important word that means predictability and belonging. "We are comforted by connections to each other because of the strength and control that belonging brings … [We] construct patterns of beliefs and behaviors to control an uncontrollable reality, to make sense of and explain the turmoil of experience" (Hanley, 2006, p. 51-52).
Culture is critical for the survival of a society. How children are brought successfully into zones of comfort is dependent on what they learn and how they internalize it. Those who learn the culture are those who are prepared to function within it. Parents are the first teachers, steering a child through the maneuvers of the culture into adulthood, but the modern American family has stresses that have made this job more difficult. Both parents work in many families, many children grow up in single family homes, and extended families are less present than in the past, all of which work to the transfer of responsibility for cultural transmission to others - outside of the home.
Many public schools and teachers feel their extended responsibilities very acutely. Regardless, the public school and educators do have a major role in the transmission of the culture, but to what extent, what should be transmitted, and how, are debatable. As Hanley (2006) says, the valuation applied to certain knowledge and not to others is cultural. As educators and students teach and learn they are involved in constructing culture (Hanley, 2006, p. 51).
Authors Kohlberg and Mayer (1972) say that U.S. public schools in fact employed the cultural-transmission model of education through the twentieth century. Schools have seen their primary purpose as transmitting knowledge, skills and the social and moral rules of the culture (Kohlberg & Mayer, 1972, as cited in Leone & Drakeford, 1999).
In an article directed at social science educators, Rod Janzen (1995) suggests that they utilize new pedagogies to present a more effective and cohesive curriculum. He sees the cultural transmission approach so pervasive that although "… most social studies educators who publish articles and make presentations hesitate to commit themselves publicly to this position, one can find, when one looks behind the closed doors of social science classrooms, teachers adhering to this approach most of the time" (Janzen, 1995, p. 80).
Cultural transmission may be defined simply as "… the process of … passing on from one generation to another the knowledge necessary to maintain cultural identity" (Yoder, 1981, p. 217). An obvious, natural and very important process, it has been the subject of scholarly study and theorizing for many years. It is a concept that originated in the social sciences, has applications in psychology and sociology, and is the primary focus of cultural anthropology.
Research from Cultural Anthropology
Cultural anthropologists conduct their research as participant observers; i.e., they enter another culture and experience the difference between it and the culture from which they came. Their products are ethnographies which are written descriptions of a culture or unit of a culture. They are a description of life "viewed as much as possible from the perspective of the other culture … [a] detailed picture of what is happening in a specific instance of the curricular process" (Yoder, 1981, p. 221).
Yoder (1981) recommends that if teachers think of themselves as participant-observers and employ some of the techniques of cultural anthropologists, they can enhance the dynamics of their classroom. She also believes that the same techniques can also help educators decide what to teach. Curriculum content is transmitted consciously (formally) by educators, but there is a second "hidden curriculum" (informal). Together the content and behavior and cultural nuances complete a process through which a public institution prepares its new generation. Teachers, she says, "must know what it is they are teaching. Then they can better determine what they should be teaching, what its people need to know to be citizens of their world" (Yoder, 1981, p. 217).
An article by famed anthropologist, Margaret Mead (1974), originally written in 1940, foreshadowed Yoder's discussion. Entitled "Social Change and Cultural Surrogates," Mead believed that the process of cultural transmission and how a child recapitulates the culture is less important than the homogeneity of the adult culture. As an ethnographer, she saw that regardless of the diversity of cultures, Eskimo children and Hawaiian children inevitably emerged as complete Eskimo and Hawaiian adults. "A group of adults sharing a homogeneous culture [will] always succeed in imparting it to their children" (Mead, 1974, p. 350).
She points from anthropology to the social science of the individual - psychology - to understand the transmission of culture and how a child is socialized. "Superego formation," a term used by Sigmund Freud is, according to Mead, synonymous with cultural transmission. She says that "only as the child took unto itself its conception of the adult behavior as the right behavior did the child undergo socialization" (p. 351). Who then, she asks, serves as the "surrogates of the culture into which the child is being inducted" (p. 351)? Adult participants may include parents, grandparents, elder siblings, masked dancers - or teachers.
Which Culture to Transmit?
If the adults of the society are ultimately responsible for cultural transmission, how it is then that they come to consensus on what is to be taught? That is the key issue that goes back to the core knowledge philosophy of E. D. Hirsch and is counter argued by advocates for multiculturalism. Should the emphasis of education be on a student's primary or ethnic culture, should it celebrate and recognize the diverse cultures that envelop the child, or should it be on the tenets of the dominant culture? Some would argue that the No Child Left Behind Act brought some resolution to the question with its emphasis on standards and testing.
If the question of what is taught to transmit the culture is resolved, the succeeding question is how does it prepare the individual for the future, particularly if the society is constantly changing. When society is changing or expected to change, "educators must choose what to teach not only for a difficult present but also for an uncertain future" (Yoder, 1981, p. 218).
Margaret Mead recognized the challenge of transmitting culture in a changing society where the world of a child is already different from that in which the parent grew up. In that kind of world, because of the cultural dissonance, peers become surrogates which in adolescence, "often results in a crisis in parent-child relations" (Mead, 1974, p. 358). Although this stress is thought of as an inevitable part of the maturation process in American culture, Mead points out that in more stable cultures, as adolescents are given more and more responsibility, there is no period of rebellion.
Modern American culture, however, is not like the heterogeneous cultures that Margaret Mead studied. It is an amalgam and aspects of minority cultures are regularly...
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