"Elements of Culture"

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The Essential Elements of Culture

Joel Dubois, (c) 2014—for free, fully cited distribution only

I(b). Two Views of History

The study of culture necessarily involves the study of history. Even observers who are only interested in contemporary culture are interested in the life histories of the people who right now are creating and participating in culture. But most observers of culture also end up broadening their research to consider the history of those who created the culture we are inheriting in this historical moment.

Traditionally, however, history has been closely associated with static, instructional methods of learning that focus on transfering facts from teacher to student. In this view, history involves primarily archiving and disseminating facts via libraries, databases and courses; this is what I refer to below as the archival view of history. But the team-based learning format of the course, and its emphasis on preparing investigative consultants for the real-life situations, evokes a different approach to learning that has traditionally been associated with entrepreneurs and explorers. In this way of thinking, which I will refer to below as the extractive view, history is valuable to the extent that people can extract something of value from it, which often involves making a profit. One of the older forms of this view is mining, which uses knowledge of geological history to extract valuable ores. More recently and visibly, understanding the history and properties of such materials has been combined with the study of physical forces and the power of numerical analysis to create the immensely successful and profitable digital medium that has absorbed many earlier media of communication.

The archival and extractive views of history value different thing, and both have certain advantages. The archival view values the knowledge of those who learn and teach the details of history, especially but not only in academic institutions. This knowledge is valued as an independent good, which grants status and a limited degree of power, but also a sense of inward satisfaction: students who enjoy the study of history often say, "Oh, now I really understand _____ in a deeper way." This view of history and the value of studying it underlies the requests of dedicated students to hear their professors lecture in depth about intriguing topics. Professors who lecture less often hear from these students that "you're the expert and I'm paying to hear all the things you know about;" if made to study on their own versus taking notes on lectures, such students sometime feel irritated that "I had to teach myself the material."

The extractive view of history, on the other hand, values the profit gained from the study of history, as in the mining and technology examples mentioned above. In this view, substantial power can be gained from such successful enterprises, though success is generally more difficult, and many fail; satisfaction is gain from success not only from making a profit but from genuinely helping others with the goods and services provided. While students often appreciate this view of history, many are perplexed to find it in less clearly vocational programs of the university. Students in humanities related fields may even find themselves irritated at the idea of studying history primarily to put it to some profitable use. In the context of this class, the dedicated, lecture loving students mentioned in the previous paragraph may find the application of culture to real world situations interesting, but such a student sometimes feels irritated that (s)he, who are most interested in the learning copious details of history, is not really getting what they signed up for: a review of the historically archived details learned by the professor. Many of the pedagogical innovations with which teachers experiment in today's university's implicitly value the extractive view of history, though they seldom explicitly articulate that view; and most of these approaches meet with similar resistance.

Historically, the separation between archival and extractive views of history, perpetuated by different types of human activity, seems to have evolved in order to distinguish the often competing interests of the two views. The archivists in academic settings need time and space to reflect deeply on the importance of history, apart from any concern about its application or value. Business entrepreneurs, designers and even community organizers need to focus on the efficient production of goods and/or delivery of services, which must necessarily be financially viable to continue. Over time, however, the hard and fast conceptual split between the archival and extractive views of history, supported by the discrete types of activities and work cultures of on-campus and off-campus life —the mentality of the library vs. the mine—has become increasingly dysfunctional. Academics, speakers and writers regularly complain about business leaders, managers and politicians, and vice versa, but they rarely engage in meaningful dialogue.

How can the two views of history outlined above, and the activities that perpetuate them, be integrated in a healthier way? That is the essential question that many thoughtful people on both sides of the divide are wrestling with today. As documented by Paul Hawken in the video summary of his book Blessed Unrest, thousands of organizations and communities are attempting such integration in highly innovative ways. In most American cities, the communities that sponsor "living history" events suggest yet other integrative approaches, which both values knowledge of historical details AND their application in ways that profit people and communities.

Surely initiating deeper conversations between the two communities of practice that perpetuate the archival and extractive views of history is an essential ingredient in spreading such innovation. These conversations begin with providing spaces for them, whether in the classroom, workshop space, company meeting room or legislative assembly. Then one must set an intention for the discussion. The remainder of this essay is one academic thinker's attempt to offer a way of speaking about culture that can further support such conversation and the cultural innovations to which it leads.

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