teaching culture

Fri, 11 Feb 1994 01:32:34 EDT

I owe this to someone who unfortunately does not subscribe to
this list (Hey! Foss can insert these little personal asides and
everyone thinks it's quaint!)

Is a definition of culture important? Well how do yu feel about
standing up in front of a class of undergraduates who have paid
good money and among whom there might be a few who are actually
interested in learning what you have to teach (even at 8:00 AM),
and give them a definition of what anthropology is about that
maybe you don't even believe in? Say you toss out Tylor's
definition. They all dutifully write it down. So far so good.
Then you proceed to teach all kinds of stuff including research
by people who may dissagree with the definition of "culture" what
anthropology is supposed to be about. The students are supposed
to be linking all this stuff up into some coherent whole,
including what you teach about economics or kinship to this
definition of culture.

So you teach them about reciprocity, so you teach them about
reciprocity and kinship, or differential reciprocity, or you
teach them about reciprocity and power, or differential
reciprocity, etc... etc... what does it mean?

To Seeker1 some questions:

1. Explain how memes are created.
2. Explain how memes are not "beliefs" in the sense of being
discrete bits of "knowledge" that do not change.
3. Explain how memes are not "functional bits of knowledge" as
in they exist because they fulfill some function.
4. Explain how memes are created and perpetuated, and in the
explanation incoprporate a definition of "meme" that is subject
to change and explain how they can change.

As far as I can see all this stuff fits in well with the
revelation argument, it gets in people's heads without them
having to do anything.

Well back to teaching. In the interest of subversion I teach my
undergraduates (as an adjunct at a community college, mind you
for 136.50 every so often when they pay me) that culture is the
predictions we hold in common of others people's behavior. This
allows me, for example to tell them about my first experience in
Papua New Guinea when I got off the plane and was able to
recognize the fact that I was in a diffeent place because the
people there acted "diferently" as in ways that I did not expect.
In addition it allows me to explain how I learned some aspects of
their culture (Southern Highlands) as a result of learning what
to expect them to do.

I do not teach them that culture is "beliefs" or "meanings" as in
discrete units of "knowledge" that do not have any way of
changing and for which I do not good explanations of creation.
Oh such serious subversion.

Furthermore I do not teach them that culture is artifacts. I do
not teach them that culture is cars. How can a car be "culture".
Maybe after its been buried 1000 years and someone digs it up.
But how can you explain what people did with cars or how they
made cars without resorting to predictions about what they did
with the cars? predictions about how they made the cars? please
try, really.

Well back to teaching. Furthermore, I can teach one of the basic
questions of language which is whether language is the result of
how the mind works, i.e. how we think, or if language determines
how we think, i.e. how we see the world, what we attend to. I
can use metaphors we live by and then I can use Hardman's
linguistic postulate. I can do this because I can incorporate it
into which determines what we predict, does language determine
what we perceive, what we attend to and thus what we acquire as
predictable behavior, or does the way we process information from
our senses determine what we can use language to discuss in
common, i.e. physical experience. Then I can incorporate a
discussion of the current debate on multiculturalism and "PC"
stuff based on the distinction of whether the language we use
determines what we think or does what we think, how we think,
determine the language we use, which is the root of the debate.
I can then tie this back to culture as predictions of how people
behave and where these predictions come from, language or

So why all the too doo about a definition of culture? Maybe
people who don't like such debates don't have to teach undergrads
what anthropology is supposed to be about. Maybe they're not
concerned with whether what we are supposed to be studying is
more than What We (as individual anthropologists) Think It Is.
Maybe they feel no need to justify their experience, what they
teach about other anthropologists experiences and what importance
it has for understanding human beings to undergrads in a way that
is meaningful and comprehensible to them. Maybe they feel that
since they have jobs thay have no need of evaluating what
anthropology is supposed to be explaining and why someone,
anyone, anywhere, should invest in anthropogical studies. Or
maybe if anthropology can be considered a science as in a
discipline that can be pursued that provides information useful
to someone, anyone, anywhere. Or is anthropogy...

On the naked body of American higher education,
Anthropology is the emaculately manicured toenail, the expertly
trimmed nosehair, the undetectable surgically repaired cleft
palete, the nose job, the tummy tuck, the breast implant.
Anthropology is the Japanese bonzai garden in the wheatfield of
American Higher Education's corporate farm. Anthropology is
American higher education's way of saying, "we care."

Thus there is at least one person out there corrupting young
minds, teaching impressionable undergrads (very cheaply mind you)
that culture is not simply something known but something but
something that people come to know through their interaction with
other people, but that that knowing of culture follows a pattern
dictated by the way our minds work in conjunction with what they

vance geiger