Some thoughts on culture

Photo by Craig Kao

Pat Yarker

Project evaluator-researcher

In the course of a career-long inquiry, writer and critic Raymond Williams called the key-word ‘culture’: “… one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language…” (Williams, 1976, p. 87)  

According to Williams, three major groups of meanings cluster around the word in the modern period:

  • a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development;
  • a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period of history, a group or humanity in general;
  • and the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity.

 

At the root of our word ‘culture’ Williams finds the Latin colere.  Among its meanings are: ‘to cultivate’, ‘to inhabit’, ‘to protect’ and ‘to honour with worship’.  From the early C16th, the primary sense of culture as “husbandry, the tending of natural growth” (Williams op. cit., p. 87) extended to a process of human development, human tending, and so to a general social process.

For Williams, “the complex of senses indicates a complex argument” (ibid. p. 91). He notes how ‘culture’ references both material production and signifying or symbolic systems.  He also points out its associations with class-distinction, the way uses can involve claims to superior knowledge, and the related attempt to distinguish between ‘high’ and ‘low’ or ‘popular’ culture.

Yet in 1958 at the outset of his work investigating this most complex of words, Williams made a simple claim. “Culture,” he wrote, “is ordinary: that is where we must start… That is the first fact.” (Williams, R. in Higgins, J., 2001, p. 11)  By ‘ordinary’ he meant that culture is the work of all those in a human community, a whole way of life with its “most ordinary common meanings” as well as “the finest individual meanings” and “the special processes of discovery and creative effort” (op. cit., p. 11).  Furthermore, Williams insisted on the significance of both senses of the word, and on the significance of their conjunction.

Land, arts, language, communities, schools

The ‘Culture of the Countryside’ Project has been working to explore some of the meanings and implications inherent in the words “culture” and “countryside” through an engagement with schools and communities in the rural settings of East Anglia.  Engagement with the rural would seem to accord with some of the earliest meanings of ‘culture’, though the effects of agri-business and of historical changes in land-ownership are among those social processes which have re-constructed the work of farming, cultivation and the tending of natural growth, along with all the other manifestations of ‘culture’.  The Project has also enabled school-students to work with artists, glancing at Williams’ reference to culture as meaning also “the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity”.  An understanding that “culture is ordinary” has helped the Project begin to gather something as common (and extraordinary) as language, for example in relation to specific kinds of countryside labour, or to the topography of particular locations.  Finally, the physical landscape which human activity has rendered into ‘countryside’ has its own story to tell, whose uncovering opens up a perspective of geological time.

The Project’s work with communities has looked to discover, recognise, inquire into and celebrate activities through which and in which people maintain or extend cultural practices and/or expressions characteristic of this region.  The Project’s endeavour is not to compile a complete or exhaustive record of such practices or expressions, nor to offer a ‘definitive’ account of what ‘the culture of the countryside’ might be for our region.  We hope to open a window onto the material reality of cultural processes, practices and activities current in our region at this time, and to contribute to a fuller understanding of them.

In schools the Project’s work has the potential to support those creative activities in which teachers and students are already engaged.  By turning the classroom into a place physically to encounter artefacts from another culture, and then into a studio in which to engage in artistic practice, the Project can support educational outcomes which are also, in the words of the distinguished UEA-based educator John Elliott, “personal creations, grounded in the personal interests and concerns of pupils” (Elliott 1998, p. 113).  Doing this work students make new meanings and revise prior understandings about what ‘culture’ might mean and what it might actually be like to live in another culture.

The Project’s work with school-students is also compatible with those approaches to education which eschew determinist beliefs about ‘ability’.  The language of ‘ability’ permeates contemporary schools, and students are routinely accorded ‘ability’-labels.  But there are other ways of conceptualising students, notably that pioneered by the ‘Learning Without Limits’ team at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge 

(visit: http://learningwithoutlimits.educ.cam.ac.uk/ )  The Project’s work can assist in removing barriers to learning and in raising educational aspiration.  

Further consideration of some of the issues outlined here, together with references to related research, can be found through the links given below.

 

References

Elliott, J. (1998)  
The Curriculum Experiment: meeting the challenge of social change and the concerns of pupils.  
Buckingham: The Open University Press.

Higgins, J. (Ed.).  (2001)
The Raymond Williams Reader.  
Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Limited.

Williams, R. (1976)  
Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society.  
London: Fontana.