Culture and education are so interconnected that a 2017 issue of the journal Paedagogica Historica described the relationship as being similar to that of "the chicken and the egg." Does culture come first, influencing education, or does education come first, shaping culture?
Disagreements about what culture and education even mean make the question hard to answer. However, we do know some things about how culture and education affect each other.
What Is Culture?
The word culture can refer to everything from bacterial cultures to being educated and knowledgeable. However, the most common definition of culture, and the one that tends to come up when discussing education, is the shared beliefs, values and practices of a group of people.
That may sound simple enough, but cultural anthropologists have argued about the meaning and nature of culture for a long time. In fact, anthropologists A.L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn once gathered 164 separate definitions of culture. While early anthropologists thought some cultures were more advanced than others and that they progressed from “primitive” to “civilized,” anthropologists today know that culture isn’t so simple.
The important thing to remember about culture is that our experiences help form our culture, and our culture goes on to shape our experiences. Culture affects what we’re familiar with, what we value, how we like to do things and more. Most people belong to more than one culture, and culture is not only shaped by ethnicity or what country you live in, but also religion, language, economic status, gender and much more.
What Is Education?
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, education is how societies pass on knowledge and values to the next generation. Unlike the learning people do on their own, the knowledge received through education has been gathered by past generations and represents the collective knowledge of society. Education prepares people for their place in society and can even transmit culture to a degree.
While education can take place in a school or university, it doesn’t have to. While a parent teaching basic skills like eating or cleaning oneself isn’t really education per se, that same parent teaching their child how to repair a car is a form of education, since it represents the passing on of accumulated knowledge. That’s also why societies without schools or designated teachers can still have education: a hunter or farmer passing on their knowledge to the next generation is educating the next generation.
How Education and Culture Connect
While no culture is better or worse for education, culture can affect how people learn and what knowledge they place value on. Learning and education are most effective when they connect with a person’s culture and seem relevant to their past experiences. In an essay published by the National Association for Bilingual Education, Judith Caballero of Northern Arizona University observes, “When students can make a connection to what they are learning at school, they will be more engaged in the lesson and will have a better comprehension on the concepts being taught.” In short, when education is relevant to someone’s culture, it’s more effective.
For education to connect to someone’s culture, it doesn’t necessarily need to be about that culture. However, it does need to make room for that culture to exist, to offer information that makes sense in the context of what a person already knows, and to value the cultural experiences of the person in question. When those things happen, people feel included in the culture of the classroom (or wherever education is happening) and can learn and connect new knowledge to what they already have. When they don’t, lessons are less likely to make sense, and there’s less incentive to learn in the first place, as they don’t feel included.
In a sense, education is about building shared culture in the present, regardless of what other cultures people are a part of. Education passes on the knowledge and values that are part of a culture, and good education can even help bridge the gap between past differences in cultures and allow people to come together in a new, shared understanding of the world and their place in it.
Cultural Stereotypes and Education
However, that doesn’t mean education is about erasing past cultural differences or assuming you understand what someone’s culture is. In the words of one Lakota teen describing her education: “A bunch of teachers here, they think they know what's wrong with us. But they don't know. If people want to help us, they have to see what we've been through, not from what their own experiences tell them.”
Assumptions about another person’s culture often lead to stereotypes: broad generalizations made about a group by people outside of it. Stereotypes — even positive ones — can make education more difficult when teachers assume they already know the experiences and culture of students. For education to be successful and shared culture to be built, it must recognize the experiences of people as individuals as well as members of a culture.