We Need to Talk About Western Culture

This is what got me thinking seriously about the need for education within the arts of western society:

I was attending a workshop for adult educators. One of the facilitators was an indigenous Australian. Another participant, whom I knew socially from here and there, put up her hand and addressed the indigenous facilitator. She said:

“As an indigenous woman, you have thousands of years of culture to draw from in your teaching. As a western woman, I am bereft of culture. I have been displaced and dislocated from my culture, and feel a huge sense of emptiness because of this.”

I was shocked to hear this. The speaker was an attractive woman in her mid-fifties, with long red hair. I had seen her playing both guitar and flute at various events around town. I knew her to be an outspoken community leader, educated in psychology, a confident public speaker and excellent educator. No-one, including myself, commented on her comment. However, it got me thinking.

Western culture, as I understand it, includes five thousand years of scholarship and creativity. Why then would a woman, the recipient of the best of western learning, feel “bereft of culture”? What inspired her to express envy towards a woman of a cultural background that included displacement, not to mention outright cultural oppression, in it’s recent past?

I started talking to people, floating the idea of starting a website with direct links to education in the western canon. These are some of the responses I got:

“What western culture?”

“Oh, yes. Western culture. What a disaster.”

“Why learn about white people?”

It began to dawn on me that although I had studied visual arts for four years in the late ninties, at a major university, in a major city, in a developed country, I could not tell you anything about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the origins of the Italian Renaissance, or in what year the Romans had withdrawn from England (the country of my most recent genetic heritage).

Trawling through my old university reading list, there was not a single reading from a publication dated more than twenty years previously. In fact, we had been expressly informed that anything written before the advent of 1960-70’s feminism was “located in patriarchal and colonialist assumptions and subjugated by hegemonic concepts”. Therefore, no longer relevant.

I began to feel I had identified a gap. Definitely in my own learning, but perhaps in that of my similarly dis-educated peers.

So began a journey of discovery that has been the most fascinating, sustaining and meaningful process on which I have ever embarked. The path is well mapped and illustrated, guided the elders of my ancestral story, many of them geniuses. Along with knowlege I have claimed a sense of belonging, wholeness, and, perhaps, the beginnings of wisdom.

You are invited to participate.

Read:

Bloom, A. (1987). The Closing of the American Mind. Simon & Schuster.

Hughes, R. (1990). Caravaggio. In R. Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical (pp. 33-37). Harper Collins.

Paglia, C. (1992). The MIT Lecture: Crisis in the American Universities. In C. Paglia, Sex, Art and American Culture (pp. 249-298). Penguin.


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