The Importance of Cultural Studies in the Education of Children*
Cultural Studies are not a set of disciplines to be learned in school. In the Montessori system of education there is a Cultural Curriculum, and each teacher, classroom, and school brings to that curriculum a unique passion. However, I do not see Cultural Studies as a set of disciplines or merely a curriculum. It is rather the way we study life, a pursuit which serves to occupy the minds and hearts of each person who has ever lived. I study the Universe because I am a molecule in its composition. I study the Earth because I am fed and nourished by its complexity. I study the Peoples of the World because I am a contributing member of that society. I study my own inner landscape so that I might find the peace that can only come from true self-awareness and acceptance. These are the core elements of Cultural Studies: studying the Universe, the Earth, the Peoples of the World, and Ourselves.Studying the Universe
From a Montessori perspective the study of geography begins with the concept of the Universe and from there compartmentalizes that everything
into smaller, more manageable pieces. We don't begin from our own points of view, our own kitchen tables as it were, looking out at the world as it specifically relates to us. We begin from the perspective that there is a Universe in which all life exists, and it is inhabited by some strange and wonderful things. Astronomy doesn't only teach us about galaxies, stars, planets and space, but also about the concepts of possibility, infinity and paradox. In light of the immensities we can barely comprehend, our significance as individuals on this one planet in this one galaxy paired with the knowledge we each possess of our own impact on the life around us becomes a paradox many struggle to come to terms with their entire lives. Studying the stars brings us into contact with how people through time have drawn pictures in the night sky to illustrate their own stories, making sense of the heavens, designing matrices of cause and effect, weaving fate and choice together, balancing birth dates, celestial and terrestrial influences.
Closer to home we examine our own Solar System, centered on our Sun, which we begin to see as our own universal back yard. The cyclical nature of life and death as shown to us by the seasonal changes we witness each solar year, the give and take of darkness and light ever present in our days and nights, how we track and mark these occurrences with calendars of all kinds, even our own shadows, teach us about the Sun and its paramount influence on our existence. The easiest planetary path to mark is that of the Moon, and although we see its appearance change each night the lunar cycle at times engenders more mystery than the solar. Studying the Moon's relationship to Earth connects us to the tides and the Moon's effect on the water in and around us, the ebbing and flowing, waxing and waning of the waters of life. Tracking the Sun and Moon explains our years and months, rather than the other way around, making the measurement of time seem far less arbitrary than it may otherwise. The longer we live the more opportunity there is to discover the patterns and puzzles of life and death, and to pace out the connections between them.
Physics and chemistry are not disciplines subjugated to schools of higher learning. We conduct experiments which facilitate discussions about gravity, magnetism, buoyancy, volume, weight, light, electricity, mass, density, alchemy, and the phases of matter. We practice good observational skills and precision in language. We are scientists in the making! The mathematical patterns evident in the Universe and the natural world within which we exist, like the five-pointed star inside an apple, the concentric circles in the cross-section of a tree, the hexagonal cells of a honeycomb, the spiralling pattern of chambers within a nautilus, are each hidden in plain view. These are the mysteries that pervade the Universe and the laws by which it is governed, and we must open ourselves up to them in order to understand our place here.Studying the Earth
Once we have a good sense of our place in the Universe we turn to our own planet among millions, Earth. We talk about the shape, size and composition of the planet, as well as positing its age, origin, purpose, and relative importance. It is quite wonderful to listen to children's thoughts on the idea of the birth of the Earth and the Universe. When we study the geography of the planet we first examine its topography, land and water formations, rather than focus on the geo-political lines drawn between countries. For all the people in the world who have grown up in a valley will share as much if not more in common with other valley dwellers across the globe than with the others living within their own country's boundary lines. We have seen in our lifetimes that these lines are not carved in stone, that a people is sometimes without a country at all, and we can predict the same experience for future generations. Being situated on an island, for example, connects the children here to other children who live on islands around the world in a deeply borne, sensory way. From this perspective we learn about ecosystems, landscapes and other climates.
Once this connection is forged then we begin to break the structure and inhabitants of the Earth into more manageable groups many have termed elements
that serve to categorize all living and non-living things. Most commonly these are known as earth, air, fire and water, as well as spirit. Broadly earth, water and air, can be seen to represent three of the phases of matter; solid, liquid and gas. Fire encompasses electricity, flame, heat, the iron core of the planet, and the awe-inspiring volcano, among others. Spirit is the element most often left out of the equation because we all seem reluctant to step on one another's spiritual toes these days, but billions of people who have inhabited this planet have honoured the spirit before us and our children will find their own paths as we have done before them. I see no reason to believe that the invisible world need be any less complex and fantastic then the visible one, for the creatures born out of the imagination of a child have the potential to be just as real and meaningful to them as those they are introduced to in the world.
Within this framework the Earth begins to take shape: the molten core wrapped tightly within the land's embrace itself blanketed by the seas and all of it enveloped by a bubble of air. And through it all flow the breath, blood and bone of life. The study of that life and its classification becomes the root of our work in geology, botany and zoology. We ride the molten seas on giant plates of rock which continue to grow and change as they slowly collide, giving birth to mountains and stretching seas. Studying stone puts us into contact with the concepts of foundation, age, patience, force and beauty. We see the footprints left behind by the ancestors of life today, in fossils, chalk, jet, amber, and petrified wood. Studying botanical life teaches us about diversity, interdependence, transformation and interconnectedness. Located as we are in a natural environment, we have unique access to the species we study. Children have the opportunity to help in the gardens, planting seeds and bulbs, weeding and watering, tending young sprouts, witnessing the full year's cycle of life from emergence to decomposition. There is no substitution for the lessons they will learn with their hands in the soil and their senses engaged. Studying animal life helps to put our being human into context when we classify vertebrates and invertebrates, mammals to molluscs, families and offspring. This is a good place for an introduction to the differences between male and female behaviour, function and appearance in the animal kingdom. We learn the lessons of adaptability, symbiosis, birth, and metamorphosis, all of which illustrate the magic that is potential.
People through time have named this planet and given it a gender. They have worshiped and feared it, stood in awe of its unique majesty, been humbled and proud. If we are to raise a generation who will rise up and care for their inheritance we must encourage in them a set of values which grow from a deep and abiding respect for all that nourishes them. We must practice ecologically sound habits, modeling a willingness and aspiration to make changes in our daily lives for the health and betterment of the planet. This is a legacy to be left to the next generation; to admit our mistakes and take steps to rectify them as swiftly and passionately as possible. Sharing the lessons of preservation and protection, responsibility and coexistence, choice and sacrifice, together we commit to care about the planet that sustains us all.Studying People
Once we have established the many things we share in common we can begin to explore what makes us different, unique and dynamic Peoples of the World. We can start with physiology because by and large we're all built according to the same blueprint. Eating lunch together opens the conversation about the body's various systems and functions, breathing and digestion, the brain and nervous system, bones and muscles, and all of our many varied internal pathways. The foods we eat nourish us in different ways, and we learn about fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals, in order to fuel our body's energy and to maintain and improve our strength and health. We introduce ethnic dishes to the children at lunch on occasion when celebrating a particular festival or exploring a culture, and at our Potluck suppers sprinkled throughout the year. Likewise, including recipes from various ethnicities in your family's meals will broaden your children's culinary experiences and educate their palettes.
People are special not only because of how we are put together but what we can accomplish with our hearts, bodies and minds. When we set out to study a people (in anthropology) or a civilization (in history) it can seem overwhelming, but we can take it a piece at a time. An easy place to begin is clothing or costume because children can quickly spot the differences between the way they dress and the way children from another place or time dress(ed). Fashion, style and colour are all aspects of the study of textiles, literally wearable art, and children are connected to it all via their own practice of skills such as embroidery, beading, block printing, painting cloth, dyeing, weaving, braiding, sewing on buttons and other needlework. Many times ethnic costume ties in with celebration and festival, bringing together the community as we demonstrate group participation, ceremony, and introduce the concepts of honour and that which is sacred or set apart. These ceremonies may be happy or sad, age- or accomplishment-related, or mark particular times of the year, and incorporate traditional elements, such as processions, games and dances.
This is an ideal time to learn new words in other languages. Children absorb the languages to which they are exposed when they are young and can easily make this vocabulary a part of their understanding. The eloquence and imagery in poetry, story and song train the child's mind to embellish and refine the language it uses and understands, transforming and deepening that child's expectations of expression not only from his/herself but from others as well. We read hundreds of stories over the course of a year at school, folktales from countries circling the globe, modelling the values, ideals, thoughts and dreams of peoples from all walks of life. Many cultures teach using stories where the story itself expresses the lessons to be learned, like a tapestry made of many threads creating a picture of the whole. Stories exemplify traditions and lead the listeners and readers on a journey or quest as they follow the path the story carves out. Some stories are expressed musically and music itself is so often the heart's blood of a people, their language a rhythmic composition of sound. Singing and dancing, playing instruments, listening to World music, learning the folksongs of their ancestry, all forge the links in the chains connecting children to their extended families.
The symbols with which families, countries, religions, schools and businesses associate themselves teach us something important about their chosen values. Flags, totems, logos, shields and emblems unite and divide us, expressing ourselves to our neighbours, identifying each group as set apart, even sacred to its members. The arts go hand in hand with feats of engineering, invention, construction, and the tools with which monuments are built and sculpture is fashioned. We not only depend upon the land for sustenance of the body, but our environment helps to shape our mind and spirit and how each manifests itself in the world. The materials available to one group will infuse all aspects of life and, coupled with the elements of necessity and desire, be formed, shaped and manipulated to suit any given people's dynamics. Artistic creation, media, style, dimension, and the skill which develops over time and is passed on to subsequent generations, represent a unique worldview to those who share them and an intriguing set of puzzles to those outside their tradition to whom they will always remain, at least in part, mysterious. In our program we touch and explore all these things and more, infusing each day with the colours, designs, creations, and passions of the many varied members of our global village.Studying Ourselves
If we are to begin our Cultural Studies with everything then we must end with self. It is not enough to study the Peoples of the World, not even if they are our own. We must continue the journey to the core of our own existence which for each individual is unique, precious, and the centre of the universe. How do we see the world? We use all of our usual senses which although they do of course include gustatory, auditory, visual, tactile and olfactory perceptions must also be understood to include our thoughts, dreams, imaginations, emotions and spirits. We are multifaceted, multilayered beings with intuition, instinct, and inspiration. We are capable of great empathy to be profoundly encouraged in young children as they grow to comprehend their place in our global community, by giving to those in need, practicing self-sacrifice, generosity, hospitality, and offering comfort and sympathy to others. Involving our school's community, from children to parents to teachers, in fundraising, gift-giving, and other similar outpourings serves to knit us more closely together.
Children have the need, as we all do, to question not only what they can see but what they cannot. Some of the most fascinating conversations I've had with children have sprung up around these intangible gardens of the nature of immortality, choice, memory, will, evolution, growth, ideals, drive, purpose and many more. We discuss dreams of all kinds, including visions and journeys, even nightmares, as well as lucidity (the ability to affect dreams), repetition, reflection, interpretation, messages and lessons to be gleaned. This is a self-directed process of discernment and consideration, along the path of self-awareness and true self-knowledge. When asking ourselves about the origin of our inspirations and influences, considering legacy and personal development, thinking about our own heroes, we learn to see ourselves not only as having a place in this moment but also in the history of time. Exploring our emotional awareness by refining our perceptions develops patience and improves our listening and conflict resolution skills while teaching us about our own reactions.
Imagination, so often the sense at best taken for granted, at worst dismissed as false perception, is the cornerstone of creativity, invention, visionary work, independence and autonomy. Coaches have been using visualization techniques for years, which is the practice of seeing in the mind's eye that which you desire to manifest in the physical world, but they are the latest in a long line of teachers to recognize the power inherent in the holistic connection between imagination, determination and will. True leaders, those who envision change, engage in original thinking, and possess the inner assurance to support them in the face of adversarial opposition, have the capability of altering not only the course of their own lives, but affecting every life with which they come into contact simply by being themselves.
Each of the little people-in-the-making who come to us here embodies this potential and we have the privilege of helping them on their way as they seek to realize and actualize all that they can become. How many of us still question our purpose in this life and wonder about the impact we're making? Children ask these same questions of themselves, and we would be doing them a disservice not to facilitate their internal processes as they develop in consciousness. We do this more often by listening and allowing a child space and time for reflection and silence, than by explaining. We often choose to answer questions with questions rather than to pretend we know the answers that may never be found and are different for each questioner. It is the seeking that matters, the journey itself that enlightens us, not the achievement. Leading us to Peace
As if all of these benefits were not enough, Cultural Studies lead us so far past the old idea of tolerance as to render the word obsolete. Tolerance is a veneer barely managing to conceal the unease and discomfort beneath. It was an important step to encourage people to tolerate those things with which they disagreed in an attempt to bring about peaceful coexistence; however we must continue to evolve ourselves beyond this initial phase. With understanding comes acceptance, and from these values respect is born. When we respect one another conflict resolution becomes a relatively simple matter. Where there is a willingness to come to terms, to compromise, to practice receptivity, wisdom, and grace, there will be peace. Hoping for peace to settle in will not bring it about: we must be pro-active in our peace-seeking. When we allow this pursuit to fill us to the very core of our beings, the quest itself has the power to transform us into the very emissaries we seek.*Originally written for the newsletter at the Montessori/Pre-school where I teach, referring to our program for children aged 2.5 - 6 years.