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FEATURE

Culture in a Cage

MARCH 12, 2013 by MIKE REID

 
Recently, three children from a little-known forest tribe in India approached a nearby village and asked to join their school. The teachers, however, were forbidden by law from admitting the kids. 
 
This is because the Indian government prohibits regular folk from interacting with those children, or any members of the Jarawa tribe of the Andaman Islands. The State regards those people as a “unique pristine society” who are “not physically, socially, and culturally prepared” to deal with the modern world. 
 
Therefore, Jarawa children who might like to learn writing or mathematics must be sent back into their designated area of the jungle—for their own good. 
 
This Indian policy represents one side of a two-headed cultural catastrophe now facing all humanity.
 
The problem in both cases is the government attempt to control our cultures—our children, our educations, our minds.
 
Around 40,000 years ago, humans developed what we might call full-blown “culture”—a system of learned behaviors covering all aspects of life. They had art, religion, language, and rapid technological change.  All over the world, our ancestors invented specialized artifacts for every environment: weapons, boats, needles, blades, hammers, awls, drills, and hooks. 
 
For all the millennia since, human beings in every society have been in a constant state of cultural flux. We are perpetually tinkering with our own inherited tools and techniques, and we are forever trying out new ideas from our neighbors.
 
The vast body of human knowledge we have thus built up is not the creation of any all-powerful overseer. Indeed, Friedrich Hayek demonstrated that the most important of our social inventions, like language and money, cannot be the results of any “human design” at all. Instead, “cultural evolution” is “a process in which the individual plays a part that he can never fully understand.”  
 

The Box of Traditions

 
Many people wrongly see each “culture”—be it Ukrainian or Chinese or Jarawa—as a box full of precious traditions, like a fragile set of fine china. You get the box from your parents and your job is to preserve your box just the way it is—without breaking anything—until you can pass it on to your kids. 
 
But in fact, tradition forms only one of two sides to culture. The other side is adaptation. 
 
Your culture helps you adapt to your natural, social, and technological environment. 
 
Culture is not a box of heirlooms to keep on the shelf. It’s a set of mental and social tools we use every day to answer even our most basic questions:
 
  • How do I get food?
  • How do I treat other people and their property?
  • How do I approach the divine?
  • How do I deal with my sexual urges? Who is responsible for the kids that result?
  • And how do I help my kids answer these questions for themselves?
 
Traditions are the tried and trusted answers to such questions. And traditions also provide an important force of social and psychological stability—they help you to make sense of who you are and how you relate to others.
 
But when the ancient ways don’t work anymore, or when new ideas appear to work better, we humans waste no time in adopting the new ones. 
 
Now, what happens if you try to force people to maintain their ancient traditions? Those Jarawa kids are forbidden to go to the schools, and everyone but approved government experts (like anthropologists) is forbidden to visit them. 
 
The Indian state is forcing those children to make do with their parents’ adaptations—forcing them not to learn to read or write or do math.
 
Through such a program, you can ensure that a whole generation will be incapable of keeping up with the adaptation of the rest of the species. You ensure that they will indeed not be “culturally prepared” for the challenges of the modern world. In short, you can ensure their poverty and marginalization. 
 
And of course, that will only provide the justification for another round of government intervention. I predict remedial-education programs for Jarawas by the year 2030.
 
When governments wield the power to decide whether or not you are “culturally prepared” to update your toolbox, they are not saving you from cultural annihilation. Instead, they are pushing you into cultural stagnation.
 

Bulldozing Cultures

 
Forcing kids to stay out of school is only one side of the global cultural catastrophe. The other side, the side that most of the world is presently stuck with, is in the habit of forcing kids into school. 
 
What happens if you use schools to force children to abandon their ancient traditions? What happens, in the extreme, if you dragoon them into those schools for the explicit purpose of annihilating their culture? 
 
Well, it turns out, you can undercut the social and psychological fabric of those children’s lives. And once again, you get mass poverty and marginalization.
 
Oh, and an epidemic of suicide.
 
In Canada from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, because the government believed the numerous aboriginal peoples under its new dominion were not “culturally prepared” to survive in the modern world, the State rounded up the aboriginal kids into compulsory, residential schools. Here, the children would be “civilized.”
 
While in school, these kids were treated to lessons on the holy glory of the British government and the sinful savagery of their own pagan parents. The 1896 standard curriculum mandated songs containing “the highest moral and patriotic maxims,” and the children learned, as one former pupil put it, that “if you stay Indian, you’ll end up in Hell.” 
 
The kids were also forbidden to speak their native tongues for all eight or ten months of the school year (even while on the playground or in the dormitories), so they sometimes returned home in the summer to discover they could no longer understand the words of their own elders. 
 
The resulting cultural dislocation, family disorder, and psychological trauma cannot be measured. 
 
But one part of the legacy of this attempt at massive social bulldozing is a grim empirical fact that has been studied again and again: sky-high aboriginal suicide rates.
 
Michael Chandler and Christopher Lalonde’s study in one Canadian province found that aboriginal youths killed themselves about four times as often as non-aboriginals the same age.  
 
 
More importantly, the researchers discovered that suicide rates varied enormously between aboriginal communities. 
 
Groups that had the least local autonomy in education, language, and government had the worst suicide rates—more than five times the Canadian average. These are the groups with 0 “cultural factors” on Chandler and Lalonde’s chart below, coming in at an average of 137.5 suicides per 100,000 youths.
 
 
In such communities, children had essentially no resources with which to learn the culture of their forefathers rather than the grayed-out version of Western culture being taught in the government schools.
 
Meanwhile, groups that had taken back more of their cultural autonomy from the feds—by fighting for self-governance, locally controlled schools, and native-language programs—had progressively fewer suicides. 
 
Indeed, on the extreme end (among those groups with 6 “cultural factors” on Chandler and Lalonde’s chart), there were no suicides at all.
 
When people were more able to make decisions about their own children’s access to tradition and adaptation, their children were more likely to develop the will to live. 
 

Are You “Culturally Prepared”?

 
These State programs of cultural control are not limited to dark-skinned peoples in exotic locales. 
 
Guided by Protestant Progressives in the nineteenth century, North American governments developed compulsory education in order to pull kids away from the church-run Catholic schools. They also largely succeeded in turning the wild hordes of swarthy ethnic immigrants flooding American shores into a continent full of homogenous pro-government jingoists.  (That’s how the Irish and the Ukrainians and the Italians all got mashed together into the “white America” that now worries about the next wave of immigrants.)
 
And the culture wars go on today. The mandate in public schools now seems to be that teachers must avoid any serious exploration of Western civilization, religion, and philosophy. Instead, they must focus on “social studies,” which amounts largely to cursory surveys of the funny hats worn by distant peoples and prolonged forays into the cold swamp of political correctness.
 
Those exotic peoples, by the way, have “fascinating traditions” (to be preserved), while Westerners have “cultural biases” (to be demolished).
 
But whether the Ministry of Culture has decided your traditions belong in a museum or a landfill, the key thing to remember is that the government experts know best. 
 
They are wise enough to make decisions for all about how our children should think and learn and adapt. They are wise enough to know that Jarawa children ought to stay in the jungle, wise enough to know that Inuit children should be dragged into residential schools, and wise enough to know that your children and mine should learn from cultural relativists instead of stoics or saints (or any other heroes of your heritage).

 

A Vision of Free Humanity

 
In the absence of massive State programs to push kids into or out of schools, cultures develop through a process of entrepreneurial discovery. 
 
First, an especially adventurous or desperate person tries something new and risky, like traveling to a neighboring village and asking to go to school with their kids. 
 
Then, other people sit back and watch (or jealously heckle) the entrepreneur, until it becomes clear whether or not he’s got something that works.
 
If he does, everybody jumps on the bandwagon. 
 
If not, everybody laughs at the idiot and warns the next group of kids against repeating his mistakes.
 
Through this simple process, we humans have been updating and preserving our cultures for 40,000 years—entirely without government cultural-intervention programs. Now, after 200 years of State-mandated cultural catastrophes, it’s time to regain our educational autonomy and return to our entrepreneurial roots.
 

ASSOCIATED ISSUE

May 2013

ABOUT

MIKE REID

Mike Reid teaches anthropology at the University of Winnipeg and is primus inter pares at Invisible Order, a libertarian publishing-solutions company. 

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