What is lost/gained as cultural identity evolves?

One of the questions I ask my students every year is “What is lost and/or gained as cultures evolve?” The idea behind the question is to get them thinking about how cultural identity is constantly in flux, first of all, and second of all how even though a culture may be considered ancient, that doesn’t make it irrelevant.

Every year they surprise me with the depth of their insight. We don’t give the youth of today enough credit for their ability to think critically when given the opportunity. Yes, the digital age is severely handicapping our kids’ ability to communicate effectively, but as one of my students points out “an evolving culture can’t lose their identity without gaining a new one” and that is exactly what our digital age does for our students. It is providing them an opportunity to form a new identity for their culture. I hope they take this seriously, so as an educator it is my job to help them see past the “Mily Cyrus twerking and wrecking ball” farce of an era we are living in and help them create a future they can actually believe in.

So the question is: how do we teach our students how to build a future to believe in?

This goes back to my original question. Teenagers today need to know that many things are lost in a culture as it evolves so they can choose to retain the valuable, ditch the unreasonable and procure the resources necessary to build a brighter future for us all.

The first topic we discuss is inevitably technology. As products of a digital age, the symbol 2/3 of almost all my classes choose to represent the “typical American teenager” is always a cellular device (of course I have to mention my students who think outside of the box and want to represent teenagers with a “rock” or other symbol—but they wouldn’t be teenagers if one or two of them didn’t want to deviate from the accepted norm, right?).  In an age of phones that apparently are “smarter” than we are—my students are quick to recognize that we gain new technologies every year; they are just as quick to say that this gains us knowledge—until I question them on this point: does access to information actually gain you knowledge? And then crickets. With some perception shift, they begin to understand that “as [our] culture begins to grow we tend to drift, and every day we seem to lose more knowledge, as new technology comes out.” My point is then proved with a handwritten response to this question: “we seem to worry less, but on the down side we become to releint on contraptions that could mounfunction, and makes us hopless, we loose are level of indepence.” I leave the misspelled words in the response as I think it helps drive the point home—there is no spell check, so has this student lost his ability to sound out even basic words like independence and malfunction? In his own analysis, as a society we would rather let machines do the work for us, so we begin to lose our ability to think for ourselves.

At this point, I hope that “Danger, Will Robinson!” is beginning to flash in front of them (not that any of them actually get this allusion, but one can dream).

Unfortunately, this is not enough for students to completely change their generation. And sadly, we continue to give our upcoming generation mixed messages. On the one hand, we want to encourage them to think critically and more importantly for themselves. On the other, we keep shoving digital media in their hands and in front of their faces we begin to lose sight of what is really important in education: the mind.

I want my students to succeed, but in a world where success is mis-defined and quite frankly unappreciated, what will it take to turn that bus around? 


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