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In his book Who Moved My Piano? Dr. Perry Marshall, a world renowned developmental psychologist, makes a profound claim. According to him, there is a major and interrelated link between culture and education. His research and study have found strong and reliable correlations between how a culture is organized and how that structure relates to educational achievement. These results support the contention that the quality of an educational system is heavily determined by the quality of the interactions people have with their cultural and educational systems. This is further buttressed by the fact that human beings are social animals and that people form close relationships with members of their group, particularly those within the immediate family.
How then did the interaction between culture and education come about? In the years after World War II, an increasing number of school systems in the United States implemented curricula based on the “American Dream.” This was epitomized in the hit television series “The Stepford Wives” and its spinoff” Beverly Hills Cop.” The idea of a perfect American dream was a widely held cultural belief during the post-war period. In this atmosphere, education became primarily related to a desire to attain success in a competitive America.
By the end of the war, as the educational system struggled with how to meet the needs of an increasingly demanding population, the social meaning of education came under threat. The “Beverly Hills Cop” series exposed the underclassed neighborhoods in Los Angeles to a more affluent world view. This depiction resonated with many American citizens who were angry at the perceived slights of their less fortunate colleagues in the workforce. It also highlighted the sense of disconnect that many Americans felt toward the cultural values of the time and the establishment of which they were no longer comfortable.
According to Richard Bandler, a psychologist and developmental researcher, “The danger of that mindset is that it can lead to resistance to change.” That “change” might be school reform or even a fundamental re-organization of our economy. When school reform is introduced, many parents are willing to take their kids off the waiting list for public school. They do this not only to get them out of the long lines, but also because they feel that they have done their part. In response, many white, upper-class parents in the Los Angeles Schools become hostile toward the African American students who have remained in the district. This hostility manifested itself in the kinds of attacks on the schools that we see today.
Throughout the history of the study of culture and learning, developmental psychology has made the point that, at least in the United States, there is a strong genetic component to how well we do in life. What this means is that if your parents behave badly and your home life is negative, you are likely to, as an adult, also act badly. This is a very important finding because one of the purposes of studying developmental psychology is understanding why people do what they do. If bad parenting was a cause of someone’s developmental disorder, then a cure for the disorder would be much easier to determine.
The first person to document this interaction between culture and intelligence was George Williams, who was an anthropologist at Yale University. He traveled extensively in both China and India, interviewing a number of children, and he described a disturbing culture in both countries. In rural China, he said, parents would beat children and keep them in squalid conditions just to teach them that they should be submissive. In urban China, Williams saw parents trying to emulate the practices of Western European parents. There, he said, “there is little or no violence against children, but the attitude is still one of obligation and control.”
Williams used the example of a retarded child in India, whom he had helped bring up. He said that the child had been removed from his mother at birth and spent much of his time in a baby stroller until he was three. Then, he was sent to another foster family, where his mother took him to be the primary caregiver for his sisters and he was only allowed to have contact with his father on his birthday.
The question, then, was what can be done about such an imbalance? Williams said that he was not trying to prescribe parenting as a science, but he did say that it is possible to provide instruction on how such a pattern can be reversed. He also said that one reason why many of us are inclined to think of parenting as science is the example of a child left to his or her own devices in a recent film “Wreck-It Ralph.” The child doesn’t seem to care what his parents do, but then, he does. Williams has coined a phrase that is now a part of popular culture: the “unseen parent.”
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