Friday, January 19, 2007

Our culture's relation to tradition

The American culture we live in today does not place a high value on tradition and the past. It is largely based upon a philosophy of the supremacy of individual experience and a frontier mentality, which incidentally, is an unspoken but assumed American convention. The ideology of edginess, of pushing the limits, and of innovation in everything pervades our lives. It affects the way we dress, the music we listen to, the way we think, what we eat, and the institutions we hold in esteem. Americans hold dearly to the principle of intellectual freedom: the freedom to ‘go against the grain.’
Tradition, however, gets the short end of the stick in this ideology. The so-called Establishment is disregarded, rather than being seen as a useful agent of socialization and education. Freedom to make one’s own choices is useless without knowledge, and it is in traditional knowledge that a foundation for discovery is built.
Recently, a friend of mine, a culinary student, complained that America is a second-rate place to learn the culinary arts; that America has a meager culinary history. I begged to differ- I argued that some of the most exciting flavors in the world come from the US, where traditions mingle and are filtered through new experiences and techniques, creating astonishing results. I told him it is innovation, based on variety, which makes American food special and unique. Even so, it is my belief that innovation rests upon tradition.
The same can be said of ideas. It is good that Americans value freedom and innovation, but without any background knowledge, there can be no real innovation. Traditional learning has much to offer, and one unfortunate consequence of rejecting tradition at large is that it has disadvantaged those people most in need of guidance. For instance, the public school system is constantly moving away from the kind of learning that fosters social advancement. Colleges and universities are looking more like trade schools all the time; a truly good education comes at a higher price than ever before. The irony is that as education has been made available to the masses, the standards have been lowered, so that the purpose of education is utilitarianism rather than enlightenment.
Another feature of modern civilization is the idea that it is natural to rebel against authority, especially in one’s youth. This is not a biologically predetermined behavior, but rather one that we are socially conditioned to by a prolonged childhood phase. People of a certain age are left in a grey area where responsibility and its lessons are delayed, and regimentation is neglected. People in adolescence yearn to be ‘grown-up’ but are completely unprepared for the realities of life, and are taught to “question everything” without even knowing what it is they are meant to question.
Our lack of respect for tradition and convention has left our culture in a similar grey area. In my twenties, I have made the surprising discoveries that a) my parents usually are right, b) most authority figures do deserve my respect and even a level of humble submission to better judgment, and c) an education truly has very little to do with obtaining a degree, although the two goals are pursued contemporaneously.

The Greek poet Hesiod wrote that “Mnemosyne (memory) is the mother of the Muses.” Rephrased, his statement is that inspiration is preceded by prior knowledge- memorizing, or learning, must come before one can begin to innovate.

1 comment:

Hell's Belle said...

oh yeah that's Hesiod.