Thursday, December 27, 2007

Generational Change, Cultural Gatekeepers and Loss of the Past

In my last post I talked about the need for an Australian TV channel as a way of giving us better access to our own history and culture.

I know that in talking about some of these issues I sound like a broken record. For that reason, I though that I should set out elements of the simple analytical framework that underlies some of my commentary.

Three to four generations is about the maximum period that the past exists in living memory.

On Dad's side, my grandfather and grandmother were born in working class England in the middle of the industrial revolution. On mum's side, my grandfather was born in Sydney at a time of depression that followed the 1880s building boom, grandmother into a free-selector farming family that had come to Rocky River in New England during the gold rushes. My daughters live in the middle class world of Sydney's Eastern Suburbs.

This simple family history spans some 150 years marked by major change. There is obviously a huge gap between working class Wigan in Victorian England and life in Sydney today, yet my daughters retain some living access to it simply because it is still in my living memory from family stories. This will cease once I die.

Outside this living memory, a society has to rely on other mechanisms to preserve its culture and access to its past. If we look at a traditional Aboriginal community, for example, there was a complex process for maintaining and passing on the knowledge and traditions of the group starting with the education of the young.

This is equally true in Australia today, although the transmission mechanisms are different. When I look at my daughters, for example, their knowledge of Australia's history and culture comes a little from their family, more so from school, more still from exposure to the various forms of media.

All societies change. This was true of Aboriginal Australia and is again equally true today. The pace and pattern of change varies. Sometimes change is imposed from outside, at other times it occurs through evolution.

This change process creates tensions. Central to this is the need to maintain social cohesion.

The dominant groups in the society seek to maintain control in the face of change, to preserve the values that they believe to be right and self-evident. Socrates was convicted of corrupting the young at a time when Athens was struggling to recover from its loss in the Peloponnesian War.

The term "cultural gatekeepers" has come to be applied to those who today control (or try to control) access to a society's culture and past.

Defined in this way, the term is quite broad. It includes those who determine what our young will be taught at school and university. It includes the managers and guardians of major cultural institutions - museums, art galleries etc. It includes the writers and historians who present our culture and past. And the various forms of media.

Defined in this way, the cultural gatekeepers are clearly not a homogeneous lot. Further, the gatekeeping processes themselves are varied and complex, informal as often as formal. Yet in all this, and has always been the case, the gatekeepers maintain control through a process of censorship and coercion.

This may sound extreme. After all, don't we live in a modern pluralist society? Perhaps a few examples to illustrate.

Take the school system. You can teach what you like so long as what you say and how you do it complies with centrally imposed curricula and with an extended set of regulations and controls. Yes, within this there is some degree of flexibility for individual teachers or schools, but the system is still highly controlled.

Take a more obscure example, the availability of Australian history. There is no formal control as to what is written and published, yet real availability is highly selective.

The process starts in school and at university. The history that my daughters studied was determined by a set curriculum. This influences the way they think, the topics that interest them.

Then, when they get to university and should they study history, they have to select from a menu of existing offerings taught by teachers whose own views generally reflect the dominant view at the time they studied. And, I might add, the availability of texts.

The availability of texts is determined by immediate past interests of historians in the area in question modified by, controlled by, what publishers think will sell. And so it goes on.

This post is not a complaint about the current state of Australia.

As a social commentator, I am interested in the processes of social change and control. However, at a personal level I am also affected by and respond to those processes. So the observer and observed are intermingled, affecting the questions I ask and the way I respond to them.

Following from this, the reason that I talk so much about the 1970s as a tip decade is both professional and personal. At a professional level, I am interested in the way in which one apparently dominant paradigm was replaced by another. At a personal level, I am affected because in some ways I lost out in the change.

I do not want to discuss this at any length because this is meant to be a methodological post. But put very simply, I am concerned that the effect is that my daughters and I have been cut off in some ways from Australia's culture and past. Worse, they do not even know that they have been cut off.

Now in all this, I am not saying that my daughters should become clones of their father. Far from it. I just want them to have access so that they can select or reject.

One of the interesting things in the culture change process is the way in which one set of gate-keepers is replaced by another. While the gate-keepers themselves seem dominant at a point, their survival and influence depends upon their role in the maintenance of society.

Just as the tip decade of the 1970s saw the replacement of one set of gate-keepers by another, now the new set are under challenge. This explains the venom of the so-called culture wars.

To some degree at least, the culture wars are a fight between the old and the old. While this war goes on, a new but still very uncertain paradigm appears to be emerging. Both sides struggle with this, attempting to push it into their models. Both have, to my mind, failed.

This has become a very long post. In a later post I will try to articulate, however imperfectly, what I see as the issues.


Travel Italy said...

I understand your concern. The US has been moving in this direction since the late 70s. Kids do not know what the fifty states are much less who Alexander Hamilton was.

How can we appreciate who we are if we do not know the battles our parents fought.

I am frustrated...

Jim Belshaw said...

It's very difficult, David. I cannot comment on the US position, although I found your comment interesting in that it points to some of the same issues.

Speaking personally rather than professionally, one of the problems is the nature of adjustment to change. Here I noted your post re change in Italy.

I do not want the past rammed down people's throats. I do want people to have access to it.

Coming back to View Italy, no one can stop change. What one can do, however, is to try to present and promote the best, the core, even when this seems out of kilter with the times.

I hope that this does not seem too random a comment. As I think that you know, View Italy has always been one of my blogging inspirations because of the way you have tried to capture and present the core essence of Italy.

I bear this in mind when I write. Sometimes, like you, I get very frustrated. I really want to rail against what I see as crap. But better, I think, if I can make people think, if I can educate.

Enough. I will come back to you with comments on your VI post.