Processes of study in the arts and humanities
Processes of study in the arts and humanities

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Processes of study in the arts and humanities

1.3.1 Cultural traditions

Just now I said quite confidently that you already know a lot about the subjects that make up the arts and humanities even if you have not studied them before. But how can I be so sure? What makes me certain is that, like everyone else, you were born into a human culture. As you were growing up within that culture you were hearing and seeing all the things the people around you were busy saying, doing and making. And you were learning to think and understand, do, say and make similar kinds of thing. You were probably taught some things directly: by your parents; by other adults and children; at school; and through radio and TV. As soon as you could read you also learned from comics and books. But no doubt you just ‘picked up’ a lot of these customs along the way, as a member of the culture alongside other people.

In the process of growing up you learned to make sense of the world around you, to organise and represent it to yourself in your mind. You learned to recognise similarities and differences between things and formed the ideas or concepts that enable us to think. Among these concepts are the sort we are particularly interested in here – ‘story’, ‘picture’, ‘song’, ‘the past’. Even before you could read, you were no doubt told stories and listened to them on the radio or on tape; you drew pictures and looked at them in books and on TV; you sang nursery rhymes and heard all kinds of music; and you learned to distinguish between ‘yesterday’ and ‘today’. Even if you were not taught directly about these things you experienced them all, over and over again. And when you compare your experiences with those of your friends, you probably find that you sang similar songs, heard similar stories and (if you are around the same age) watched the same TV programmes. That is because you grew up in the same culture.

But we do not only have similar experiences. The very ways in which we think, the meanings we make, the ways we speak, our values and beliefs, and what we do, have all ‘taken shape’ within our cultures.

What is a ‘culture’?

A culture is the collection of meanings, values, morals, ways of thinking, patterns of behaviour and speech, and ways of life, that a group of people share. And all modern cultures have histories – they are linked to the past. So, through our culture, what we have is shared experience and knowledge of certain customs or cultural traditions.

But this does not mean that we all end up like ‘clones’. You are, of course, recognisably yourself. You experience things in your own particular ways too. And we know that not everyone brought up in the same culture believes exactly the same things or behaves in identical ways. You are probably also a member of a thriving ‘sub-culture’, which shares a certain kind of (perhaps, religious or moral) belief that is different from the mainstream. In any case, I hardly need to emphasise this point since the idea that we are all individuals, responsible for ourselves and in charge of our own destinies, is one of the fundamental beliefs in our culture. For us, it is more difficult to get our heads round the idea that, in a sense, we are none of us truly individual – because inevitably we live in, and through, our shared culture. Indeed, that is why we can communicate with each other. Perhaps we are more similar than we like to think.

What all arts and humanities subjects aim to explore, then, are aspects of human cultures, past and present. In fact, in the West, many of our values can be traced as far back as Ancient Greece (and beyond), so it is more accurate to say that we explore certain cultural traditions. It is because those traditions have been passed on through our culture, and are still alive today, that we can hope to make some sense of the past and of ideas and art of the past. If the culture in which we were reared and live had no ‘links’ to that past at all, the traces that have come down to us (ideas, values, written texts, pictures, buildings, artefacts) would be alien to us. It would be almost impossible to understand them.

But, equally, our culture is constantly changing – perhaps particularly fast in this age of electronic revolution. As we have seen, the way we ‘slice it up’ into subject areas, in order to make sense of it, changes too. What we study are living traditions.


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