From Knowing Culture to Being Culture


A experiential exploration to understand  the self, the context

and the process of formation of  one’s formation

A journey to explore the ‘heart of Indigenous being-ness

I just offered a very interesting course of two weeks to design students in their first-year foundation. To sound very official and serious, I called it CULTURE and COGNITION.  This is the 4th time I am offering this course and each time I was able to fine tune it and this year it really went off very well.

Just before the beginning of the course I changed the name to ‘ from Knowing culture to Being culture- an experiential exploration to understand culture as lived experience.’ Naturally, it meant discarding the frozen notions about the ‘Indian culture’ and explore one’s own growing up process, the context of one’s life and the factors that formed one’s ‘beingness’.

The twin objectives of the course were to enable 1. self-exploration, to understand the context and the conditions that were responsible for their formation and how they, knowing and unknowingly contribute to the making of ‘culture’. One could say that it is this total context that is culture, which is also being formed and transformed and the cognition is the connection that establishes between us and the culture (context). 2. exploring an indigenous culture in its entirety- from indigenous design principles, their sense of beauty, value system, traditional knowledge production process  and to  way children are treated in the community.

One of the things that are very difficult is self-reflection because we do not have the ‘mirror’ that enables us to see ourselves critically. This is also because we only encounter our types, formed in a similar way, with similar worldviews, likes and dislikes aspirations etc.  Modernity has ensured that we all fit into the mold with the illusion of freedom, creativity or the lack of it, etc.

There were other purposes as well for conducting the course. One was to make them aware of their illusions about education, knowledge, development etc and the other was to make them understand the process of westernization and what it means to be culturally rooted. It is difficult for the so-called educated to face their mediocrity as they are conditioned to believe that they are educated.

The process was to enable them to see through these myths and develop the courage to explore deeply. Naturally, it meant that deal with the habits acquired due to schooling and learn to see afresh life around them without the biases that one learns in school.

Therefore, I have been taking the students to the nearby villages where the vestiges of the traditional culture are still there and enabling the students to see the ‘other’ without their schooled spectacles.  So I also prepare them to observe without the biases. Often we assume that they are behind us, in the path to development and that they belong to the same culture as we are in terms of aspirations and hold the same world- view. This is far from truth. The village people of this country belong to a very different cognitive domain, naturally with a different world -view.

So, after a few days of ‘preparation’, the students were taken to three villages near Hyderabad (around 100 km away) and did about a weeklong interaction with each day reflecting on their experiences. The shift that took place between their first day and the last day was so dramatic.

There were two types of students- one that had no prior experience of village life and the other who did have experience and felt inferior about their connection. So, in their first visit all of them saw only poverty, illiteracy, lazy, dirty and backward people.

So the students were directed to see through these biases by making them document the village life. The first two-three days were kept only for making friends, talking about their life etc and then two days for drawing and the final two days for taking photos. The last two days were kept for reflecting on the documentation.

Actually, the so-called educated Indians and the illiterate Indians belong to two different and diametrically opposite cultural paradigms. Educated Indians are uprooted from their cultural roots, made to believe in their schooled knowledge, and even made to feel inferior to the western culture from where their ‘knowledge’ has come. Whereas the illiterate Indian is rooted in their context, leading a sustainable and eco-friendly life by rediscovering through experience the knowledge of his ancestors and even responding creatively to the changes that modernity is imposing on them.

The fundamental constituents of any culture can be abstracted to why, what and how in which ‘why’ is the worldview or the ethical and moral parameters, ‘what’ is the knowledge creation component and  ‘how’  is related to action which can be seen as the aptness of doing or the aesthetics of living.

One could say that Why, What and How are the universal aspects, irrespective of place and time. Cultural diversity is established by the context which is defined by ‘where’ and ‘when’.

So, as students began to uncover the true strength of the village people they began to reassess their own ‘knowledge’ and the notion of development etc. They found that most people in the villages have far more knowledge about farming, cooking, healing and various other kinds of skills and on top of that, they were very contented, happy and even generous, in spite of their ‘poverty’.

The ‘design’ aspect in communities are very different from the way modern person approach design. The focus of solving the problem with whatever exists make this very process oriented, unlike a modern educated person who is product oriented. The focus is on not developing a particular product to solve the problem but to make use of what is available. So, in ‘illiterate’ village communities jugaad is a way of life and not a special ability. Their sense of beauty is also organic and rooted in their context unlike the educated whose aesthetic sense is totally western.

Another important aspect to pay attention is the way people recycle almost everything and use it until the material totally disintegrates. The very notion of waste is absent from their consciousness. The students did good documentation of several examples of recycling.

Their ability to connect with the real ‘nature’ of things is noteworthy and they are able to be very apt in their solutions.

Overall, it was a life-changing experience for most of the students as many of them shared the feeling of being humbled by the whole experience.

Other Possibilities

The workshop has potential in initiating an authentic engagement and true dialogue between two kinds of cognitive paradigms on an equal footing with out the feeling of superiority.

The person who has undergone education is made to believe that the uneducated or the illiterates are backward and superstitious and without any knowledge worth talking about. They are held in contempt. So naturally it is very difficult for the ‘educated’ to see anything worthwhile in the villages. Added to this is when you get specialized degrees like design or social work etc in which case what you are specialized in becomes the hindrances to seeing the people. The social worker is bound to see poverty and other social issues which need to be worked up on to develop them. For the designer the trap is the compulsive need to find problems to solve.  So all this needs to be addressed before one embarks on the journey to engage with people who do not belong to our paradigm at all.

The development of a sense of self is the key to our spiritual, psychological and physical well being and is directly connected with the authenticity of knowing and being in the world. Authentic and autonomous learning is what enables the development of the sense of self. This very act of learning is creative. Creativity is the action inherent in all human beings that enables self discovery and creativity is not an exclusive skill of few people but all humans.

A note on the PROCESS

There was no theoretical input.  The process was to let the student explore on their own and make their own conclusions and finally present their experience to the community at large. That is to awaken the PROCESS OF LEARNING/KNOWING within the student without depending on prior codified knowledge. I showed the students a few movies to enable them to see the contrast and to use that for self-reflection. So a kind of preparation to see, to self-reflect was done.

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Jinan KB

Jinan KB is a designer, seeker of knowledge who has been involved in existential research to understand the processes involved in the CREATION OF KNOWLEDGE, the formation of creativity, intelligence, aesthetics and its relation to the content of learning and the context. His primary interest has been to understand our own formation- how we develop various abilities and qualities that enable us to make sense of the world or in other words how our cognitive system gets developed in the process of exploring the world around us. This has led him to research on what conditions are favourable for the development of our ABILITY TO CREATE KNOWLEDGE, creativity, intelligence, humility, sensitivity and what conditions inhibit and distort. He has conducted several pedagogical experiments in various contexts – design and architectural education (especially the foundation year), children in formal and informal situations and with the nonliterate traditional artisans. His exposure to how children and nonliterate learn made him explore the biological roots of learning as well as the loss of biology among the so-called educated. His present research is on understanding how children learn the real world and world’s impact on children’s formation (psychological and physical) in order to re-imagine how to create conducive conditions for learning, creation of knowledge not only for children but also in ‘higher’ education. He can be reached at [email protected]

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