Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Remembering and forgetting, Part I

A while ago Kascha and I had a conversation about children and culture. I was complaining about the tendency to treat children as cultural innocents, taking their behavior as evidence of innate or "natural" human characteristics. E.g. "My two-year-old son likes to play with trucks not dolls, therefore gender is natural." It seems to me, on the contrary, that children are avid students of culture, starting from the day they're born.

Each of us is born into a world we didn't make, a world that initially makes little sense to us. The first, most pressing project of our lives is to figure this world out, and to find out where we fit in it. This is a double imperative: to figure out how to get what we want and need from the world, how to mould the world to our desires; but also to mould ourselves, to understand who we need to be to fit into the world as it stands, and to become that person.

The rules and customs we encounter as children cannot but appear as arbitrary, unintelligible and empty rituals. (Why am I allowed to pee here and not there? Why did you laugh before, but get mad when I did the same thing just now?) The task of the child, which she applies herself to with great effort, is to figure out these rules so she can behave appropriately, earning her parents' approval and securing a place for herself as a valued member of the family.

However, the child's initiation into her community's way of doing things doesn't take the form of an explicit or critical understanding of these rules, an account of why they are rational and necessary. Rather, the child learns to fit into her community by internalizing its customs as habits. Thus, the product of the child's education in culture is not a scholar who could write a thesis on the world she grew up in, but rather a person to whom her own culture is quite invisible.

To be continued...