Thursday, November 12, 2009

Interdisciplinary Explorations

What is “culture?” How is an understanding of culture related to an understanding of what it means to be human? Is culture a concept reserved exclusively for human communities, or is there a broader definition that might encompass other species? What does it mean to be “modern” in a cultural sense, and what is the place of cultures that exist outside the “modern” world?

These questions and many related others form the core of our 7th grade social studies and humanities program. Mrs. Sher’s approach ensures that the students see “social studies” as a broad term that encompasses many fields, including philosophy, anthropology, history, geography, economics, and ecology. Their studies this year have begun with an intensive exploration of two African environments and the challenges confronted by the inhabitants of those locations.

Last week, the students were introduced to the work of primatologist Dian Fossey and her efforts to gain acceptance for the idea that animals, and in particular, primates, could be studied from a cultural perspective. The class is now immersed in a study of the mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park in the Western Rift Valley of Africa, one of only two remaining habitats for this endangered species. The students are considering the possibility that animal cultures might teach us about the roots of human culture. They are learning about the ways in which gorillas form relationships, care for and teach their young, and establish levels of status within their groups. The core concepts of this unit will help the students over the course of the year as they examine the factors that shape societies.

On Friday, a group of visitors joined the 7th and 8th grade classes to raise awareness about a human society at risk in another part of Africa. Philanthropist Teri Gabrielson and filmmakers Joe Dietsch and Kristin Jordan shared their documentary “Maasai at the Crossroads,” about the Maasai people of Kenya. Later this winter the 7th graders will study the Maasai in depth, as the 8th graders did last year, making the presentation especially relevant for both classes. The film’s narrator is Dr. Calestous Juma, father of 6th grader Eric and director of Science, Technology, and Globalization Harvard. It provides a close-up view of conditions such as drought, lack of education, disease, and the encroachment of modern society that threaten the fragile way of life of this nomadic society.

After the screening, everyone participated in a discussion about the issues raised in the film. Later, the filmmakers praised our students for their sensitivity and attentiveness as well as their respectful, reflective comments and questions. These characteristics are essential for a truly engaged study of culture and society, and they reflect our efforts to teach habits of mind as well as important content.

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