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The Good Place: A society to match the scenery (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and neighboring)


Staying together
   Generational succession and personal identity


The story of Chief Charlo, hanging on in the Bitterroot after many Salish had moved north to the Flathead Reservation, is poignant in a way that life is often poignant. What is sadder than to lose the homeland of one’s youth and to have the world change around one so dramatcally that one’s grandchildren speak a different language?

Of course, most of us lose the homelands of our childhood--that we can’t go home again is a common lament. And I’ve worked with many adolescents who spoke a language in many ways unrecognizable by their parents and grandparents. We live in times of ongoing cultural change, and in such times succeeding generations may come to consciousness in a narrative environment quite different from that their parents grew up in. Under such circumstances, it would be startling if they did not develop values quite different from those of their elders. Something akin to Charlo’s sadness would seem to be a common plight.

And yet, it is not necessary that the generations become estranged. The “generation gap” that so mesmerized observers during the sixties is not a fact of nature so much as a failure of culture. Thinking of education not as the transmission of information and skills in a classroom but as the way a culture is passed on, a question that becomes important is what sort of education is needed if parents and their children are to recognize each other fully enough to share the deepest meanings in life? Clearly, it will be an education that resists some kinds of change, focusing instead on continuities. As many Native American have recognized, it will be an education more concerned with culture than with information. Daniele Conversi argues that a culture that is not transmitted from one generation to the next should not be considered a culture at all:

Despite a proliferation of writings on culture, ...[it] remains one of the most difficult concepts to grasp and define in the social sciences. Already by the 1950s the US anthropologists Alfred Louis Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn were able to identify over 100 competing definitions of ‘culture’.

The rise of cultural studies as a self-standing discipline in the 1960s should have in principle contributed to clarify this conundrum, having elected it as its central topic of investigation. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Despite its promising beginnings under the brilliant stewardship of Richard Hoggart and others (Sardar and Van Loon 1998), the disarray has progressively amplified, degenerating into conceptual chaos and turning cultural studies into one of the most confused and confusing disciplines on earth. Instead of being rigorously defined, the concept of culture has become so flexible and muddled as to include virtually every aspect and form of human behaviour. ‘Culture’ has therefore fragmented into its constituent parts, an amalgam of infinite particles now dissolving into idiosyncratic chaos. At the moment, everything can become ‘culture’ from ‘youth culture’ to ‘drug culture’, from ‘consumer culture’ to pop culture, ‘yob’ culture, hooligan culture, and, perhaps a short step from hooliganism, animals’ culture. Yet, all of these ‘cultures’ fall short of the main distinguishing criterion, inter-generational continuity. There is currently an urgent need to go back to the concept of culture in its original meaning of cultivating and hence nourishing. Culture should be linked to material, rather than biological, inheritance. In short, a sense of continuity is inseparable from culture, hence culture can only exist if it is transmitted through generations.  (Daniele Conversi, “Can Nationalism Studies and Ethnic/racial Studies Be Brought Together?” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. Volume: 30. Issue: 4. Page 815. (c) 2004

Questions of cultural continuity will be easier to discuss within families than they will be to discuss at school. It is quite proper that families and communities entertain the apostles of change who speak from the schools with the moral fervor of revolutionaries with a bit of skepticism. While it’s true that each new generation needs to creatively adopt their culture to a changing world, if the passion for change isn’t judiciously tempered by a fondness for ways and means of proven value, we risk trading our birthright for a gaggle of gadgets.

In her study of Korean Christians in Chicago, Kelly Chong found that a significant way that second generation Koreans kept their cultural identity was through

certain elements of ‘practiced culture,’ that is, values and standards of traditional Korean morality. These values, ubiquitously invoked in their discourse about their Korean identity, consist of a set of core traditional Korean Confucian values—most significantly, filial piety, respect for parents, family-centeredness, and work ethic.

Whereas non-church goers tend to speak more about “making decisions for oneself” rather than obeying parents, the young adults who attend church say they prefer the clear rules, and “traditional Korean views regarding sexual morality and gender relations.” It is more through moral values than general aspects of culture such a food and music that a “powerful sense of group consciousness and boundary is forged among the second generation.”

Those who chose to stay in the church sometimes see the individual liberty of the surrounding society as contributing to the dissolution of culture and of togetherness. One member described it thus:

There are many truths in the American society. Because of that, there is no value system. Everything and anything is permissible. So we lose common dignity, respect, and people end up getting absorbed in their own little worlds. People used to live by Christian virtues, knew definite right or wrong. Now, kids are being killed, and are killing their parents. All because the parents don’t have any values to give them. People are encouraged to be open-minded so they lose definition. Koreans have a better value system, like the way Christianity used to be.

Various scholars have noted that the strengths and vitality of contemporary evangelicalism can be attributed to its “strictness,” which confers strong social bonds and cohesion among the church members ( Kelley, D. M. 1972 . Why conservative churches are growing. New York: Harper and Row.; Iannaccone, L. R. 1994 . “Why strict churches are strong”. American Journal of Sociology 99: 11801211.). It is my contention that Christian conservatism, both through its peculiar resonance with traditional Korean values and its ability to help articulate a clear sense of group boundary and identity, is crucial to the ethnic project of the Korean church regarding the second generation. The conservative Protestant ideology of the Korean church, through its reference to the unchanging, divine laws which dictate standards of strict ethics and morality for the members of the group, has proven quite effective as a form of legitimation for strict, exclusive ethnic group identity in the secondgeneration church members. In contrast, scholars such as Steve Bruce (Bruce, S. 1983 . “Identifying conservative Protestantism”. Sociological Analysis 44: 65-69.) have remarked on the relative ineffectiveness of liberal Protestantism in generating such group cohesion. As Bruce ( 1983 :68) puts it, “The liberal insistence on reason as filter for revelation produces a variety of problems in social reproduction. In a pluralist society, denial of an objective and unchanging source of revelation invites diversity and the consequent problems of maintaining cohesion and commitment.”

“An agreed-upon and commonly held interpretation of reality is a prerequisite for social identity. It is also the constructive link with personal identity” ( Mol, H. 1976 . Identity and the sacred:A sketch for a new social-scientific theory of religion. New York: Free Press : 67).

Posted by Michael L Umphrey

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