Friday, March 20, 2009

Learning the Local

There are two big ways to read the world. One is cosmopolitan--that the world is moving towards a big, polyglot culture where Bollywood films, hip-hop, Nike, European fashion, and Buddhism (or some other list of equally prominent stuff from around the globe) is all linked together.

The other is particularistic. There are two forms of particularism. In one, even though radically different things from around the world may be linked together, those links are limited to a small group of people who espouses them all. In the other, while the wealthy may assemble a cosmopolitan global mash-up culture, most people retain deep allegiances to their own intesely local cultures. They are loyal not to "Buddhism" but to their sangha. Not to "hip-hop" but to a couple of performers, or one club they prefer. (For me it is not "sushi" but the Sushi House Restaurant in American Fork, Utah.)

Cosmopolitanism has long been the metier of higher education. Think of the standard liberal arts curriculum--you read Plato and Kierkegaard and Dewey and Rorty, or you enact the same lab experiments that fellow students have for decades in universities across the world. Many schools have enshrined cosmopolitanism in their learning goals. Students will become "global citizens" or, at Westminster, develop "global consciousness."

But if I'm right, by enshrining cosmpolitanism we've overlooked a huge part of the world. Part of the problem is that particularism forces tough choices--which little culture should we teach? How can we get "coverage"? How can we have a "comprehensive" curriculum if we admit that there is no way to get our arms around it all?

Another challenge, though, has been that it is hard to get a good view of the local because it is, well, local. People come to understand the local by living it, not by studying it in an anthology.

But now there are ways to see and learn the local. Consider these two efforts. The Center for Neighborhood Technology is building the practices and relationships necessary for neighborhoods to understand and direct themselves. And EveryBlock is using powerful search algorithms to gather news on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis. If you live in an EveryBlock city you can log on and see exactly where crime takes place, or which restaurants got good health inspections, or which days of the week your neighbors are more likely to call for city services.

CNT and EveryBlock could be the basis of a curriculum, coupled with meaningful civic engagement, in which students could learn the local. If lots of the world is indeed local, then higher ed ought to take this opportunity seriously, as seriously as it takes its efforts to define and advance a global cosmopolitan culture.


derek bitter said...

Prof. Daynes, this reminds me of that class I helped you with that had one of its goals to help students learn about the local community. What you say about learning the local makes sense, but many students at higher ed institutions are not natives of the communities they live in while in school, and could maybe care less about the local community. Should have them learn it anyway and say why it's important? Or is the cosmopolitan route better since many of them plan to spread themselves out? Or am I understanding this wrong? It just seems like most people want their education so that they can take it elsewhere, and maybe have an idea about that elsewhere place before they get there.

gary said...

Thanks for the note. I wonder if there is a way that people can learn the local, but have it be portable. That is, I wonder if there are certain skills that are "local' skills--I'd guess they would be one-on-one relationships, a focus on particulars, stories instead of data, stuff like that. If so, then learning "local' skills could serve a student wherever she ends up.