Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Festivals and learning on the margins

Last weekend my family and I attended the Scottish Festival and Highland Games at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, UT.  We have been four years in a row, each time standing in the rain for several hours to watch musicians, dancers, and the other assorted groups that congregate at events like this.  My brother-in-law plays in a pipe and drum band; my daughter danced with an Irish dance team this year.

Though Scottish Festivals are everywhere, they are at the margins of the mainstream culture.  You never see one featured on television; no cultural icon has emerged from the Scottish Fest circuit; they shape no political movement; they make no dent on the economy.  And the festival at Thanksgiving Point (and its little sister in Payson, UT held every July) are on the margins of the margins—small towns, small festivals, no massive clustering of Scots in the surrounding district.

But the festival is evidence of the power of learning on the margins.  While a few of the people there may make some money from their participation in the event (small merchants, for example, who deal in henna tattoos, kilts, swords, and Celtic memorabilia), all of the participants are dedicated experts in their fields.  My guess is that most are self-taught, or that they learned their skills in a self-organized setting.  My brother-in-law’s band, for example, has no paid staff or instructor.  More-skilled pipers and drummers teach their less-skilled counterparts.  My daughter’s Irish dance troupe is the sort of endeavor that exists everywhere—a few teachers leading a passel of young kids in a skill that they themselves picked up from another teacher years ago.   Representatives from various Scottish clans trade genealogical wisdom. And the participants in the Highland Games who toss bales, or throw capers learn that skill by practicing in parks and competing week after week in festivals.

Festivals like this one play three roles in marginal learning.  First, they unite the subcultures that otherwise exist apart from each other, showing them that their efforts add up to something big (I would guess 3,000 people attended, paying $12/ticket to enter the festival).  Second, they create new cultures, as fans of genealogy brush up against partisans of Celtic music who rub shoulders with a gothic/new age group who sees some convergence in paganism, environmentalism, Asian art, and heavy black make-up.  That is to say that Scottish festivals are building new cultural understandings between people who otherwise don’t talk.  And third, they are public proofs of learning.  When dancers dance for prizes, or pipe and drum bands compete, or sheaf tossers break records they are demonstrating learning as surely as students do when they take a test.

If learning outside of the system of schooling is essential for the well-being of communities and humans, and if that learning will be largely self-organized, then the festival takes the place of the school building.  It is the infrastructure for learning on the margins, the place without which learning remains simply an individual pursuit.

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