“The River of Culture”

We asked students in their first Edmodo post to indicate what they found most interesting or exciting about Paul’s walk and this project. We gave examples of their comments in this post: STUDENTS’ HOPES FOR PAUL’S WALK. Dami Seung, a master’s student in the Arts in Education program here at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has produced a Wordle for us based on the text of 140 students’ responses to the following questions:

  • What do you find most interesting or exciting about Paul’s walk?
  •  Is there anything in particular you would like Paul to look out for or pay attention to as he walks?
  • What do you find most interesting or exciting about being involved in this on-line learning project related to Paul’s walk? What do you hope to learn from the experience?


Discounting words associated with the questions themselves (Paul, Paul’s, walk, around, world, interesting, like, hope), the words “people” and “cultures” feature prominently. Indeed, approximately half of the students in our project said that they were especially excited about the chance to learn more about different cultures. But what exactly does “culture” mean to students?

Most students’ comments on Edmodo were too brief to get a good idea of what they meant. But we guessed that many of them might be thinking about culture in terms of fairly static customs and traditions—as reflected in people’s clothing, food, housing, religious practices and the like.

Our colleague at Project Zero, Veronica Boix Mansilla, has developed a framework for thinking about how to develop young people’s “global competence”: see the book she co-authored with Tony Jackson Educating for Global Competence: Preparing our Youth to Engage the World. (We will come back to the idea of global competence or global citizenship and how that sits with the Out of Eden Project at a later date.) In her work Veronica has found that unexamined ideas about culture can get in the way of students learning to appreciate perspectives that are different to their own—and can lead to cultural stereotyping.

In a preemptive move, we thought it would be a good idea for Paul to share some of his thoughts about culture, with a view to nudging all of us within the learning community to think about culture in richer ways.  Paul wrote a piece especially for the students and produced an audio recording of it too, from the deserts of Saudi Arabia. We posted both the text and audio in Edmodo and have invited students to follow up with individual or group questions about culture. We will forward these questions to Paul and he will respond to one or two of them. In this way we hope to spark a conversation between students and Paul around the concept of culture.

Paul’s wonderfully elegant ‘micro-essay’ is reproduced below. It is worth noting that several students’ comments were consistent with Paul’s assertion that cultural boundaries are fluid or porous. For example, Alyson from Massachusetts observed: “The thing that I like most about Paul’s walk is the idea that you can walk from one culture to the next, just by foot. When you take a plane into a different country and its culture, it seems like you are in a totally different world. But by simply walking there, it all blends together.”  Meanwhile, Kookie from India wrote: “I would like to see Paul focus on the various distinct cultures he comes across. The culture from one village to another may not differ much; but there will be certain nuances specific to a particular area. I hope Paul can pick up on these minute differences and elaborate on them.”


By Paul Salopek

I will be walking through many cultures on my walk. Already, I have trekked through a part of Ethiopia where two different groups of people herd their goats–desert nomads called the Afar and Issa. In the small Red Sea country of Djibouti, there were all kinds of different people mixing on the waterfront capital: French soldiers, Somali traders, Syrian ship captains, restaurant owners from Yemen and American diplomats.

On my walking route across the globe, I will be meeting people from hundreds of different cultures.

But what *is* culture, really? And how real is it?

Back in the old days, people used to think of culture as something hard, inflexible, a collection of simple social features–food, dress, language and even a well defined set of collective personality traits. (Russians are sentimental, Americans are loud, the British have dry humor, etc.) But in truth, culture isn’t so simple–or so unchanging.

Cultures change. Modern-day suburbs where people drive cars and watch TV are as “authentic” a human culture as a remote mountain farm where people still light their mud brick houses with kerosene lamps. Cultures also mix and merge constantly as people move around, absorbing new ideas. To put it in terms of landscape:

Culture isn’t an oasis, a pool of water in the desert, separated from another culture by miles of sand. Human culture is instead like a river, constantly flowing, mixing, with whitewater rapids and still pools, to be sure, but it is all interconnected. Culture is restless. It flows. It lives.

One comment

  1. Hi! Reposting your info on our FaceBook! Love the blog. I tried to “like” your page so it would go on our feed, but the “like” link is broken. Great stuff! Cindy Toland, CASIE

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