Cultural Universals

Cultural Universals
June 3, 2015 Megan Corvus

The concept of a cultural universal as it is used in sociology and cultural anthropology is that there is a commonality among all human cultures; that there are some phenomena that all people experience and respond to. Birth, illness, death, food, water, and shelter are the most common, but there are some lists compiled by anthropologists which go way beyond these general concepts. Using cultural universals to guide our learning does a couple of things: It helps us see where we are in the global community and compare the wants and needs of those who live in our little corner of the world with the immense variety that exists elsewhere. It also helps us to see the common ground upon which all humanity works and lives. Finally, helps us organize the chaos of inquiry-based learning by narrowing our focus for the sake of practicing thinking skills.

The cultural universals we will be organizing our projects around throughout the first year will be:

FoodWe’ve all got to eat. Students will study food and how food becomes food. One summative assessment for this universal will be the big farm-to-fork fundraiser we have every summer where students who have been partnered with a local chef will grow, harvest, develop recipes, prepare, and present a farm-to-fork meal. This includes raising livestock, gardening, field management and nutrition, water budgets, food preparation classes and food handlers permit acquisition among all of the other complexities that go into food. Every student at Peace Valley will understand will food comes from.
Human DevelopmentChange across the lifespan is a foundation for many cultural structures. It is also a fundamental understanding to participating in the global community. The physiological and psychological changes that happen to a person, when understood, can become another chance for compassion, healthy communication, and perpetual learning. Students will understand child development milestones, the process of aging, the elements of puberty and adolescence and how brain development, body development, and cultural interaction all play a part in our culture and others.
InterconnectednessFrom ecosystems to economic externalities, the interconnectedness of elements on Earth are something most cultures recognize. Part of the integration of the traditional classes into one learning path is to look at relationships and the way that things work together. An element of MYP and Peace Valley curriculum is to synthesize disciplinary knowledge to demonstrate interdisciplinary understanding.
WaterWater, like food, is in crisis. At Peace Valley we study water in terms of its use, water rights, the needs of developing nations, the preservation of water sources, desertification, and all of the other water-related issues on our planet today. Looking at drought resistant plants, making an irrigation plan, and designing and implementing a water catchment system are all local and real ways to learn about water. Other project ideas include designing a sedge garden or implementing a grey water system for the school.
Shelter/HabitatThis is a great way to learn about other cultures, the impact of geography, and engineering all at the same time. See How it Works Together for more on our build project. We will start with model homes, but would love to build a tiny house. This is a great chance to work with our local Habitat for Humanity organizations to help with builds as well. Safe and affordable housing is another global crisis to think critically about and act on.
HealthcareThere is much to learn about the human body. Many people in our society don’t understand the basics of how the human body functions, much less how other cultures maintain health within their community. We will study how the healthcare system operates in our own culture, and look at the wide variety of approaches to healthcare taken throughout our culture and around the world. This is a way to grow local herbs and learn their medicinal properties, learn basic first aid, get first-aid and CPR certified, think critically about whether healthcare is a right or privilege and what role government should play, and just learn more about our bodies and how to take care of them.
Stories/ArtsSometimes called cultural artifacts, one way that all cultures respond to life on this planet is to present it in story or other artistic form. It is how we speak from one generation to the next, it is how we celebrate and mourn the ups and downs of existence. Many would argue that the stories we tell and the art we create is just as much a part of our cultural identity as the language we speak or the food we eat. The story behind any phenomena is important to know. Context is extremely important to understanding. This is a cultural universal that overlaps with all others and will be a part of our learning paths throughout the year, but stories (in writing, in dance, in paint, in sculpture, in clothes) need their own time to shine and we will give them that.
FamilyFamilies may be different across cultures, but the concept of family is universal. An important part of our mission is helping foster healthy communication and relationships. The family is where we begin to model those behaviors, and the family relationship as a child, a young adult, a parent, an aunt is fundamental to personal identity. So looking at family dynamics over time and across cultures can help us understand the connection that has to our global health, and what we can do to break cycles, hold up and support our brothers and sisters, and understand what action might be needed to keep families strong and healthy and have a strong and healthy family of our own someday.
Interaction/Status differentiationThe criteria upon which status is differentiated may change based on the culture, but the hierarchical division of humanity remains. Race and gender are primary examples of this across many cultures. Economic status, religion, age, country of origin, and height are also prevalent. It is important to understand the origins and outcomes of status differentiation in order to combat injustice as a global community. Part of valuing responsibility over entitlement is to understand where our responsibility and privilege lies in our community and in the world.
JusticeWhat is right and what is wrong? Every culture has a set of rules for this, whether they are couched in a religion, a constitution, or some other delivery method. Looking at Justice across culture and within our own is a great way to learn about governments, global conflicts, civil rights movements, and individual moral dilemmas. At a school which focuses so much on social justice issues, this cultural universal will come up often throughout the year; but like art, a sense of justice underlies many of our individual and group decisions. Justice, as a concept, needs its own time for us to critically think about and discuss. Ways this is an interdisciplinary subject and not just a philosophical or political subject is in terms of demographics, statistics, economic distribution, understanding biological and physiological factors, and the plethora of amazing literature and film focused on stories of justice or injustice.