Monday, August 31, 2009

A Note on the History of the Concept of Culture in UNESCO

Julie Reeves points out in her book, Culture and international relations: narratives, natives, and tourists, that the concept of culture change from the humanist to the anthropological during the 20th century, and this shift had profound implications in international relations.

The Humanist Definition

Wikipedia provides the following that characterizes the humanist concept of culture:
When the concept first emerged in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, it connoted a process of cultivation or improvement, as in agriculture or horticulture. In the nineteenth century, it came to refer first to the betterment or refinement of the individual, especially through education, and then to the fulfillment of national aspirations or ideals.
To further emphasize the point, consider these two quotations from Mathew Arnold in the 18th century:
  • Culture is properly described as the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection.
  • Culture is to know the best that has been said and thought in the world.
In the creation of UNESCO, which came in the immediate aftermath of the first use of the atomic bomb, it was explicitly argued that it was important to have a forum in which science could be informed by the humanities, that is that Science and Culture should both be included in the charter of UNESCO.

The Constitution of UNESCO further adds to the evidence that this was the concept of "culture" used by is founders. Consider this declaration from the preamble:
That the wide diffusion of culture, and the education of humanity for justice and liberty and peace are indispensable to the dignity of man and constitute a sacred duty which all the nations must fulfil in a spirit of mutual assistance and concern;
Or this from Article I: Purposes and functions:
To realize this purpose the Organization will:......Give fresh impulse to popular education and to the spread of culture;
  • By collaborating with Members, at their request, in the development of educational activities;
  • By instituting collaboration among the nations to advance the ideal of equality of educational opportunity without regard to race, sex or any distinctions, economic or social;
  • By suggesting educational methods best suited to prepare the children of the world for the responsibilities of freedom.
The suggestion that culture be defused must be understood in terms of a diffusion of the best that has been said and thought in the world to the advantage of all peoples.

Thus in the early years of UNESCO the emphasis of the culture program included work on international copyright instruments, museums, the protection of tangible items of cultural heritage, and importantly the preservation of Abu Simbel.

The Anthropological Definition

In 1998, Don Adams in his report on UNESCO's World Conference on Cultural Policies for Development noted:
A continuing emphasis on broadening the scope of cultural policy to include "the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or social group.... not only the arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs"
Reflected in that broadening of the concept of "culture" was new emphasis on such topics as respect for cultural diversity, protection of the expression of that cultural diversity, protection of intangible cultural heritage from cultures once the subject of prejudice, and protection of endangered languages.

There were of course real world changes taking place during the past six decades in parallel with the changes in the meaning of "cultural". Globalization and the development of the global information infrastructure greatly increased the interaction of peoples with their differing cultures. Decolonization occurred and post colonial states grew in influence in the international scene, including in UNESCO's governing bodies. UNESCO ceased to be a club of a small number of countries, including colonial powers infused with the belief in the superiority of their own high cultures, and became a more egalitarian organization of states, the majority of which seeking to protect their national cultures. Indeed, the UNESCO founding nations saw and expansion of democracy and became more egalitarian.

In the 1990's UNESCO became involved in efforts focusing on culture and development. That work resulted in a new and important conceptualization of development. It recognized that culture is not simply a factor to be taken into account in planning for economic and social development, but the context in which all development takes place, and indeed the determinant of the values of a people which determine the directions that that people seeks from development.

Implications for the Future

As the concept of culture has expanded, UNESCO has added new aspects to its cultural program but has continued to recognize the importance of its key programs linked to the humanistic definition. It continues to expand its network of World Heritage sites, has just implemented a World Digital Library, and its standard setting instruments for the protection of tangible cultural heritage in times of war are especially important.

A new UNESCO Director General is to be elected soon, and that person will face the challenge of leading UNESCO's cultural program and integrating it with UNESCO's other programs. We can expect the concept of culture to continue it evolution, and we can expect UNESCO to continue to be constrained by both human and financial resources. One hopes that the selection process will assure that the new Director General fully understands the way that the concept of culture has expanded since the foundation of UNESCO, the way in which the UNESCO program had accommodated and indeed contributed to that evolution, and have the flexibility to lead in the continuing evolution of concept and program.

John Daly
(The ideas in this posting are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent those of Americans for UNESCO.)

1 comment:

stutalk said...

This is very useful for me.. I am very much interested in historical articles...