The challenges and practices of Cultural Education

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michael Syrotinski300As a professor of French in the School of Modern Languages at Glasgow University, I feel Modern Languages are quite uniquely placed to address the challenges and practices of cultural education at this intriguing moment in the history of Scottish education, and of culture in a more global context. We tend to think of Universities, and especially distinguished ancient universities like Glasgow, as having a reputation for being ‘ivory towers’, and thus rather cut off from the rest of the so-called ‘real world’, at least in terms of the research that we do. So when people outside the University ask me what is I do – since much of the time there is an assumption that all we do is teach students — I have developed a whole range of different kinds of answers, from the telegraphic and slightly evasive, to a kind of journalistic paraphrase, or the distilled essence of a particular research project.

We are being asked, indeed expected, to be more and more involved these days in what is known as ‘public engagement’, or ‘knowledge exchange’ activities, as a way of making our research not only more ‘publicly accountable’ (and in my view, this is entirely justified, given that universities are publicly funded institutions!), but also actually more meaningful to the public at large. In some ways this has taken us full circle, since Universities – and this is perhaps even more the case with Scottish universities – have from their very beginning had a clear and strong public mission. Within this, arts and humanities have always been a core part of the curriculum, and the study of other languages and cultures – both classical and modern — has always been a key part of the curriculum supporting that mission. We often forget just how deep the connections were between continental Europe and the Scottish world of higher education during the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period, with many of the most powerful and influential figures in the early life of Glasgow University having spent many years at the most important European centres of learning such as Paris. So when one puts the current trend toward public engagement within a broader historical perspective, it seems to me that it is all the more crucial at this present time to reaffirm the need for learning other languages and being open to cultural difference, when we see so many instances of deep and divisive political tensions, or of re-emergent prejudices and misunderstandings between peoples around the globe, just when we thought we thought we were well down the road of greater openness and shared understanding. So in my view, the notion of ‘cultural education’ for researchers in Modern languages means at its core a fundamental need to teach our young how to learn to respect cultural difference, and to feel comfortable in a multilingual and multicultural world, from the very earliest age, although it does not stop there, of course. Reaffirming such respect and understanding is also perhaps an endless task, and a matter of ‘lifelong learning’. One obvious way in which we could be doing more to bring this about is to ensure we have better and more sustained coordination and dialogue between what is happening at the University level, and what is going on in primary and secondary schools, in all subject areas, not just languages: after all, we all share the same goals, and are part of what should be the same virtuous circle, since those dedicated and talented individuals in the primary and secondary teaching sector are the ones producing the next generation of our students, and we are the ones who in turn are educating the future educators.

There are many, many examples I could cite of what we do in the School of Modern Languages to promote cultural education through public engagement, so I will just note a few examples. We have had longstanding associations and close working partnerships with the cultural institutes from other countries based in Glagow, such as the Alliance Française, the Goethe Institut, the Scotland-Russia Forum, the Institut Ramon Llull, or the Swiss Embassy, for whom we have in the past offered arts programming and interpretation advice. A lot of my colleagues have been very involved with a range of museums in Glasgow (perhaps most importantly the Hunterian, where we are often called upon for our expertise on the relations between literature and visual culture in European art), and regularly contribute to public outreach activities for a number of different local bodies and cultural organisations, whether this is in supporting the education team at the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow, delivering lectures for public screenings at the Glasgow Film Theatre, participating in workshops with Festival directors across Scotland, or being called upon by national and international media to discuss issues pertinent to questions of language and culture (print journalism, TV, and radio, as well as the vast array of social media). Our current Head of School, Professor Kathryn Crameri, who is a specialist of the Catalan independence movement, is indeed in great demand at the moment to comment on the Scottish Independence referendum. If we are talking about the relevance of Modern Languages research to cultural education, one would be hard-pressed to find anything more timely or relevant than that!

In relation to my own work in Francophone colonialism and postcolonialism, I have for a while now been in discussion with Glasgow museums about staging a series of events (both academic and public-facing) based on the phenomenon of Empire Exhibitions in both Britain and France – particularly those that took place in Glasgow in the 19th and early 20th centuries — and the rather uncomfortable history of ‘human zoos’ that were a part of this, that is, putting on public display natives from colonised nations, as a way of demonstrating cultural superiority, and the benefits of bringing Western civilisation to the ‘uncivilised’ parts of the globe. Going back to my earlier point about closer involvement with secondary schools, one of the objectives of this project would be to bring greater awareness of and critical reflection on this history. The schools and community education programme is of course something Glasgow museums are very good at, and where we could work in a very fruitful partnership with them so as to learn from them how to do this better ourselves, but we feel we could also contribute greatly by bring our own expertise, and an added historical and cultural dimension on the basis of our own research.

Finally, and to take it further afield, in my work on literary translation from and into French, I have for a couple of years now been working with colleagues at the British library, with contemporary French writers, well-known translators, literary journalists, and publishers of contemporary fiction, both in UK and France, as part of a knowledge exchange network looking at the whole question of literature in translation, or the life cycle of a work of fiction from composition through to publication, translation, and reception, from both an academic and a general public perspective. We have already organised two big UK-wide events in London, and are keen to find ways of connecting up with the vibrant contemporary writing and publishing scene in Glasgow, and Scotland.

Text by Professor Michael Syrotinski, Marshall Chair in French. To view Prof Syrotinski’s video on Cultural Education visit our YouTube channel

To find out more about Cultural Education visit http://www.gla.ac.uk/colleges/arts/knowledge-exchange/themes/culturaleducation/ or email fraser.rowan@glasgow.ac.uk

 

Post Author: Fraser Rowan

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