Packing books for the move, I’ve rediscovered one of the best books of the last decade, the anthropologist Wade Davis’s 2009 book “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.” If you’re interested in the themes I often write about, I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. Davis originally delivered the text of this book as his Massey Lectures; if you prefer to listen to them, download them from iTunes.
Here’s a passage from the book in which Davis discusses how our efforts to improve traditional cultures can turn out simply to cripple the people who live in them. Davis brings up a trip he made in 1998 to Kenya, where he met an Italian priest who had been living and working with tribal refugees there since 1975. Back then, the camp was a temporary watering hole for small bands of Rendille herders. But at the time of Davis’s visit, it had become a rattletrap settlement maintained by international relief organizations. Here’s Davis:
Father George was his own harshest critic. “Schooling,” he told me, “has not changed the people for the better. This is the pain in my heart. Those educated want nothing to do with their animals. They just want to leave. Education should not be a reason to go away. It’s an obligation to come back.
The problem is that few do. As Father George acknowledged, they acquire a modicum of literacy and certain basic skills, but in an atmosphere and with a pedagogy that teaches them to have contempt for their fathers and their traditions. They enter school as nomads, graduate as clerks, and drift south to the cities where the official unemployment rate is 25 percent and more than half of high school graduates are without work. Caught between worlds, unable to go back, and with no clear path forward, they scratch for a lving in the streets of Nairobi and swell the sea of misery that surrounds the Kenyan capital.
“They must hold onto tradition,” Father George told me. “Ultimately it is what will save them. It’s all they have. They are Rendille and must stay Rendille.”
You may think that is paternalistic and patronizing. Davis would tell you to think twice.
We too are culturally myopic and often forget that we represent not the absolute wave of history but merely a world view, and that modernity — whether you identify it by the monikers westernization, globalization, capitalism, democracy, or free trade — is but an expression of our cultural values. It is not some objective force removed from the constraints of culture. And it is certainly not the true and only pulse of history.
He says that only a fool would deny the amazing things we have done with and within Western culture. But we are also fools to be triumphalist. Read on…
An anthropologist from a distant planet landing in the United States would see many wondrous things. But he or she or it would also encounter a culture that reveres marriage, yet allows half of its marriages to end in divorce; that admires its elderly, yet has grandparents living with grandchildren in only 6 percent of its households; that loves its children, yet embraces a slogan — “24/7” — that implies total devotion to the workplace at the expense of family. By the age of 18, the average American youth has spent two years watching television. One in five Americans is clinically obese and 60 percent are overweight, in part because 20 percent of all meals are consumed in automobiles and a third of children eat fast food every day. The country manufactures 200 million tons of industrial chemicals each year, while its people consume two-thirds of the world’s production of antidepressant drugs. The four hundred most prosperous American control more wealth than 2.5 billion people in the poorest eighty-one nations with whom they share the planet. The nation spends more money on armaments and war than the collective military budgets of its seventeen closest rivals. The state of California spends more money on prisons than on universities. Technological wizardry is balanced by the embrace of an economic model of production and consumption that compromises the life supports of the planet. Extreme would be one word for a civilization that contaminates with its waste the air, water, and soil; that drives plants and animals to extinction on a scale not seen on earth since the disappearance of the dinosaurs; that dams the rivers, tears down the ancient forests, empties the seas of fish, and does little to curtail industrial processes that threaten to transform the chemistry and physics of the atmosphere.
Davis goes on to say that if the measure of success is technological mastery and material gain, then ours is clearly a superior civilization.
But if the criteria of excellence shifted, for example to the capacity to thrive in a truly sustainable manner, with a true reverence and appreciation for the earth, the Western paradigm would fail. If the imperatives driving the highest aspirations of our species were to be the power of faith, the reach of spiritual intuition, the philosophical generosity to recognize the varieties of religious longing, then our dogmatic conclusions would again be found wanting.
When we project modernity, as we define it, as the inevitable destiny of all human societies, we are being disingenuous in the extreme. … In reality, development for the vast majority of peoples of the world has been a process in which the individual is torn from his past, propelled into an uncertain future, only to secure a place on the bottom rung of an economic ladder that goes nowhere.