The role of learning in a culture

Human co-existence in a society presupposes certain agreements on how to live, how to secure a livelihood, and what and how things are learned. Culture helps people to adapt by providing answers — either developed over generations and/or regarded as correct at any given period of time — to various questions, such as: what is the world like?, what is the right way to behave?, what is beautiful? etc. All societies inevitably have to respond to such questions, although their answers vary: differing according to both internal and external circumstances.

It may well happen that a culture is not able to find adequate answers to the emerging queries. This kind of society is doomed. World history provides many examples of this. There are periods when answers appear reliable and foolproof and to be ‘working well’, and at such times cultures and societies are stable and flourish. However, these periods do not last forever, and thus culture is forced to ask the same questions over and over again, seeking answers to them in changed conditions. Answers that have, without fault, served for a long time and have therefore been passed on from generation to generation, survive in a culture’s deepest structures. The main mechanism by which culture is spread is education — in the widest sense of the word.

Education is the means to participate in culture and in society that carries that culture. During periods of instability when the deepest structures of culture are in a state of disintegration or change, education actively intervenes in cultural innovation, by finding new knowledge on the periphery of culture — in the layers that are in contact with other cultures. Furthermore, education also acts as the distribution mechanism of cultural values: the more layered the society, the more choices are made via the education system regarding who should be allowed access to which layers of culture, and who should be entrusted with the intellectual ‘tools’ with which to advance the existing culture.

The fact that the Estonian people and their culture have survived to this day seems more a miracle than a historical inevitability. Historians estimate the population at the turn of the 12th – 13th centuries, when the crusaders occupied Estonia, at 200 000. By the early 17th century, as a result of wars and the plague, the number of Estonians had fallen as low as 100 000. However, even at the best of times, in the demographical sense, the population never reached above one million. For small nations living on the borders of prominent cultures and large state powers, survival can never be taken for granted. Throughout history, Estonians have been compelled to be highly adaptable in their various survival and renewal strategies, and education has played its part in these processes.

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