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Adult learning across cultures

In contrast to how Westerners view knowledge as solely for the individual, non-Westerners tend to view knowledge as communal. What is learnt is meant to be shared. Professor Sharan B. Merriam, an expert in adult education, gives a wonderful illustration from Islam of this principle: If a village has no doctor, then the villagers pool together their resources to send one of their youth to medical school so that when he returns, the community will have a doctor.

Another characteristic of learning cross culturally is that it does not stop once the person has left a formal institution. In fact, the majority of learning happens outside of formal institutions. One can learn about nature and the cycles of life through gardening, for instance. Professor Merriam contrasts this type of learning with learning geared towards bettering one’s vocation which is prevalent in Western culture. There is a remunerative aspect tied to learning in that the learner acquires skills to help him produce more or faster. Additionally, in contrast to Western culture, non-Western cultures view learning as lifelong. It only ends when the person dies. Thus, learning occurs solely for the sake of learning.

Finally, learning is holistic, incorporating the whole person beyond just the mind. Neuroanthropologist Greg Downey’s article, “Balancing between cultures,” attests to this as he alludes to the fact that learning the Brazilian martial art of capoeira has influenced the way he carries his body. His sense of balance had been shaped by the many many hours of training that he spent practicing bananeira, a dynamic handstand that required the doer to ignore his natural inclination to look down to maintain his balance, instead demanding that he keep his eyes on his adversary at all times. The art of yoga is yet another example of how learning goes beyond the mind-body dichotomy that we have established in Western society. Yoga seeks to balance the mind, body, and spirit in an effort to move the whole person towards enlightenment.

What it means to be educated even varies across cultures. In one longitudinal study, conducted by education scholar Esther Prins, for Salvadoran adult learners, being educated encompassed not just book knowledge, but rather a holistic melding of social knowledge as well. Treating others with respect regardless of their station in life was considered one of the hallmarks of an educated person. Professor Prins conducted interviews of 12 Salvadoran adults from rural El Salvador, none of whom had had more than six years of schooling. One of the participants recounted an incident in which he went into a bank and was asked by a bank employee to “put his cebolleta here.” Though the term in this case referred to signature, it is considered insulting and would never have been used with someone of higher status. Thus, whilst the bank employee was educated in the technical sense, he was not an educated person in the Salvadoran sense.

Other participants corroborated the importance of learning proper social etiquette as part of their education. One participant claimed that before the literacy classes, she did not have the correct vocabulary to address people. She claimed that people often looked down on the campesinos, those from the country, because of the seemingly brusque way in which they interacted with others.