Saturday, January 31, 2015

Does Cultural Education begin before Birth?

Annie Murphy Paul - What We Learn Before We Are Born - TedGlobal 2011

When people are asked about why they "do genealogy" a frequent response is to get a sense of who they are and where they or their ancestors came from. They are seeking an identity. Identity comes from many places and aspects of our lives, one of which is culture. Here in the United States I would say I am "Californian" which has cultural similarities with the rest of the country (despite what you might think). However, when in Europe, I always said I was an "American." I often thought that these identities came from living in these places and experiencing, more or less, the same things as my friends and family.

This TedTalk by Annie Murphy Paul suggests we learn much about the world before we are even born. If you've read The Handmaid's Tale, the concept of learning in the womb, and how it could impact the lives of women, is kind of scary. On the other hand, it's fascinating in the context of cultural transmission because Paul argues that while in the womb we learn our mother's accent, her favorite foods, and her favorite music. In essence, we start learning our culture before we are even born. Her theory may go some way to helping to explain the persistence (or not) of immigrant communities.

Perhaps, I didn't learn all about being an American by living here. Maybe being a cultural American started before I was born because of they way my parents spoke and because my mom ate basic American foods, like meat and potatoes. 

If you want to learn more read Annie Paul's book Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. I've not read it, but it is on my wish list.

nb. This post originally appeared as "Cultural Education before Birth" on The Historian's Family in March 2014.

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