Monday, January 19, 2004

This afternoon, hiking down from the top of a Welsh mountain, Chris and I dropped off behind the girls and talked about the education of children of indigenous peoples (now so often 'sub-cultures'). We started with Australia, for which I trotted out the line that it was a sensible educational goal to get more Aborigine kids into schools to give them the skills and qualifications to play a fuller role in Australian society and raise the affluence of their social sphere. Chris, who's got a BA and Masters in anthropology and just spent a while working with Aborigines in Australia, pointed out how deeply problematic that is. Schooling imparts not only skills and qualifications but also values and ideology. Chris seemed to endorse some more dynamic ideas that I haven't come across in my work on the Australian system: curricula which give Aborigines literacy and life-skills for 'business' but also proper time for education according to their own societies' value-systems. So some days might involve being outside with community leaders, learning agricultural techniques for example. In the end he had to admit that minorities are going to be affected by the dominant system, whether they like it or not, so it's better that they learn the rules of the game. Otherwise they are a sitting target. Still, the figures who take on the resbonsibility of representing their people's interests are subjected to a huge amount of pressure, a tension between espousing the values of the system and remaining true to their background.

The conversation, which continued down the muddy hill (overlooking miles and miles of countryside valleys, buffeted by the wind) turned somehow towards work. Chris articulated the Ishmael-like idea that the concept of work has not been particularly constructive. On a level, I agree with him. Work is partly about needing to impose an order, because we perceive the world as hostile or chaotic or threatening. But why does it need taming? Why do we think God made it incomplete, flawed, and it's our job to perfect the job? But I felt I needed to save the idea of work. I tried to distinguish between work as maintenance and work as growth. Maintenance is stuff like building shelter, catching or growing enough food to survive - not a new idea and I know we're not about to revert to a hunter-gatherer society. But I don't think I believe in the utility of the boundless tide of progress and development.

What's more interesting is that I was motivated to identify a useful concept of work because of the Jewish religious texts I've read (particularly in this year's Limmud chevrutah project) and of course the centrality of Shabbat. I talked about it with Chris (not Jewish) and he said he thought the sabbath was a very important institution given the way we think about work. In other words, in an ideal world we wouldn't need Shabbat and all its social binding and personally revitalising effects. But we don't live in an ideal world, so Shabbat is necessary. I'm not sure, but I think there's a Jewish text somewhere which talks about how, when the Messiah comes, there'll be a constant Shabbat.

Chris asked if all rites are allowed on Shabbat, because Aboriginal communities have started calling tribal ritual "business". It's an interesting question - why isn't prayer considered 'work for God'? I suspect it's something to do with a perception that, say, lighting a candle is a more physical i.e. non-spiritual act than offering words and song.

It also got me thinking how I could do a Burning Man session on 'the meaning of Shabbat on the playa'. I could even extend it and do a whole series on Jewish law and custom and its meaning in a Burning Man context. I think it would be really interesting to see halacha's effect in such a different society. Burning Man as a Jewish petri dish.


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