Volume 30, No.4 - Winter 1984
Editor of this issue: Jonas Zdanys
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright 1984 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

What is the Crucial Challenge to Ethnic Cultural Consciousness?

A University of New England, Australia


When Lithuanians first fled the Russian tyranny to Australian shores, they were somewhat disparagingly tagged by their curious, but indifferent, new countrymen, as the "D.P.'s", the "Reffo's", or "the Baits". Few Australians knew and even fewer cared, that the majority of the Baltic people they crudely dismissed in this collective fashion were the survivors of their respective countries' intellectual and educated elite, who were prepared to work out a two year "bond" of monotonous, menial, physically laborious work, for the sake of personal, and hopefully eventual national freedom! The grip on that freedom to be Latvian, Estonian or even Ukrainian, forged on the iron anvil of Soviet oppression, mass deportation, economic exploitation, the horrors of war and the hardships of European refugee and Australian migrant camps, could only be strengthened, many felt, by defending their culture against the hegemony of the new Australian one, through membership of their respective ethnic communities. Some reached out to adopt at least some Australian cultural characteristics without losing their ethnicity. Others adopted Australian cultural and social mores. A few became isolated from both their own and the Australian communities sustaining, an alienated "island" existence.

My purpose is not to enter into that long debate about the merits or demerits of these various responses, made by Lithuanian and other Baltic settlers in Australia, to their experience of the "foreign" culture. I think that to do so would only be to continue to defer any discussion about what I believe to be the crucial challenge to ethnic cultural consciousness and ethnic Australians, both first and second generation. As I see it, that challenge is this: not simply to continue to react to the Australian culture by way of ethnicity maintenance, alienation, assimilation or integration, but to set out (o transform both the ethnic and Australian culture.1 While it is true, to a certain extent, that the Australian culture has been enriched by the mere presence of various ethnic groups in its midst,2 it is only, I believe, by the mutual action and reaction of each culture on the others, that new cultural forms, undreamed of before, will be evoked to free the infinite talents inherent in all.

Of course, if culture is conceived of as a "thing," rather than as a "process," then this is not a point of view likely to win ready acceptance. But the root meaning of the word culture is nurture the tending, the culturing of organic growth. Likewise, despite the fact that nearly thirty years ago the word was found to have accumulated one hundred and sixty four different definitions, since the first attempts of nineteenth century anthropologists to pinpoint its meaning, much insight can be gained into the nature of culture as process, by using the word in a metaphorical sense, to signify those common, basic ways of expressing and sharing experience, which human beings evolve over time through their use of symbols.3

Symbols, in themselves, go beyond mere observation and description. They imply, represent, stand for, signify, encapsulate in a kind of imaginative shorthand, the meaning of what is observed and described. Ernst Cassirer, and those of his philosophical elaborators, such as Sussanne Langer have contended that it is the special ability of human beings to think, to create meaning, to create signification, that is, to create, transmit, understand, re-order and re-create symbols, which makes knowledge cumulative and transferable. The point 1 would like to stress is that in the re-ordering and re-creation of symbols, a tendering, a "culturing", a cultivation of symbolic forms takes place, which constitutes the growth and development of a culture. It is not a question of reducing symbolic forms to a simple "unity!" Nor is it, I contend, a matter of the co-existence of contraries, a harmony of oppositions. Rather it is through the interpenetration of culture and culture, that differences are conserved, accentuated and reconciled in living, generating, cultural activity.

Words such as "center-periphery", "dominant-subordinate", "majority-minority" have, I think, been a serious handicap to clear thinking about the real challenge to ethnic cultural consciousness. They have spelled a lack of freedom for both the ethnic and the host group: the defeated bound to the victors, and the victors bound to the false situation thus created both bound. The challenge is for a freeing of both groups and increased cultural capacity in Australia. It cannot be a one-sided struggle to free the energies of the human spirit in cultural renewal or reconstruction. Just as both the young and the old must make their contribution to the transmission of culture from one generation to the next, so must each different culture, ethnic and Australian alike, share in the calling forth of new powers one from the others. It seems to me, however, that if this process of evocation and release is to take place in Australia, then it is the ethnic groups which must take the lead.

In the first place, by virtue of their experience as immigrants, these groups already have a heightened cultural consciousness. They have been forced to enter a cultural world other than their own. They have had to try and make sense of many different cultural experiences. They have had to wonder what things were for, what gestures meant, what was expected of them. They have been in situations where they have felt distinctly uneasy, at variance with the others around them. Such situations, painful though they may have been, have highlighted the forgotten or hidden connections between basic ideas in the ethnic culture and those conventions, shared by the group, through which these ideas have acquired mutual significance. This has provided ethnic Australians with an opportunity which few other Australians have had, or by virtue of first hand experience are ever likely to have, namely, to appreciate their own culture for what it is, to see it and to see through it as it were, and in that transparency recognize the quiet force of the possible for their own society in their own times.

There is much evidence to suggest that Australians may be quite confused, currently, not only about what is possible for their society, but, perhaps more significantly, about what is desirable for it! For example, there is widespread concern now, on the part of both Australian Federal and State Governments, that educational policy at both levels take cognizance of the multicultural nature of Australian society. An issue hotly debated among Australian educationists at the present time is that of "addressing pluralism in the classroom."4 Who can explain better than the ethnic Australian, to both Government and educationists, that a multicultural society need not be a pluralistic society? Who is in a better position to question the validity of this goal for any society? Who knows better than the ethnic that, although Australian society may feel pluralistic, in fact it is not? Who can make it clearer that, though there are now in Australia many stores catering to multicultural food and fashion, multicultural brokers and middle-men, multicultural language media newspapers, radio and television, multicultural social networks, religious institutions and formal organizations, none of the cultures concerned is seeking its own special charter of human rights, its own specific geographical locus, its own particular economic base and, most importantly, none is striving for the establishment of coercive devices to ensure cultural conformity in institutions guaranteeing ideological conformity. In short, who can advise Australians better than the ethnic, that a pluralistic society, which is one compartmentalized "into analogous, parallel, noncomplementary, but distinguishable sets of institutions,"5 is no ideal for them to pursue? For who have been closer than the ethnic to experiencing life in that archetype of the pluralistic society, Germany, where the East is divided from the West by eight hundred and seventy miles of formidable barriers, to be penetrated not for life, but, most often, to death?

Australian society is not pluralistic and, hopefully, will never become so! It is rather a developed society making its transition from the traditional to the modern. In a traditional society, the motivation for the decisions which people make is ritualistic: (What was good enough for my father is good enough for me). The people in a traditional society believe that what is done in one situation should be done in all others, and they do not take kindly to change! When the first refugees arrived in Australia in the late 'forties Australia was, in these terms, a very traditional society. Those "foreigners" with their "strange lingo", their "queer" tastes in food and drink, their "odd" way of dressing and enjoying themselves, were often the object of derision, if not downright suspicion. It is indicative of how far less traditional Australian society has become, that official recognition has at last been given to the presence of the ethnic in its midst. Australian society, no doubt partly because of the newcomers' influence, is in the process of developing relativistic, pragmatic and change recognizing value systems.

Who knows better than the immigrant, however, that Australia is not yet, at least in political science terms, a modern society? It is "the freedom to make rational and effective public choices (which is) the key distinguishing mark of the citizen of a modern polity, a polity that is different from all others precisely because it gives power to, and maintains a structure of procedures for all rational citizens to make effective their public preferences in complex and impersonal situations". This, I would say, is the ideal of Australian society to which all immigrants aspire. It is they who must guide the Australian people, then, away from the dangers of the pluralistic society towards the deliverance of the modern.

This new-found, national, multicultural self-consciousness to which I have referred, raises another question as profound as that which poses as problematic the ideal for Australian society. This is the question of the ideal of knowledge to which Australian educators should aspire. To date, I believe, that the only ideal of knowledge which has been pursued in the Australian classroom is the ideal of knowledge which is simply information. This is not surprising, since the Australian school system was modeled on the British one. The latter was established, historically, to ensure that Britain's rapidly developing industrial society could get its clerical work done in particular, and, in general, could, as an industrial society manipulate the physical and social environment and itself to maintain the status quo. To this technological end, the transmission of information was and, of course, still is increasingly needed.

Australians are now gradually realizing, however, along with all citizens of the Western World, that no society can survive on the mere transmission of information. There are a few ethnic writers on Australian education who inveigh against the fact that for many years ethnic children have been obliged by the Australian school system to leave their cultural heritage at the school gate as it were. Unfortunately, I have never read any such commentary by Australian writers on the plight of Australian children as they enter the school grounds! Yet, I believe that Australian children, as well, have not been offered any real opportunity in their "school" life experience to relate the enshrined elements of their own, much less the ethnic cultures, to current elements in the Australian culture. No cultural elements, ethnic or otherwise, have been restored to real currency in the children's lives.6

I contend that Australian schools will never be able to perform their cultural role, that is, will never be able to empower children to experience a detached "culturing" system, through which they can come to use symbolic forms critically and self-consciously,7 until Australian educators aspire to a quite different ideal of knowledge, namely, that of interpretation. It is the advancement of this ideal of knowledge which allows a society not only to be, but also to become. My anxiety is that Australian teachers, suffused with a nascent sense of the multicultural may come only as cultural invaders to the children of other cultural worlds, and, still with the mere transmission of information as their ideal, simply teach children about, inform them about, other cultural worlds, so that these worlds become nothing but objects of instruction, devoid of any meaning for the children's lives.

If Australian teachers were to pursue as their ideal of knowledge that of interpretation, then together with the children, they would seek to enter into these other worlds to try and discover what were, or are the concerns the doubts, the hopes, the fears of the people in these worlds. They would strive to perceive not only what people in these other cultural worlds did or do, but why they did act or now act so. In short, they would endeavor to expose, for themselves and their students, the real meaning of it all.

This richness of symbolic understanding, which the pursuit of interpretation as the ideal of knowledge demands, is to be found in the fine arts in architecture, dance, drama, music, painting, poetry and sculpture. It is in the arts that we find reflected the meaning of human life as it was or as it is. It is the very raison d'etre of the arts that in architecture, "the creative planning and construction with 'the' physical substance of a human milieu"; in dance, "in the imaginative and organized execution of human activity in three-dimensional space"; in music, in "sounds in the form of melody, harmony and rhythm"; in painting, involving "visual image organized with line, mass, color, and texture"; in poetry, in "the construction of verbal images with words"; and in sculpture, in "the formulation of material into a three dimensional image", the meaning of the most intense moments of human existence, now or then, can be recorded.8

It cannot be denied that drama, dance, music, painting, poetry and sculpture are all "done" in the Australian classroom. How well they are done is quite another matter! How well they can ever be done without teachers being sensitized to the symbols of others in their own times and of their own or different cultures is a matter for grave concern.

This sensitization must begin with Australian teachers first being made responsible to the symbols of others in their own times and culture; with Australian teachers being helped to grasp the artist's vision of life, to share with the artist that power of seeing into life and making sense of what is seen the purpose of man's existence, the essence of life, man's relationship with nature and with his fellowmen, the endurance of man's life and work, in short, with Australian teachers being assisted to appreciate the artist's attempt to face up to those recurrent questions which face all human beings, whatever their culture. Thus educated, not merely trained, Australian educators may be ready to appreciate the symbols of others in their own times, but of different cultures.

Ethnic Australians can join with all other Australians to press for this sensitization process to begin. During the past few years Australian public school systems have invited, as most of their Western World counterparts have already done for decades, "grass roots" participation in educational policy and management. The ethnic community voice can now be heard. However, it is only the ethnic Australians who can bring the sensitization process outlined above to completion. It is only they who can play the part of critic for Australian educators in the true sense of that word. It is the Baltic peoples alone, who can enable the Australian uninitiated to understand, for example, what ethnic architects, artists, musicians, sculptors or poets see in life in their cultural worlds and what they make of what is seen.


This, then, is what I believe to be the critical challenge to ethnic cultural consciousness, not only in Australia, but throughout the Western World: not simply to guard the riches of one's own culture, to keep the past from dissipating, lest it should be forgotten, tragically, that there ever was a free Lithuania, a free Latvia or a free Estonia! Rather, I believe it is the historic mission of all ethnic groups which stand for freedom, to continue to watch over freedom to keep the possible inviolable. It was this vigil which brought them to the countries of their refuge. The ethnic experience in Australia has been hard, but the gifts of that experience can be claimed because they are real. The essence of human experience is reciprocal freeing. The truth of the ethnic presence among all citizens of the free world and the true response by all, is not for either the ethnic or the host group to induct and confirm, but to transform; to free the energies of the human spirit and call forth new cultural powers each from all the others. This is the high potentiality of the ethnic presence. This is the crucial challenge.


1 Putnins, A. L, Immigrant Adjustment: A Note on Kovacs and Cropley's Model, Lituanus, 1980, 26, 50-54.
2 Muzikants, B., Reflections On The Implications Of Bilingualism And BiCulturalism, Lituanus, 1980, 26, p. 27.
3 Kroeber, A. L and Kluckhohn, C, Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions, Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 47. 26.
4 Cited by Silvert, K. H., Man's Power, New York: The Viking Press, 1970. p. 106.
5 van den Berghe, P. Race and Racism. New York: Wiley, 1967, p. 34.
6 Silvert, K. H. op. cit., p. 111.
7 Reynolds, J. and Skilbeck, M., Culture and the Classroom, London: Open Books, 1976.
8 Smiley, S., Playwriting, Englewood Cliffs, New York: Prentice Hall, 1971, p. 111.