“Man as creator and creature of culture”

Why it is vital that we learn from our parents and ancestors

by Moritz Nestor, psychologist

“It is not happy people who are thankful.
It is thankful people who are happy.”
(Sir Francis Bacon)

It is vital, not only for the individual child, that children learn from the experiences of their parents’ generation and from their ancestors. This ultimately affects all areas of a culture. For the generations growing up will one day have to take on responsibility as the supporting pillar of their culture, and their social skills will then be in urgent demand. Eliane Perret examined this problem from the perspective of psychology and pedagogy in her article (“‘You know, if you do it like this, it’ll go well …’ – Why we need to pass on our experience to the next generation” in Current Concerns No. 27 of 7 December 2021). Here, the focus will be on the significance of education for the tradition of culture.

As a result of the spread of a pampering style of upbringing, disorders in children’s language acquisition as well as in their motor skill and social development have been increasing for decades. This is most evident in the increasingly poor pronunciation of many. Considering that the child acquires thought and speech in constant dialogue with its parents, as it is integrated in a trustful relationship with them and thus emotionally supported, the question arises: Why is this dialogue missing or at least reduced to an alarming degree in our culture? A recent scientific study points out that many children today are no longer able to absorb themselves in a game. This also shows an impairment of very basic developmental processes which are a prerequisite for the formation of the learning ability which is part of a healthy child’s personality. Eliane Perret sums up the consequences in her article: “A generation of princes and princesses is growing up who care little about the concerns of the community but insist on their exclusive status.” What does it mean for a society when its children want to learn less and less from the experiences of their parents’ generation?

It is only because culture sustains him, that man becomes capable of life as a human being

The typical behaviour of each animal species “breaks through in each individual by itself on the basis of inherited instinctive traits”. But the tracks along which human life is realised are our own work. “The nature of man is culture”, says anthropologist Adolf Portmann. Man can make the whole world his environment through research and, in living together with his fellow human beings, reshapes nature into “second nature”, into culture. Man’s environment is always the corresponding nature reshaped by him: the “community sphere” (Portmann). For this very reason, however, “the individual, whose creative powers are, after all, limited, is necessarily dependent on the fact that others have already worked before him and that he may profit from what they have achieved”, as the cultural anthropologist Michael Landmann wrote in his 1961 book “Der Mensch als Schöpfer und Geschöpf der Kultur (Man as Creator and Creature of Culture)”, which is well worth reading. “As a cultural being, he is necessarily a being of tradition.” (Landmann, p. 19) “In his entire construction,” man is “directed towards the enveloping medium of culture; he is, as it were, embedded in culture as is the fish in the water and the bird in the atmosphere. It is only thanks to the support this gives him that he stands upright, only because it sustains him that he becomes capable of life as a human being”. (Landmann, p. 22)

Man is first of all a creature of his culture

However, man is not destined for a single form of culture. Man is “an unfinished open question to which he gives himself as many answers as the number of his cultures” (Landmann, p. 27). His social order and social institutions, his customs and traditions, his conception of himself, religion, art, literature, technology and science – the entire behaviour and course of life and the ideological attitudes given in a culture are “the coagulated creativity of our ancestors. What the life of the latecomer is based on was produced by them in their time and then institutionalised”. (Landmann, p. 23)
  The whole diversity of the respective culture into which a child is born is first passed on to it in and by way of the family, then later through kindergarten, school, education, clubs and community life. The child does not learn the language, but always the language of its culture, its mother tongue, and it does not learn a universally valid way of thinking, but the way of thinking and feeling of its own culture, as well as other things. And these are different in every culture. But always the growing child is first of all a creature of its culture and learns everything through identification with its parents and teachers. It has to learn everything; it cannot “create everything by itself, for every human being […] is not only born with the human gift of creation, but is always born into the faithfully recorded creations of earlier generations, which are passed on to the following generations and are made available for the aid of their children. We are always already heirs of a previous world which has in turn already acquired knowledge, created life-saving facilities and accumulated them in a long-lasting cumulative process”. (Landmann, pp. 18 f.)

The child’s high dependence is an advantage

This “cultural inheritance” through tradition is incomparably more malleable than any genetic inheritance. “All our thinking and acting, and even the most intimate things, even our praying and our loving, everything gains […] its shape only through this.” (Landmann, p. 20) The socially prevailing style of education is also the “coagulated creativity” of the respective ancestors. The construction and transmission of all cultural goods take place in and through language. It is itself a creation by successive generations over millennia. Without it, the transmission of a culture dries up.
  The culture created and handed down by human beings is not subject to any kind of historical or natural process that must automatically lead to ever fairer institutions and values. However, it is just as much a part of human nature and fundamentally always within our power to rethink, improve and develop what is traditional, and to strike out on new paths.
  But before man learns to think for himself in later years, during a long period of childhood he is completely a creature of his culture embodied in the persons of his parents and teachers, who introduce him to the lifestyle and intellectual attitudes of his culture and its riches. The child is totally dependent on the social and educational skills of his family which is embedded in its culture. But this is a real advantage. For the later-born child now finds the “collected abundance of this wealth of generations, such as an individual could never acquire in his short life”; he is “the beneficiary of this wealth, he need only grow into the orders and pathways prepared for him since time immemorial, in which his life will then also proceed. And only because he may do this, only because he may use well-trodden paths which also guide him and lead him smoothly to his goal, only for this reason, and not out of his own powers and abilities, he is, for one thing, able to keep himself alive at all and, for the other, to raise his life to an ever-higher level”. (Landmann, pp. 18)

From an authoritarian to a pampering style of parenting – and the consequences

Parents, too, were once creatures of their culture and of the educational tradition of their ancestors. Under the influence of the zeitgeist, they creatively reshape this once they have children of their own. Thus, under the influence of overall societal shifts and ruptures in cultural values and norms, many a person who received an authoritarian upbringing in the 1950s and 1960s became an “anti-authoritarian” educator or even an “anti-pedagogue”, who wanted to educate his children more “freely” – and did so. But from those days when he was still a “creature” of his parents’ educational traditions, unrecognised internalised remnants from the educational tradition of the old culture still lived in him, which always also flowed into his educational behaviour. Often this led to typical procedures: In the well-meaning effort, borne of love, of not wanting to be strict or oppressive – and this was soon understood to mean any normal claim to authority as a person experienced in life – towards the end of the century fewer and fewer parents wanted to adopt an attitude which the animal mother instinctively adopts: that of the pack leader. These parents do not want to be “strict”; they are concerned whether their little ones are “satisfied” with them, want to let the child flourish freely and are quick to consider behavioural corrections as “authoritarian”. A pampering style of upbringing has slowly gained acceptance.
  Precisely because we humans have to learn everything in order to be able to live independently, we have to appreciate the consequences of what it means when, due to a change in cultural values, the transmission of experience to the next generation is diminished or even dries up. For a culture can only be passed on and maintained from generation to generation through upbringing and education. This is most evident in the case of language. Everything that a human culture has created in the course of its history, the vital dense network of values, value attitudes, man-made rules and laws, was created through language and can only be learned through language. If the learning of experiences diminishes, above all also through the atrophy of language, then the all-encompassing bond of culture becomes weaker. Ultimately this will become an irreversible process with tragic consequences for social cohesion in all areas of community life, and ultimately also for the state as a means of culture to ensure a secure and just condition of peace.

Human cultural formation is unique in nature

Human beings are free to do and learn whatever they want - but only within the limits of nature. The nature of man as a cultural and traditional being is a natural fact. The more social the way of life of a species of animal is, the less it will live in a purely hormone- and instinct-driven way. Its members will, on the contrary, also be capable of perceiving, experiencing and acting as subjects themselves – out of their own inner selves. Social learning is therefore observed above all in the higher mammals. Social bonds are vital for the healthy development of new-borns in all primate species. Different ape hordes even develop different forms of behaviour that are passed on through generations. We therefore speak of ape “cultures”. Human culture formation, however, is unique in nature.
  We are not genetically adapted to one environment, but can adapt to all living conditions on earth by creating everything that keeps us alive through cooperation with our conspecifics. This always happens in cultures which also develop the languages that make culture building possible in the first place. Each cultural unit thus shapes areas in the world that we “inhabit”, that we understand and are familiar with, and where the life of the species is protected – and all this in and through an individual language. The human child is born open-minded, “open to the world”, with strong formative and educable social dispositions and an almost unlimited capacity for learning. From the very beginning, its senses are alert to learning from its parents what people are like and how they behave, how adults cope with life in this unknown world, and what this world is like. This is how it grows into its culture.

Cultures as individual answers to life’s tasks

The child learns all the solutions that its culture has developed to make life secure, as if they were natural means. Only later, when it becomes acquainted with other forms of life, does it begin to realise that everything it has hitherto considered natural has been learned, that its own culture’s solutions to the basic questions of subsistence and living together are different from the ways of life in other cultures.
  But all cultures are under the same pressures set by nature: they must protect and preserve life, protect the old, the sick and the weak, provide food, clothing, protection against the weather, pass on life through the family, learn to love, to care for a safe and just form of community life, build friendships and learn to cooperate in small groups, etc. Alfred Adler once summarised all this into the three areas: Love, Work and Community. And the highest civilisational achievements, the best cultural solutions, have been created by those cultures that have in all their cultural creations striven for and realised the goal of humanity, fellow humanity and love of ones neighbours.

Cultural growth through the lessons from ancestral experience

These humane values of a more peaceful culture, its lifestyle and its view of humanity are inherited from one generation to the next through tradition. The respective state of cultural development shows the constructive cooperation of many generations in history. This way of cultural growth is species-typical for humans and is not found in any other species. Only man knows the teacher in the broadest sense of the word. Not every generation has to start all over again to learn everything. Rather, teachers, which of course include above all parents as the first teachers, can impart to others the experiences and skills of generations in history in the form of knowledge. And the new members of a human community already bring into the world observational learning through identification and are thus well equipped by nature to learn from the parent and grandparent generation the ancestral experiences contained in the wealth of their culture.

The natural generational contract and the value of experience …

In this, a natural “contract” binds the successive generations: Without man, man cannot become man. All human community life is always, but especially in the first and last phase of life, fragile and highly dependent on support and help. However, great prosperity and a lifestyle geared towards pleasure and enjoyment increasingly obscure the view of the rich life experiences of the elderly. Actively living life, they have experienced what it means to have lived a whole life span. Young persons at the beginning of life are not yet able to do this. Old people, who can be their teachers, are still living witnesses of the past. It is precisely they who help to ensure that cultural development is not interrupted when they pass on their experiences and those of their ancestors to the next generation. What we might call the wisdom of old age comes from the greater peace of mind of which old people are capable, because they have gained an overview of life. The younger generation in particular can learn from them in order to weigh their own small and large worries of entering life more calmly and confidently through the more experienced realistic view of the elderly person.

… and the shock when the contract breaks!

We humans owe the life they gave to us to the generation of our parents and grandparents. It was through their help and care that we were able to become humans. Therefore we all feel a deep obligation of gratitude and want to give back to them today what was once given to us by them – given out of love, without our asking for it. This invisible contract naturally binds the generations together. It forms the core of our social nature. Just as we were then as children, the old generation is now entitled to the same full commitment and loving care that we once gladly received from them. This is the natural right of the generation of parents who have grown old. This intergenerational contract is irrevocable. We can violate it, but a person’s “mistaken opinion of himself and of the tasks of life sooner or later meets with the sharp objection of reality, which demands solutions in the spirit of community”, since without mutual help human coexistence becomes impossible. “What happens in this collision can be compared to a shock effect,” Alfred Adler remarks: the co-human damage is an accusatory expression of the denied right to assistance.

Being grateful to our ancestors, as without them we would not exist

When we realise that everything we have to live on is a joint effort of countless generations over many centuries, a construction that no generation, and certainly no one person alone, can manage, then an insight comes to the fore that is threatening to disappear today: as a human being, I have every reason to be grateful to my ancestors, for without them I would not be here. And I want to pass on to the next generation in an improved way what I was given when I grew up in this world. Only in this way can we live as human beings and not as Robinsons who despair. Otto Friedrich Bolnow called this the “virtue of gratitude”.

"If a teacher teaches you one sentence, then you must be grateful to him for the rest of your life”

I taught German as a foreign language for many years. In one of my classes there once sat a forty-year-old father of a family from Egypt. Next to him was an Italian, maybe 18 years old, with a pronounced attitude of male prestige, who was unable to learn because he refused to be told anything – one of those spoilt “princes” who were not yet so common at that time. The Egyptian did not look on for long. He came from the Arab culture, he told the class, he did not understand why people did not want to learn from others. His father had taught him, he said, “If a teacher teaches you one sentence, you have to be grateful to him all your life.” I can still see his laughing face: he was so sure of this. He was proud of his father and of his culture, which had given him this certainty on his life’s journey. “We venerate the teacher! The teacher, that is what is most important!” he beamed at us all. This man was grateful! - and: he had the same certainty as the mother dog who instinctively guides her puppies correctly. This is what Landmann meant when he wrote: Man is by his nature “oriented towards the enveloping medium of culture; he is embedded in it in a sense similar to the fish in the water and the bird in the atmosphere. It is only thanks to the support it gives him that he stands upright, only because it carries him that he becomes able to live as a human”. (Landmann, p. 22)

The spoilt child lacks training for mutual support

The spoilt child never realises this greater connection. Here we sense the grave consequences of a generation of princes and princesses who can no longer take care of the needs of their communities because every service to others seems an imposition. The pampered person takes for granted what is given to him by culture, demands it, “enjoys” it, but no longer feels a loving obligation to the benefactors who have gladly given and handed down everything to him out of love. He cannot be grateful for what he has been given and will hardly develop the need to give something to his descendants as well. “The grateful person continues to feel obliged to his benefactor; the ungrateful person immediately forgets the good he has received” and "is not minded to let consequences arise from this for his later behaviour. However, in so doing he places himself outside his natural community. […] Gratitude is in this way a virtue that makes human coexistence smooth and frictionless.” (Bollnow, p. 130) But the spoiled person lacks the training for mutual support. “There is a peculiar warmth of human affiliation which springs from the consciousness of being obliged and which easily combines with the feeling of an adoring affection.” (Bollnow, p. 130) The achievements of culture are in fact a gift from the previous world to the coming generations, created for the future without the possibility to reap the fruits themselves, so that those who come may gain a firmer hold on life as human beings and a secure identity in and through attachment to their culture. The natural feeling, however, of which every human being is intrinsically capable and to which the spoilt individual should find access again, is gratitude for the fact that my life is not my work alone. But this always presupposes human maturity, the understanding that man can never live by his own efforts, but that “the best must always be given to us”, namely the love of parents and the cooperation of an entire culture over centuries, that these give and cherish and pass on life: the good teachers in the broadest sense, who, alongside parents, pass on the protective culture.

Assistance can only flourish in freedom and love

The reciprocity between generations is an invisible contract, but one in which performance is not exchanged for performance economically. This contract is the natural bond of human solidarity and is based on an unforeseeable “service” given without any claim to a service in return, which “generates in the other person the willingness to respond in future cases with a voluntary service that cannot be achieved by any contractual coercion”. (Bollnow, p. 130) Genuine gratitude happens in freedom and love and is precisely not a slavish relationship of dependence. But how could this be conveyed to a generation of princesses and princes? This question arises in the face of a reality in education that we ourselves have created and that only we can change.

The natural desire to help can become a characteristic of nature

Man is the only being in nature that can, indeed must, create social institutions in order to survive: Everything that a culture has created in the way of institutions of public order, of justice – from the simplest rules of etiquette in the family up to state institutions – everything has never come from those who think, feel and act alone. Helpfulness and cooperation mature in the human child in the course of its first year of life and then emerge as an inner need. This is the core of the human social nature and does not have to be instilled. It can be formed into the salient characteristic of a human being. In this way, human children can learn to develop a secure identity as well as thinking and feeling for the community in a man-made cultural world. This is what the human sciences tell us.
  What a great cultural treasure, what a beautiful thought. Only our actions, borne by insight and compassion, can bring this treasure to life.  •

Literature used:
Christophe Boesch. Wild cultures: a comparison between chimpanzee and human cultures. Cambridge University Press 2012
Otto Friedrich Bollnow. Neue Geborgenheit (New Security). Stuttgart/Berlin/Cologne 1973
Daniel Haun. Primatenkultur? Kulturelle Unterschiede im Sozialverhalten von Schimpansen (Primate culture? Cultural differences in the social behaviour of chimpanzees. Lecture in the context of the Collegium generale). Bern 2016
Michael Landmann. Man as Creator and Creature of Culture. See: Becoming Human as Cultural Challenge and Creative Chance. Munich 1961
Adolf Portmann. Biologische Fragmente zu einer Lehre vom Menschen (Biological fragments for a doctrine of man). Basel 1951
Evelyn Schmidt and Hans Dieter Richter. Entwicklungswunder Mensch (Man as a Miracle of Development). Leipzig 1986
Michael Tomasello. Why we cooperate, MIT Press, 2009 (based on the 2008 Tanner lectures on human values at Stanford University)

Our website uses cookies so that we can continually improve the page and provide you with an optimized visitor experience. If you continue reading this website, you agree to the use of cookies. Further information regarding cookies can be found in the data protection note.

If you want to prevent the setting of cookies (for example, Google Analytics), you can set this up by using this browser add-on.​​​​​​​