It was a course in cultural anthropology, and the first question on the final exam was, “What is culture?”
My answer was brief:
Culture is an assemblage of behavior patterns based on beliefs which are assembled from ideals abstracted (hopefully) from some original experience…which then become more sophisticated through accumulations of merged abstractions further up the hierarchic chain. For example, few people will urinate in a glass of water they are about to drink, but many will piss in the pond from which it was drawn.
Judging from the professor’s note scribbled in the margin (“What the f**k is this?!”), it was not well received. But the question reminded me of an experience on the day I registered a few months earlier.
It was a brand new campus. All the major buildings had been constructed, and the lawns had been recently seeded, fertilized, and were being continuously watered with a fine mist. And for protection, the landscapers had meticulously strung twine around the perimeter of each lawn, about a foot off the ground, and from it had periodically suspended little signs saying “PLEASE USE SIDEWALKS!” Within days the stakes, twine and little signs had been pounded into the mud as thousands of feet trampled over them getting hither and yon in the most direct way. And by the day of that test the many carefully ‘plotted’ sidewalks still looked just as new as when they were first poured…except where they happened to intersect one of the many deepening paths that had been worn through what was left of those newly planted lawns.
Ideals, beliefs, and expectations derived therefrom…resulted in a labyrinth of broad, largely unused sidewalks that were to become a lasting monument to how people should go their way. It would have been much better to wait, I thought, until the ‘paths’ had formed–as they would anyway–and then pour the concrete,* and then plant the lawns. It would have then put an end to all those muddy paths, and eliminated those many (ideally conceived?) sidewalks to nowhere.
*Some would say stones are better; they rise and fall with the earth and weather, and look no worse for wear. ;-)