Pedagogica: diversiGUIDE – Exploring ancient well-worn wisdom & fresh insights

When I was a child, I received two proverbial messages from my mother: "A stitch in time saves nine", could be said to urge me to tie my shoes without delay and get on the road with her to the grocery store, while, "Haste makes waste", was used to slow me down when I was impatient with some household task.

Proverbs and maxims apparently go back beyond recorded history, features of language which shape our cultures and personalities by their rhythmic repetition and memorability. They also serve as keys to what cultures value and their preferred solutions to everyday living in the ecology in which they find themselves. They can be clues to how we think about and manage everyday life as well as express our culture's likes and dislikes. Thus, they are worth looking at and sharing as we seek to understand each other's differences. As in the case of my mother's advice, the context in which these are used is key to their function. Only on the abstract would the two examples I cited be contradictory. However, in the bigger picture they will indicate sets of attitudes embraced by our familial cultural discourse.

Some are far clearer in revealing a cultural orientation – take for example the Malagasy proverb, "Strangers are not people but gods for whom there was no room in the heavens." Compare the Sicilian saying, "Don't trust old people and strangers."

Related to these are also the wise and insightful sayings of individuals in more recent times, which are memorable for their perspicacity and resonance with what we perceive as a current reality. As a history buff, a favorite of mine is attributed in various forms to the philosopher George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." They may say as much about the culture of the speaker and the listener as well as the topic under discussion. Sayings may also elucidate the culture of a place or an organization and may be informally introduced our conversation as simply as, "As they say around here…"

What we often hear as slogans, political and commercial, are frequently the work of cultural intermediaries, those who make it their business to draw on established discourse, proverbs and sayings with the particular intent of creating agreement to a specific agenda, making the purchase of an idea or object the obvious choice. Their repetition has the power of generating desired realities. They are also worth examining as part of our cultural baggage.

In any case, highlighting, sharing, and discussing proverbial wisdom and influential insights, the language that we interiorize and use to guide our behavior, attitudes and feelings, is one way of getting beyond raw judgments, classifications, and often bias about others.

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