CRI’s Culture 4.0

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Through hundreds of specific essays, images, maps, and links to online resources, Cultural Resource, Inc.’s Culture 4.0 aims to give a comprehensive, contextual overview of Western culture. The ambitious project organizes a wealth of information about history, literature, art, music, religion, philosophy, and science into easy-to-view categories. In addition to over 20,000 links to online resources, the authors have included over 1,500 short essays, written especially for the project, on specific historical, cultural, and political figures and events. Culture 4.0 admirably achieves the authors’ intention of transforming the computer into a “cultural literacy workstation,” giving students an organized, single source for pursuing background and contextual information of the general sort that, in the words of Lionel Trilling, comprises “what a student must experience and understand to be called educated,” at least in certain milieus and relative to certain expectations.

The program is a browser-based collection of essays, outlines, grids, maps, images, and links; users can access summaries and essays by subject or by historical period. Culture 4.0 divides Western history into nine discrete periods. Though this makes for occasional anachronisms (Sigmund Freud, for instance, is treated in the Romantic rather than the Twentieth Century period), it generally provides a useful heuristic for accessing specific topical information. Within the periods, subcategories organize information according to subject and nation, and a program-specific search engine allows users to search for specific words or phrases.

Though the range of essays is quite broad, including pieces on many lesser-known or obscure figures, the user in search of depth will generally have to rely on the external links, many of which connect to online encyclopedias that have longer, more comprehensive essays. (Some of the links are outdated, but this is probably unavoidable in a disk-based collection.) This raises the question of the pedagogical purpose of the breadth-over-depth approach; while users might simply treat the program as an Internet index, the internal hypertext links encourage random and undirected pathways rather than systematic and linear inquiry.

Still, in leaping from subject to subject, casual browsers may indeed become aware of lines of historical influence, cross-disciplinary communication and Zeitgeist. These implicit connections are partly reinforced by general overview essays for each historical period and subject.

The pedagogical aim of the software sometimes bears another level of questioning, however, in the details of its demarcation of Western culture. A section of the program’s introduction titled “The Value of Western Civilization” theorizes education as partly an attempt to convey the “heritage” of a “people.” This, along with the program’s content, suggests that the West is here treated neither as a region (for maps of the Middle East are included, but only those relevant to Western history, especially biblical history) nor as a set of ideas (for the authors pay ample attention to historical and political events), but as a set of values, social customs, and technologies considered to be “pervasive in American society.” One important pedagogical application of Culture 4.0 might, in fact, be to raise questions about how both the limits of Western culture and the idea of cultural literacy as knowledge of that culture have been and continue to be understood and defined.

P.M. Livingston
Humanities Instructor
University of California, Irvine
plivings@uci.edu


Contact Information
Cultural Resources, Inc.
Cranford, NJ
(908) 709-1574
www.culturalresources.com/

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.

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