Culture versus Civilization

There is a general opinion that culture should be taught in foreign language classes, but nobody knows for sure what this means or how we can distinguish between the concepts of culture and civilization and to what extent they can be used in class.

The notions ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’ are often used interchangeably, the term of culture being usually used as a synonym of civilization. But sociologists differentiate culture and civilization as different levels of a phenomenon.
The term “civilization” refers to things which are extremely valued and appreciated, such as respect of people for one another, the sanctity of life and deep appreciation of the good, the ethical and the beautiful. Consequently, those who did not have such attributes were regarded as barbaric or uncivilized.

MacIver and Page consider that “by civilization we mean the whole mechanism and organization which man has designed in his endeavour to control the conditions of life” (1962). Similarly, S.M. Fairchild stated that “it is the higher stage of cultural development characterized by intellectual, aesthetic, technological and spiritual attainment” (1908). Thus, he made reference of ”civilized peoples” in contrast to “uncivilized or non-civilized peoples”, concluding that:

“Culture is an end (values and goals) in itself while civilization is a means (tools and techniques) to an end. … Culture has no value in itself but it is a measurement by which we can value other articles of civilization. We cannot determine the value of culture, i.e., beliefs, norms, ideas, etc., but the value of anything can be determined by its measurement standard. Culture is a measuring rod or weighing balance” (1908).

Civilization is always advancing; culture may show no progress. Cultural facts like dramatic plays or poems may not be necessarily better today than Shakespeare’s works or Dickens’s novels. Civilization is easily transmitted to the next generation, being just a matter of inheritance, a copied behaviour, while culture demands a certain level of intelligence in order to be understood. Culture deals with the inner values of society (religion, customs, conventions, etc), while civilization expresses the outer form of society (t.v. , radio, fans, etc).

A rough definition of culture points out what a culture is not, i.e. culture is not geography, history, folklore, sociology, literature, civilization. In Teaching culture in the foreign language classroom, American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, New York, Nelson Brooks clarifies the concept as it follows:

“Culture is not the same as geography. Though the study of geography began with the Greeks, geography itself is as old as the earth, and thus far older than the human culture which is our present concern. Geography is the stage upon which the drama of human culture is played. But the play’s the thing, not the scenery” (1968).

He also states that culture is not the same as history. History is present everywhere, in everything, there is even a history of history. Even if it is much younger than geography, human culture is far older than history, because culture seems to go back in time for more than two million years.

“Culture is not the same as folklore, the systematically studied customs, legends and superstitions that are transmitted in an informal way from one generation to another by means of oral communication.” (Brooks, 1968)

Folklore can be very useful in understanding primitive societies, but it can provide only a limited and partial view of what we mean by culture.

Culture is not the same as sociology, according to the same linguist. While sociology tries to formulate laws governing the behaviour of large numbers of people, it is interested in the general rather than in the specific.

“Culture is not the same as literature. A literary work presents a personal perspective on the predicaments of human life, upon which is superimposed- if it really is literature-a flood-light of intent, effect, and affect that is the very essence of fine art.” (Brooks, 1968) Literature provides us with only a part of what needs to be taught as representing culture.

And above all, culture is not the same as civilization. The distinction between these two concepts is a major problem for both teachers and students. The word civilization itself, derived from the Latin word meaning the inhabitant of a town or city, is perhaps the best starting point in establishing essential differences. Civilization deals with a developed state of human society, in which culture, science, industry, and government have considerably advanced reaching a very high level.

The difference between these notions becomes more obvious and Brook’s definition seems convincing if we think that the most important single criterion in distinguishing culture from geography, history, folklore, sociology, literature and civilization is the fact that in culture we never lose sight of the individual.

Culture can be seen as biological growth, personal refinement, literature and the fine arts, patterns for living or the sum of a way of life. In culture interest is represented by the area where social and individual patterns meet and interrelate. What is important in culture is the interchange and the mutual effect of each upon the other. This is the reason why we look to history, geography, sociology, linguistics, and psychology which provide essential background information.

Brooks, N. (1968). Teaching culture in the foreign language classroom. American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, New York
Eagleton, T. (2000). The idea of culture. Oxford: Blackwell
Fairchild, S. M. (1908). Mysteries of Civilization or How I Earned My Homestead and How I Lost it. Minneapolis
Gill, S; Cankova, M. (2000). Oxford Basics: Intercultural Activities, Oxford
MacIver & Page, R. M. / Charles H.(1962) Society: An Introductory Analysis. MacMillan.

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