Journal of Nursing Education

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EDITORIAL 

Cultural Wisdom, Traditional Inherited Knowledge, and Modern Science: Gathering the Global Stories of Nurses

Birgit Negussie, PhD, RNM

Abstract

Around the globe nursing has gradually developed from a vocational-oriented profession toward an independent academic science. At the dawn of the 21st century, nurses in every country are challenged with technology, sophisticated diagnoses, and medical pharmaceutical and disease-oriented treatment modalities. Worldwide nursing is at risk of becoming bite and pieces of distributing treatments rather than providing care to sick persons. The pressures of modern science in nursing threaten traditional, often oral, inherited knowledge that reflects the cultural wisdom of people worldwide. How can global nursing education safeguard the cultural wisdom, traditional inherited knowledge, and modern science?

The global challenge in nursing education is understanding how the science of nursing can and should be embraced without losing the traditional practices and knowledge of cultures. It is easy to have modern science compete with traditional practices and knowledge, with modern technical approaches and practices overtaking more traditional ones. However, perhaps modern science and traditional inherited knowledge are complementary rather than contradictory. Stories preserve and make visible the traditional knowledge and wisdom of caring for the sick. But stories also tell how science and modern development are an integral part of caring for the sick.

In my African research, I discovered that traditional knowledge among elderly people constituted an important basis for modern development (Negussie, B., 1988). For example, in traditional infant care it was of great importance to breast-feed, to keep the infant close to the mother, to be careful about the mothers' diet, and use the knowledge of traditional pharmacopoeia in such conditions as complicated births. In Africa, by emphasizing inherited knowledge, people avoid diarrhea, infections, and malnutrition often secondary to contaminated water, prevent the infant from getting cold, and avoid certain food that could affect the infant. Women embrace the traditional pharmacopoeia, when they use the leaves of Ricinus communis as wrappers on swollen breasts and in cases of mastitis, and the problem is quickly solved. However, as modern science arrives, and as nurses are prepared to practice using modern science, the presence of traditional knowledge in the nursing curriculum is threatened and must be preserved. An example of how traditional knowledge can be safeguarded is the establishment of a new health station in Africa, where traditional knowledge has been kept alive alongside science; hence, there is a link between the traditional and the modern. My findings reveal that traditional human health knowledge in combination with modern human health (nursing, medical) knowledge do not need to be contradictory, rather they are complementary (Negussie B., 1994).

Through nursing education, multiple approaches to knowledge development that include traditional inherited knowledge, as well as science can create a place for dialogues on cultural wisdom. Worldwide stories of nurses caring for the sick show the cultural wisdom and inherited knowledge that is so important for modern scientific nursing. In storytelling, the emphasis is on learning rather than teaching cultural wisdom. It is not just the learning of cultural content that matters in these stories. What is described is the thinking, practical wisdom, and inherited traditional knowledge that belongs with the story. The importance and meaning of preserving cultural wisdom and traditional inherited knowledge occurs when stories are interpreted. Perhaps, it is preserving the stories of nurses worldwide that will bring to nursing education a conversation that points to the dangers of a modern science that is not based in cultural wisdom and traditionally inherited knowledge.

No matter how developed a country is, the risks of losing traditional inherited knowledge are great. Every family has inherited knowledge and health practices that are passed on. Helping nursing students learn to respect as well as critique this…

Around the globe nursing has gradually developed from a vocational-oriented profession toward an independent academic science. At the dawn of the 21st century, nurses in every country are challenged with technology, sophisticated diagnoses, and medical pharmaceutical and disease-oriented treatment modalities. Worldwide nursing is at risk of becoming bite and pieces of distributing treatments rather than providing care to sick persons. The pressures of modern science in nursing threaten traditional, often oral, inherited knowledge that reflects the cultural wisdom of people worldwide. How can global nursing education safeguard the cultural wisdom, traditional inherited knowledge, and modern science?

The global challenge in nursing education is understanding how the science of nursing can and should be embraced without losing the traditional practices and knowledge of cultures. It is easy to have modern science compete with traditional practices and knowledge, with modern technical approaches and practices overtaking more traditional ones. However, perhaps modern science and traditional inherited knowledge are complementary rather than contradictory. Stories preserve and make visible the traditional knowledge and wisdom of caring for the sick. But stories also tell how science and modern development are an integral part of caring for the sick.

In my African research, I discovered that traditional knowledge among elderly people constituted an important basis for modern development (Negussie, B., 1988). For example, in traditional infant care it was of great importance to breast-feed, to keep the infant close to the mother, to be careful about the mothers' diet, and use the knowledge of traditional pharmacopoeia in such conditions as complicated births. In Africa, by emphasizing inherited knowledge, people avoid diarrhea, infections, and malnutrition often secondary to contaminated water, prevent the infant from getting cold, and avoid certain food that could affect the infant. Women embrace the traditional pharmacopoeia, when they use the leaves of Ricinus communis as wrappers on swollen breasts and in cases of mastitis, and the problem is quickly solved. However, as modern science arrives, and as nurses are prepared to practice using modern science, the presence of traditional knowledge in the nursing curriculum is threatened and must be preserved. An example of how traditional knowledge can be safeguarded is the establishment of a new health station in Africa, where traditional knowledge has been kept alive alongside science; hence, there is a link between the traditional and the modern. My findings reveal that traditional human health knowledge in combination with modern human health (nursing, medical) knowledge do not need to be contradictory, rather they are complementary (Negussie B., 1994).

Through nursing education, multiple approaches to knowledge development that include traditional inherited knowledge, as well as science can create a place for dialogues on cultural wisdom. Worldwide stories of nurses caring for the sick show the cultural wisdom and inherited knowledge that is so important for modern scientific nursing. In storytelling, the emphasis is on learning rather than teaching cultural wisdom. It is not just the learning of cultural content that matters in these stories. What is described is the thinking, practical wisdom, and inherited traditional knowledge that belongs with the story. The importance and meaning of preserving cultural wisdom and traditional inherited knowledge occurs when stories are interpreted. Perhaps, it is preserving the stories of nurses worldwide that will bring to nursing education a conversation that points to the dangers of a modern science that is not based in cultural wisdom and traditionally inherited knowledge.

No matter how developed a country is, the risks of losing traditional inherited knowledge are great. Every family has inherited knowledge and health practices that are passed on. Helping nursing students learn to respect as well as critique this kind of knowing and how it influences modern science is important for students in providing culturally sensitive care. Perhaps nurse educators worldwide can include cultural wisdom, inherited knowledge, and science as central concerns of the nursing curricula. Many schools of nursing are teaching alternative and complementary therapies to beginning nursing students that reflect cultural wisdom and inherited traditional knowledge.

Presentations in this issue of JNE provide examples of nursing and nursing education from several cultures in the world. In China and Hong Kong, traditional health care knowledge and traditional pharmacopoeia thrive, much of it similar to my findings in Africa. Even some of the same plants are used in traditional treatments. In India and through discussions with people from Pakistan, I found a rich and complex traditional health care knowledge that actively complements modern health knowledge. In New Zealand, in meeting with representatives of the Maori people, I experienced their rich cultural wisdom and inherited knowledge. Like the aboriginal people in Australia, this traditional inherited knowledge shapes and is shaped by modern science. The articles in this issue present a broad and global perspective of nursing, modern and traditional. They describe contemporary ways to extend the possibilities in caring for the sick through global nursing education. In developing new partnerships among nurses around the world, the opportunity to share common concerns and issues is created. International collaboration among schools of nursing documents and preserves cultural wisdom and inherited knowledge.

Stories describe the skillfulness of a nurse in envisioning the sick person, in attending to or not attending to providing culturally sensitive care. They show what knowledge shapes the nurses' practice. Creating a global nursing education that is narrative would assure comprehensive nursing care based in cultural wisdom and traditionally inherited knowledge. Respect for multi-cultural, multi-methodological, and multi-theoretical approaches to knowledge and interdisciplinary practice would be the gift of global postmodern nursing education. Nurses as actors would, together with all other health professionals, sustain through new partnerships the commitment to cultural wisdom and traditionally inherited knowledge. The stories of nursing perhaps gathered through multimedia communication could help nurses safeguard and preserve what every sick person deserves, a caring nurse who understands and listens with great wisdom, and a wealth of all kinds of knowledge. Nursing education that turns on storytelling and embraces cultural wisdom, traditional inherited knowledge, and modern science gathers the global stories of nursing. Shall we begin?

REFERENCES

  • Negussie, B. (1988). Traditional wisdom and modern development. Stockholm: Institute of International Education, Stockholm University.
  • Negussie, B. (1994). Tradition and development: Contradictory or complementary forces in modern development. In M. Sabour (Ed.), Perspectives in development. Voices from the South. Joensuu (Finland): Joensuu University Press.

10.3928/0148-4834-20010501-03

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