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Nilgiris Field Learning Center

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NFLC student’s Blog: The Health of Nations

The Health of Nations

By  Jake Pero

In his capitalist manifesto, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith asserted that “science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.”  Such a claim touts the pure objectivism of science as a righteous tool to detach individuals from their ‘poisonous’ traditions and feelings.  It asserts a great detail of influence on contemporary societies, and was on my mind during our discussions of infant health and nutrition this week.

Devi, a NFLC student, and Sri Ram, a new resident of her native village, Banglapadigai

Our peers from the Nilgiris have different opinions on how to nourish a baby than we do.  American parents often purchase as many books as they can carry on child rearing a few weeks into pregnancy.  Many of my Cornell classmates, myself included, have little experience with babies.  Some of us even have an active aversion towards babies and toddlers.  I can remember holding a baby one time in my life about twelve years ago and have never picked one up since.  I generally felt uncomfortable interacting with them, thinking that their safety and proper upbringing is best left to the medical experts.  So, to me, it feels natural for an expecting parent in the U.S. to seek the guidance of published experts given their lack of intuition or comfort.

But here in the Nilgiris, students our age show great comfort in dealing with babies.  During the first year of a baby’s life, friends and relatives hold ceremonies to bless the child.  The infants as well as the communities are always in each other’s presence, cultivating a great deal of warmth and ease between them.  Though they may not know the scientific nutritionists’ guidelines on how long to exclusively breastfeed newborns, they can readily tell you how to prevent bad luck, evil, and jealously from entering the child’s life.  Through their experiences in their families and communities, our peers know which oils and herbs to wash the baby with or when to touch her tongue to gold to ensure prosperity throughout her time on Earth.

And with these practices come opportunities to develop a deep social connection with the child.  By engaging in this way, parents establish a fond relationship with the child as well as a mutual cultural grounding.  So Americans and the people we have met in the Nilgiris clearly take different approaches to raising their children.  We put our trust in doctors educated at universities while they put their trust equally in elders taught by ancestors passed.  However, though the American parent’s child may grow taller or get sick less, it may not have the same social connections to the people around it as a child from the Nilgiris.

When we took a trip to a local Primary Health Center (PHC), we had an extensive conversation with the head doctor there.  Using complex medical terms, he described the PHC’s efforts to treat anemia and curb overpopulation in the region.  He then credited the low attendance of tribal people to their low IQs.  Like Smith, he discredits the healing of the soul that tradition can bring in times of distress.  As such, the doctor’s only way to rationalize the tribal people’s aversion to his treatment was by deeming them stupid – or poisoned by superstition.

Deities depicted on the walls of a Primary Health Center (PHC) in the Nilgiris District

Attitudes like the PHC doctor and Smith’s look past the enthusiasm that incentivizes child rearing in the first place.  Why put in the effort of perfectly nourishing a child without teaching it all the traditions that made your childhood happy and full?  To degrade these efforts by labeling them as ‘poison’ or ‘products of low IQ’ would be to say our biology takes precedence over our humanity.  However, one cannot exist without the other. But to ask for such a hierarchy asks for humans to exist without living.

So when it comes to the science of nutrition, we should employ it to look closely at our enthusiasm and superstition, not cleanse us of it.  True science values inquiry to understand human well-being. But when we put our trust only in science, we lose sight of some of the most enriching parts of the human experience.  But when we put our trust only in culture, we run the risk of watching all we love die out.   So a common ground must be wrought that calls for science to keep cultural preservation in mind.  Only then will the wealth – and health – of nations shine through.

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