Creating a CISV'er
International Summer Villages as a Knowledge Transmission Technique

Mona Paulsrud

Article based on the Master Thesis: Meget er forskjellig, men inni er vi like? Om voksne og barn på internasjonal barneleir
Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen 1998

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Table of Contents

The Structure of Initiation Rites
Context-bound Knowledge Transmission
Indigenous Pedagogical Philosophy
Context-bound Pedagogics in Practice
Dynamics of Context-bound Knowledge Transmission
Achievements of Context-bound Knowledge Transmission
Insiders and Outsiders


The organisation CISV (Children's International Summer Villages) has since 1951 arranged four-week long international villages for 11-year-old children. Since the first village, the organisation has expanded to most parts of the world, and in the period 1951-97 134.433 individuals have participated in some kind of international activity arranged by this organisation[1].

After such a long history of international expansion, it is natural to ask questions like: What are the effects of a village-experience on the child delegates? What is charateristic of "the CISV'er", a concept used by the organisation to describe its members?

This article is trying to answer these questions, maybe in an unexpected manner, by analysing a specific pedagogical technique, of which CISV villages are an example. My analysis is based on one year of fieldwork within the organisation, with a bottom-up perspective on pedagogical practice.

I will start my analysis by taking you all on a journey. The journey goes to the inner highlands of New Guinea, to a community of 183 individuals called the Baktaman nation, studied by Fredrik Barth in 1968.[2] The Baktaman inhabit the rain forest and live from taro, which they cultivate in gardens, and from pig raising. They speak the Seltaman dialect of the Faiwol language, and have no concept of reading nor writing. Baktaman thinking is focused on places, as chronological time is not a part of their concept of the world.

What is important for us, is that these 183 individuals sustain a world of their own, a way of living and explaining life that is specific to them. This world is so small that a fully grown man knows and is able to master all of it. To obtain this knowledge, a man must pass through seven initiation rites, where he gradually is introduced to all the knowledge necessary to master the Baktaman world.

As strange as it might seem, the pedagogics of Baktaman rituals is my point of departure in this comparative analysis of CISV villages and Baktaman initiation rites. The purpose of the comparison is trying to reveal the mystery of them both.

The Structure of Initiation Rites

A small Baktaman boy lives in the hut of his mother, in the women's world, until suddenly one night, the men appear in the hut and take him away from a protesting mother. The men take him to the forest, where he meets other frightened young boys from the village. They are told to rub their bodies with dew from the leaves, and then, for the first time of their lives, they are taken into the men's house. Further, the boys are sent to the forest to build a hut. In this hut they must live for some weeks, hunt their own food and perform prescribed ritual actions. When the young boy returns to the village after this period of seclusion, he is no longer a part of the women's world, but becoming a man. This is the first stage in the Baktaman initiation rites.

Once again; what is the relevance of this exotic story for CISV villages? CISV was founded by, and still is run by adults who want to teach children a certain way of living and explaining their lives. Similarly, the Baktaman elder wishes to teach the youngsters his way of living and explaining life.

The adults have a specific goal motivating their pedagogical activity. CISV wants to raise future adults with leadership-capacity, who, in their turn, will use this capacity to work towards the ultimate goal of world peace. To reach this goal, the organisation intends to create friendship between children from different countries. Therefore it arranges international villages for young children.

If we take a closer look at the villages, we find that they are arranged in a manner we recognize from the Baktaman initiation rites: CISV children are also separated from their parents, even though not in the same brutal manner as the Baktaman boys. Then they travel far away from their home community to stay for a limited period of time in a social environment isolated from the rest of the world. During this period of seclusion, the children are to learn what the adults consider important to pass on to the next generation.

In the Baktaman case, the knowledge to be transmitted during the period of seclusion is the explanation of the mystery of life. In the CISV case, the core knowledge is that all human beings are essentially the same, and therefore we should not make wars against each other.

When the period of seclusion from society is over, both the CISV and the Baktaman novice is reintegrated into the community he came from with a new status, the Baktaman boy as a young man, the 11-year-old as a "CISV'er".

This ritual structure of separation, seclusion and reintegration is characteristic of all initiation rites[3], and can also be found in the CISV villages. This conclusion is our point of departure for further analysis of both villages and initiation rites, as a pedagoical technique employed by elder members of society in trying to shape and teach junior members of society.

Context-bound Knowledge Transmission

When an 11-year-old child is to travel to a CISV village, he or she is introduced to a new set of symbols and ritual actions. The child gets to know a CISV flag, which is raised and lowered at specific times of day, accompanied by ritual actions and a CISV song. The child is wearing a CISV uniform, where the same symbol as on the flag is marking this child as a CISV child.

In communicating their message to the novice, the CISV adults use the same communicative technique as the Baktaman ritual leader: a technique of symbol communication. When the Baktaman boy is introduced to the secrets of the men's world, he is not told directly that, for example, the scrubbing with dew implies growth and retention. He is told to do the scrubbing every day during his period of seclusion. The intention behind doing so is that he will learn to associate dew with his incipient manhood, and thus with growth.

This kind of symbol communication continues through all the seven stages of Baktaman initiation rites. In a ritual context, an elder gradually introduces the novices to symbols of the Baktaman fertility cult. The elder says little about the meaning of these symbols. It is up to the novices to interpret them on the basis of their personal experience of the ritual.

In the same way, CISV does not articulate the message that is sent to the novices in the villages. It is communicated through songs, symbols and what is called activities. An activity is a situation organised by adults, where a child is to perform a set of pre-defined actions. In so doing, the child is to capture a message defined by adults, on the basis of the child's personal experience of the action. During the course of a CISV village the adults gradually introduce the novices to new types of activities with more complex messages. The creation of a CISV'er is organised in stages of pre-arranged situations of symbol communication, just like Baktaman initiation.

Let us now take a look at a discussion at a leader's meeting in a CISV village: The village has been going on for about a week, and the kids are behaving in a manner not appropriate to the goals of their stay together. The leaders are discussing what to do about the problem. One leader suggests that they should put up a poster with the goals of the village, for the children to see. But more experienced CISV-leaders protest: The children are not to know these things now, they are to realize them later. One leader says:
"They are learning without knowing".

This serves as an example of how the basic pedagogical principle in CISV is interpreted by its leaders. That is the principle named "learning by doing". In a leadership training camp, new CISV leaders were explained the meaning of this principle as follows:

Learning by doing means that we are not to tell kids what the culture is like in different countries. The kids are to experience themselves that we can be friends across cultures and languages.

The "learning by doing" principle, understood in this way, makes the villages share another characteristic with the Baktaman mystery cult: the basic principle of secrecy. The meaning behind ongoing action is never told directly to the novices.

Barth names the Baktaman ritual elder a conjurer[4], a teacher who communicates through symbol communication in specific contexts needed for the communication flow. For example, he cannot perform rituals outside the men's house or the temple. His pedagogical activity is context bound. Barth then creates a contrasting teacher-model: the guru. The guru is a teacher who communicates with his novices through explicit instruction, and so his form of knowledge is decontextualized. The novices can take the guru's message with them and spread it to others.

Barth's distinction between the guru and the conjurer is identical with the division in pedagogical literature[5] between context-bound knowledge transmission and decontextualized knowledge transmission. The latter is traditionally found in schools. Context-bound knowledge transmission is what we find both in CISV villages and in Baktaman initiation.

In conclusion, CISV villages and Baktaman initiation rites have in common a ritual structure of three phases, symbol communication and secrecy about the goals of ongoing action, making the message a mystery for the novices to unravel.

This is our point of departure when we now explore the achievements and dynamics of context-bound knowledge transmission.

Indigenous Pedagogical Philosophy

When a Baktaman ritual elder introduces his secret symbols of the fertility cult to the novices in the temple, he does so with an idea that the novices will capture his meaning of the symbols. This is basically the same pedagogical idea as the CISV programme is founded on. We saw this idea in the indigenous explanation of the "learning by doing" principle:

The children are to experience themselves that we can be friends across cultures and languages.

The adult presupposes that through context-bound knowledge transmission it is possible for the child to capture the intended meaning of the adult. Despite the differences between Baktaman society and CISV villages, they both share this common pedagogical philosophy.

In analysing CISV's pedagogical thought, I choose as my example the so-called activities, because they are considered the major pedagogical tool within the organisation. Activities are various kinds of games and songs, which are performed in CISV villages all over the world. Activities are organized in different categories, like "name games", "communication games" and "trust games". Knowing these activities step by step is an important part of what can be called "CISV lore". The manner in which a CISV'er thinks about the activities depends on his or her position within the organisation:

Most CISV'ers know how to perform a lot of activities and that these activities belong to a CISV context. These are the practitioners, the ones who can teach how an activity is to be performed, and suppose that it serves an undefined CISV purpose.

Further, we find CISV'ers who have been to seminars and learned that every activity has a specific purpose, and that activities should be held in a pedagogical order during the course of the village, according to their purpose. These are the organisers, the ones who can organise a village according to the intention of the organisation.

Finally, we find the ideologists, the top people in the organisation, who debate pedagogics, invent new activities, place them in the right category and evaluate to what extent the activity serves the purpose of the organisastion. All these actors share the idea that an activity is a communicative device conveying an intended message from a sender directly to a recipient.

Figure 1: Indigenous pedagogical model


Within this logic, it is sufficient for an adult to create an activity, a structured set of actions and symbols, whose purpose is to promote, for instance trust, to teach a child what adults define as trust. So when a trust-activity is performed, adults suppose that children are learning how to trust each other. This communicative model furthermore constitutes the basis of the whole village programme. The village as a whole is perceived as a communicative device transporting the message of peace and friendship to its participants.

Context-bound Pedagogics in Practice

Let us take a closer look at one of these trust-activities: "Lumber" is a trust-game that is used frequently in CISV villages. In this game, children are lying next to each other on the floor, with their arms streched up towards the ceiling. On their hands one person at the time is transported. The intention behind this game is that the one being transported on the others' hands has to trust them completely, and that the ones lying on the floor understand that the other's trust is based on their responsibility.

In one village, Ahmed from The Middle East and Jens from a Nordic country had become very good friends. They were an example of a village having reached the goal of friendship across countries. Ahmed and Jens were lying next to each other during the lumber game. As people started passing on top of their hands, they screamed and shouted that people were too heavy. Every time a new person was coming, Jens rose up to see who it was: "Oh no, not HIM!" Then girls started passing by on top of their arms. Ahmed reacted: "I'm not gonna touch a woman THERE!" But he had no choice, since the girls would have fallen down if he hadn't touched them. So instead, the two boys started evaluating the girls passing by according to their looks. One had "nice legs, nice butt and ugly face", another had "ugly legs, nice butt and nice face" and so on.

What we see in this example is a pre-structured situation intended to teach kids to trust each other, becoming a lesson in gender relations in the case of these two boys. What the children experienced was quite different from the adults' intention.     

Examples like this, illustrating that children's experiences seldom matched the adult intention behind the activities, turned out to be one of my major findings during my village fieldworks.

I therefore conclude that the indigenous pedagogical philosophy of both Baktaman and CISV'ers is not sufficient to explain what I have observed. Context-bound techniques of knowledge transmission are not a communicative device that transports a given message from a sender to a recipient. We need a different model to explain the dynamics and achievements of this technique.

Dynamics of Context-bound Knowledge Transmission

In analysing a pedagogical technique based on seclusion from society, symbol communication and secrecy, we need to introduce the factor of human interaction. Context-bound knowledge transmission is a technique using interaction between human beings as a pedagogical tool. It is through their relationships with other children that villagers are to capture the goal of the village; "that it is possible to be friends in spite of different cultures and languages".

The problem with using human interaction as a pedagogical tool lies in its unpredictability. As we saw in the example of Jens and Ahmed, these two individuals interpreted the situation in their own way, reacted to it according to their understanding of what was going on, and their experience from the situation became quite different from what the indigenous pedagogical philosophy predicted.

The basic premise that is wrong in both CISV and Baktaman pedagogical philosophy is their failure to distinguish between the medium and the message in symbol communication. Symbols are not a communicative device carrying a given message. Symbols are signs that each individual must give meaning to; they have a multivocal character[6]. Ritual action is also a flow of signs. Each participant must interpret the situation according to his or her own understanding of the world. This was what happened when Ahmed and Jens found out that girls were more interesting than trust during the "lumber-game".

To be able to analyse context-bound knowledge transmission, we need a communicative model that acknowledges the difference between the medium and the message. The sender has a message he tries to communicate through symbolic action. The recipient has to interpret this symbolic action, and, on the basis of his own interpretation, create his own, personal understanding of the symbols, which is not necessarily identical to the meaning of the sender.

Figure 2: Model of symbol communication

gives meaning to
interprets meaning of -------->

Context-bound knowledge transmission is a process of interaction, where different human beings relate to each other and to a given context of symbols and structured action. The direction this process will take is unpredictable. The outcome depends on how each group of human beings relate to each other and interpret the context they find themselves in. Are we then bound to give up trying to trace any general conclusion about the achievements of context bound-knowledge transmission?

Achievements of Context-bound Knowledge Transmission

Concluding his analysis of Baktaman initiation rites, Barth states the following:

The evidence indicates that male cohorts moving through joint initiations obtain a body of generally shared items of cosmological knowledge, and a general area of common sensibilities and intuitions. My point is, that this will be an everchanging inheritance, only approximately shared in the group; it generates not a unified system of knowledge agreed by all, but a range of understandings sufficient so its members can be moved by the same symbols and thoughts.[7]

What Barth here contends, is that context-bound pedagogics in Baktaman rites do not create a common understanding of how to live and explain the world among the novices.

His conclusion is identical with what I found in interviews with former CISV villagers. What was remembered as important from the village would be anything from what you got to eat, the one you fell in love with, fear of snakes or leaders hiding under your bed. What the stories had in common was little focus on adult structured action and much focus on specific personal experiences. There was no trace of any shared world view.

Moreover, each person had their own story of what the village experience had meant in their life. As an example, let us take a look at two male informants, who both participated in the same delegation in a CISV village in 1953, and the way they reflect upon the meaning behind the village 45 years later:

Informant 1:

The idea that children, who would later become adults and remember this international experience only as good   memories, that they would influence their local environment with the same attitude free of prejudices with which they met children from other countries in the village - I think it's a good idea.

Informant 2:

This about children - which is the idea behind CISV; to bring children together to learn that people are not that different, and maybe you won't make war against people   you know.. But then I have lived 40 years after I was in the village, and I have seen how the world has been and how humans have acted. And I wonder some times if the idea makes sense at all.

Both these men told me happy stories from their village experience about travelling, playing, falling in love and eating chocolate. But their life experience had made them draw completely different conclusions about the message that was sent to them during the village; an example of the everchanging inheritance from a context-bound pedagogical setting.

What these two men did have in common was a story about a visit to a CISV village some years after they themselves participated. This was a story of recognition, a story of returning to something familiar:

Informant 1:

I told them I had participated, and therefore I could be a part of what happened there.

Insiders and Outsiders

All village participants become familiar with CISV symbols and CISV lore during their four weeks together. The combination of CISV symbols and CISV lore creates a CISV context, and this context is recognizable for any former village participant. It gives them the feeling of coming home, of being included, because they have specific personal experiences attached to this context. Each individual experience is different, but as Barth says, they can all "be moved by the same symbols and thoughts". (See page 11)

CISV itself has a concept for personal feelings and experiences attached to the CISV context. They call it "the CISV spirit". CISV president David Lister defines the concept as follows:

I imagine that many of the readers of CISV News now have just come back from participating in one of the many CISV programmes and activities that have been held recently around the world. I do hope that you have had a great experience and that you are now aware of the CISV spirit. This is something that is difficult to explain, but once experienced will never be forgotten.[8]

The concept of "CISV spirit" captures the exact achievement of context-bound knowledge transmission. "The CISV spirit" is an attempt to describe the relationship between the CISV context and personal experiences. As each personal experience is unique, the concept can never be defined. But, correctly, the experience will never be forgotten. By not defining the "CISV spirit", the organisation is able to gather the variety of unforgettable experiences under the same umbrella; thus giving them a common name and the illusion of being identical.

The concept of "CISV spirit" is then a symbolic medium to which every participant within the context-bound pedagogical setting can attach their personal meaning and thus feel included in a common social environment. It is a way of conceptualising the undescribable, the mystery of the experience.

Including someone also means excluding someone else. You must have participated in some kind of CISV programme or activity to feel "the CISV spirit". The concept excludes everyone who has not participated in a CISV context. They will never understand "the CISV spirit".

By including one group of people in a fellowship of personal experiences attached to a specific context, context- bound knowledge transmission is also a process of excluding others from this fellowship. Therefore, the main achievement of this pedagogical technique is to create boundaries between groups of human beings, between those who belong and those who do not belong, between the outsiders and the insiders.

An extreme example of this kind of boundary between outsiders and insiders is found in a fraternity. What is interesting is that one of the CISV leaders I met during my fieldwork was a member of a fraternity. When explaining what a fraternity is to a fellow leader, she said:

Just like CISV symbols, we have fraternity symbols. And just like CISV songs, we have fraternity songs.

She is actually using her CISV experience as a model to explain what a fraternity is.

Barth contends that context-bound knowledge transmission as a pedagogical technique is untransportable.[9] It is dependent upon a specific context, and thus cannot travel large distances.

In the case of the organisation CISV we have seen that the CISV context is created in all parts of the world by human beings carrying with them CISV symbols and CISV lore. Consequently, Barth is wrong in explaining the limits of this kind of pedagogics in physical, geographical terms.

Still, he is right in observing that context-bound knowledge transmission does have an expansion problem, in the sense that neither CISV nor Baktaman religion has been able to spread rapidly, like a popular religious movement with a charismatic guru. In my view, this expansion problem may be explained by the very dynamics of the pedagogical technique as such, by the boundaries it creates between the outsiders and the insiders. The only way to become a CISV'er is by participating in a CISV village, and CISV will therefore never be able to expand beyond the number of people participating in the activities and programmes of the organisation.


Thus, a CISV'er is not a specific personality who has been inscribed by a village experience to become a world leader working for peace and understanding. Understood in this way, there is no specific effect from a village experience on a child delegate.

Still, we can identify the village product, "the CISV'er". A CISV'er is a human being who has spent at least four weeks of her life in a CISV village, organised in a three-phased structure, where she has been surrounded by symbol communication and a secret goal behind ongoing action. In this context she collects personal experiences, some of which will be remembered for the rest of her life.

Later on, whenever she meets someone who has also been to a CISV village, they will both be able to refer to the same context and feel that they have something in common, even though their personal experiences might differ. While her husband, who never went to a village, will feel that he is completely outside of the conversation going on between the CISV'ers.

In this way, context-bound knowledge transmission is a technique creating social groups and boundaries, and not a method of conveying a specific message from a sender to a recipient.


Barth, Fredrik (1990) "The guru and the conjurer: Transactions in knowledge and the shaping of culture in Southeast Asia and Melanesia", Man 25 (4)                                   

Barth, Fredrik (1987) Cosmologies in the making: A generative approach to cultural variation in inner New Guinea, Cambridge University Press

Barth, Fredrik (1975) Ritual and knowledge among the Baktaman of New Guinea, Yale University Press

Barth, Fredrik (ed.) (1969) Ethnic groups and boundaries: The social organization of culture difference, Universitetsforlaget

CISV 1997 Annual Report

CISV News no.1 1997

Fuglestad, Otto Lauritz (1993) Samspel og motspel: Om kultur, kommunikasjon og relasjonar i skulen, Samlaget

Paulsrud, Mona (1998) Meget er forskjellig, men inni er vi like? Om voksne og barn på internasjonal barneleir, Master thesis, University of Bergen

Turner, Victor 1995 (1969) The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure, Aldine de Gruyter


[1] CISV International 1997 Annual Report.
[2] Barth 1975.
[3] Turner 1995 (1969).
[4] Barth 1990.
[5] Fuglestad 1993.
[6] Turner 1995 (1969).
[7] Barth 1987 p.79.
[8] CISV News no.1 1997.
[9] Barth 1990, page 647.