Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Music That Can Save Us All




Yesterday, I spent most of my afternoon as the "teacher" of four and five year olds, chatting with their parents about matters of school management and puttering about with various organizational and maintenance chores. I was always near at hand, but if my presence was necessary it was mostly as a sort of talisman or in my capacity as keeper of the keys.

As adults who work with young children, we spend a lot of time and energy discussing their conflicts and challenging behaviors. Indeed, if you were to attempt to learn about the young second hand through the literature we create about them, one could not be faulted for concluding that kids are a rather selfish, combative lot. The truth, however, is that for most of the kids I've taught, most of the time, our days together are characterized by a beautiful, natural cooperation.


It's mind blowing really, when you stop for a moment to reflect on it, these newly minted human beings turning toward one another, eagerly, curiously, driven by an urge to figure out how to get along, bickering of course, but ultimately striving together toward, if not common goals, at least compatible ones. When it boils over into genuine conflict or when one child is chronically at odds with his classmates, the adults step in, but it's this instinct toward cooperation that rules the day.

I have a habit of romanticizing this, of pontificating that we adults have a lot to learn from the kids, and we do, but the truth is that when I step back to reflect on society as a whole, I'm inclined to also be inspired by how much of our day-to-day lives is governed by cooperation. When I'm cruising on the freeway, for instance, my issues with this or that driver aside, I'm often amazed at how we can do this thing of sharing the road at breakneck speeds. Indeed, if we weren't driven to cooperate, very little of what we call "life" could exist.

From a recent piece in the New Yorker called "Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds" by Elizabeth Kolbert, while discussing the work of cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber:

. . . Mercer and Sperber's argument runs, more or less, as follows: Humans' biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate. Cooperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups . . . "Reason is an adaptation to the hyper social niche humans have evolved for themselves."

It's a fascinating article focused on addressing the question of why, it seems, that humans are so often inclined to not be able to "listen to reason," even when presented with seemingly incontrovertible evidence. The main gist being that reason did not evolve as a tool of competition, but rather as one of cooperation.

. . . (T)he task that reason evolved to perform . . . is to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure they weren't the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.

From the perspective of human evolution, we evolved our ability to reason not to get at truth, but rather as a way to negotiate with the other people, an essentially cooperative act, a way to guarantee our communal survival, because we wouldn't have survived for long if everyone had pursued the most reasonable course, which is to spend our days loafing around the cave. (And I think we can all clearly see how this seems to shows up as a maladaptation when it comes to our current political situation, where we're all trying to misuse "reason" to win arguments about "the truth.")


The article dwells on these political implications and I urge everyone to give it a look, but for this teacher who spends his day among children, I find the implications of this sort of insight life-affirming. When I hear adults arguing, I so often find myself wanting to cover my ears, but when the children are doing it, instinctively using "reason" as it was evolved to be used, as a tool for thriving in the hyper social niche we've carved out for ourselves, for cooperation, I hear the music that can save us all.



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