Wednesday, September 04, 2019

The Story Of Our Species

One of my foundational theories about the role of preschools in society is that we exist not to use stuff, but to finish using it, serving as a final way station for the discarded, outmoded, and unwanted. We rely heavily upon our community of families to supply us with their detritus and debris, and like any veteran preschool teacher, I have, over the years, uncovered innumerable treasures at garage sales and thrift stores. But what really gets my heart pumping are estate sales.

In contrast to a run-of-the-mill yard sale, estate sales typically mean that someone has died and the surviving spouse, usually the wife, is preparing to move to an apartment. I know this will sound mercenary and ghoulish, but my first stop is always the deceased husband's workshop, and most elderly men have workshops either in the garage or cellar. Sometimes they even have standalone sheds. There I expect to find a trove of hand tools of all makes and models, the likes of which one simply cannot find any longer in even the best equipped hardware stores.

My own father had his workshops and I had mine until we sold the house a decade ago to move into an apartment. I was never the handyman my father was, nor did he feel he was the handyman his father had been. Our school is housed in a building that has been maintained for decades by a man in his eighties named Wally who inherited the job from his father who he once told me "really knew his way around a wrench." It's a trend that seems to be fairly universal: people who know their way around a wrench are becoming fewer and farther between in this era of disposability and increasing specialization. I keep rooting for a return of the do-it-yourself ethos, but I'm beginning to realize that I am, perhaps, rooting against the tide of evolution and history.

From Noah Yuval Harari's book Sapiens:

(T)he average forager had wider, deeper and more varied knowledge of her immediate surroundings than most of her modern descendants. Today, most people in industrial societies don't need to know much about the natural world in order to survive. What do you really need to know in order to get by as a computer engineer, an insurance agent, a history teacher or a factory worker? You need to know a lot about your tiny field of expertise, but for the vast majority of life's necessities you rely blindly on the help of other experts, whose own knowledge is also limited to a tiny field of expertise. The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgable and skillful people in history.

According to Harari, the greatest of homo sapiens' adaptive advantages is the level to which we are capable, through the use of language, to cooperate with one another in larger and larger groups. An inevitable result of that is this increased specialization which, in turn, makes us increasingly dependent upon one another. So while I may bemoan the fact that I'm less self-sufficient than my own father and he less self-sufficient than his, it's probably not a reversible trend in the long run, even as I root for those individuals who continue to buck it.

It is this capacity to cooperate that has allowed humans, for better or worse, to become the dominant animal on the planet. I often stand in awe of the children as they play together, demonstrating this urge to cooperate, to collaborate, and yes, even to specialize. There are those sought after playground experts, for instance, who are known for being able to tie knots in ropes or to cut out shapes with scissors. When a child teaches himself to read, it's quite common for the other children to turn to them whenever reading is required. When we need to settle a debate over dinosaurs or insects or princesses, the expert is called in.

During the late eighteenth century there were men like Benjamin Franklin who was not only a successful politician and statesman, but a scholar, scientist, author, inventor, postmaster, and printer. His type of polymath-ism was not unusual, with most of the founding fathers being accomplished in a wide range of fields. This was also the time when our concepts of formal education were being formed, when we began to recognize that self-governance required a well-educated population, and that, for them, was synonymous with "well-rounded," a concept that most of us still hold dear. But as I look around at today's world, I wonder if this idea still serves us. Whenever a teacher cautions a student against "cheating" when he peeks at a classmate's work, I find myself wondering why. After all, under different circumstances, couldn't this same behavior be praised as cooperation? When children are judged by tests and grades according to their individual mastery of this or that proscribed set of knowledge, I wonder if maybe we wouldn't be better served by measuring the children's collective knowledge instead, not assessing the progress of individuals, but rather of the entire community. After all, that's how it will work for the rest of their lives outside of school as they specialize and come to rely on the help of others who have specialized.

As I observe young children sit around together, discussing and debating, I see them time and again cobble together perfectly age-appropriate curricula on a wide range of topics, each sharing their individual knowledge and perspective to create something greater than any one of them could ever manage on their own. This is, of course, the story of our species.

We have cooperated to create everything admirable and everything vile about our species. If we are to solve the problems we face today, it will necessarily come from this ability to specialize and cooperate, even as we mourn for the days when everyone knew their way around a wrench.

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