International Baccalaureate Organization Annual Conference
Singapore, March 21-23 2003
It is an honour to be invited to address you. It is also an intimidating experience to be asked to give some near concluding thoughts to a conference dedicated to removing the causes of international terrorism.
Because I believe that quality education for all is the prerequisite for civilizations to flourish, I am casting my mind back over the education system we have inherited and am asking the question: Surely we can do better than this?”
I use ‘we’ in the broadest sense. I wish to address you not solely as teachers, or as parents, or administrators, or even as members of diverse educational communities. Specifically I address you as citizens of various democracies united in our concern to build a world in which there is no place for – no need for – terrorism.
We do so in a world now formally at war. A troubled world in which three of the nations represented here have – unilaterally – decided that the Untied Nations “has failed to live up to its responsibilities”. We are told that diplomacy has failed and so, it seems, we are about to witness a struggle to show that military power can do what intelligent thought and diplomacy cannot do.
So there has to be a sharp focus to our thinking as you prepare to return to your schools and face the critical question of your students: “Is that what you really believe? Or are you being politically correct? Are you a truly thought-out, authentic person whom I can respect?”
Flying from Washington to London one evening last week I read several of Noam Chomsky’s post September 11th interviews. Chomsky was asked what had been his immediate reactions to the attack on the World Trade Center.
“I reacted pretty much the way people did around the world. A terrible atrocity; but unless you are in Europe, or the US, or in Japan, I guess you know it’s nothing new. That’s the way the imperial powers have treated the rest of the world for hundred of years.
When I was growing up as a kid, we played cowboys and Indians. We were the cowboys and we killed the Indians. We never had another thought about it. But that’s not true of my children.”
But that’s not true of any children anymore. This is our hope, and in this is our reassurance that much of what we have done as teachers over the years really is bearing fruit. Despite all the arcade shooting ranges, despite the most sophisticated DVD simulated wars, children (until from adult example they learn something else) still have an expectation that there should be fairness in the world. I will explore the biological explanation for this later. They ‘know’, in a deeply instinctive way born of our biological inheritance, that we should “work to live, not live to work”.
I’m not sure if President Coolidge intended his comment in 1923 that “the business of America is business” to be specific or ironic. The truth is that, in the last 20 or so years, it seems as if the business of the whole world has become business. In the interests of ‘profitability’ it is not just basic rights that we are in danger of trivializing, it is the very planet on which we live that we are in danger of poisoning.
I commend to you both Jonathan Sack’s book “The Dignity of Difference” and the biologist E. O. Wilson’s “The Future of Life”, published last year.
This is what Wilson has to say:
The mood of western civilization is Abrahamic: May we take this lands that god has provided and let it drip milk and honey into our mouths forever…..An Armageddon is approaching but it is not the cosmic war and fiery collapse foretold in sacred scripture. It is the wreckage of the planet by an exuberantly and ingenious humanity.
In July last year the Herald Tribune carried an article from the World Wildlife Foundation about why our very existence in the future is dependent on using our ingenuity in far more responsible ways. The article said:
“The earth has about 11 billion hectares of productive land and sea space….Divided between the global population of 6 billion people this total equates to just 1,9 hectares per person”
Yet the WWF report shows that the ecological ‘footprint’ of the world average consumer in 1999 was 2.3 hectares per person, or 20% above the earth’s biological carrying capacity. This ‘footprint’ varied form the average 1.4 hectares for Africa and much of Asia, to 5 hectares for Western Europe, and 9.6 hectares for the United States. If this over-exploitation were to continue, the WWF estimates, the earth will go into terminal decline in our children’s lifetime. No wonder thin king people are getting angry at the sanctimonious arguments of those who are doing well.
It’s not simply that we’ve grown too big for our boots. It’s that our boots have grown too big for the well-being of the planet.
These statistics are not difficult to understand. Young people understand them. They know that it’s not just planet Earth that’s at risk. They recognize that our social and economic structures are screwed up. They know that some 450 billionaires own more capital than half the world’s population can earn in a year. Bright, and not so bright, children everywhere understand this. They are, I believe, becoming increasingly skeptical of our generation’s so-called ‘wisdom’. They ask whether the education we’re giving them is not broadly similar to the education we received generations ago. “The education”, some say, “that actually got us into this mess”.
“Don’t mess with me,” I think I hear this boy say, “are you educating me to be a battery hen or a free range chicken?”
Some 5 years ago I was about to address a conference of teachers in Estonia, close to the river Narva, that for centuries separated Europe from Russia. After my presentation an English-speaking Russian lady, of considerable physical bearing and wearing a large bearskin coat and hat, cornered me. “Who are you?” she asked. For a moment, being English, I thought she meant we hadn’t been formally introduced. But no, she was Russian and this was to be a philosophical tussle!
“You in the West persistently misunderstand us dissidents. When we tore down the Berlin Wall we did so because we wanted to be free. But you thought we did so because we wished to replace Communism with capitalism. Now it looks as if we’re replacing one tyranny with another. When the Wall was there you in the West defined yourselves negatively; you were against Communism. Now that Communism is no longer a thereat to you, your reason for being seems empty.”
Then she looked me straight in the eye: “Surely you are about more than just money?”
It seemed she gave me about 10 seconds to come up with a rationale for Western society! Five years on and I’m still working on this!
Her question reminded me of a debate in the English House of Lords some years earlier about an upbeat report on how a reformed education system could help solve the nation’s economic problems. “No time to waste,” urged the report. To this replied one of the Bishops:
“I understand the need for economic growth, but as a goal in itself surely it stands as barren and arid? Education stands in danger of seeing people only as tools for economic progress, unless it is accompanied by a vision of individuals as creative, responsible and spiritual beings, and society as the matrix within which genuine fulfillment is the goal for all.
‘No time to waste’. I believe that at this moment our society is in danger of wasting people.”
We don’t like being told that we are in danger of wasting people. We have many forms of denial that it is not we, personally, who are responsible. That’s easy if you’re one of the winners. But if you’re on the losing side and the scales seem tipped against you, you can readily see that – progressively and over a number of years – the school curriculum has become more and more about preparation for national economic efficiency than about personal ‘effectiveness’. For vast numbers of youngsters it’s become less about “genuine fulfillment as the goal for all”.
“Society has become preoccupied with the production of the perfect child,” I heard a German professor ague some years ago, “rather than the contented child.”
So let me summarize what I’ve said so far with a question.
Just what kind of education do we think we should provide, and for what kind of world? There are many value judgments here that can’t be easily dodged. Let me make it sharper still. Do we want our children to grow up as battery hens or free-range chickens?
For those of you far removed from our agricultural origins let me explain. If you’re a poultry farmer who listens carefully to his accountant you will know that, if it’s the largest yield of eggs you want, or the greatest meat weight in the shortest time, you put your children – sorry, chickens – into small wire cages. Here they can’t waste any energy flapping their wings, and their leg muscles wither away. Consequently if ever you take the cages away these chickens won’t even be able to stand on their own legs, or flap their wings. They’ll be the perfect tasty morsel for any predatory fox to gobble up.
In times of change give me a free-range cockerel strutting his stuff anytime, able to be highly adaptable, chase the predator around the farmyard, and then fly up to a rafter to rest.
We talk much about preparing children for change. Nearly always we think of this in terms of seizing every new opportunity to be successful. Change can, of course, work the other way as well. How can we adapt to restricted opportunities, and survive well on less and less. Like accepting that each of us has only 1.9 hectares to live off….not 5 hectares never alone 9.6 hectares.
We must be careful not to have too limited a view of what the future holds. The English made that mistake here in Singapore in 1942. They had all the best guns in the business, the only thing was, none of them was pointing in the direction the Japanese eventually decided to advance from.
* * *
Now for my second topic. What is it that we are now discovering about how humans learn that would show us how to educate children better?
For a dozen years I was Headmaster of a medium-sized comprehensive school. This was a school that laboured under its historical baggage of having been around as a selective grammar school for some 400 years. It felt it had come down in the world in having to deal with pupils of all abilities. I was keen and energetic. At one stage my Governors told me that I had more pilot projects than there were aircraft in the Royal Air Force. They all seemed to be rushing off in different directions because, quite frankly, no one quite knew what we were trying to do.
Like too many of my secondary colleagues I was preoccupied with my own world of 11 to 18 year olds. It was a while – in fact far too long – before I realized that the clue to what needed to happen in the secondary school was what was already happening in the primary sector.
I can claim no great perspicacity for this. A year or so after becoming head my wife and I had the first of our three sons. It was the challenge of trying both to work out the 4th year option schemes and how to change nappies, understand playschools and to have the tenacity, night after night, to read endless nursery stories – and to try, ever so hard, not to miss out a word – that taught me most about children! It was our own children who showed me why the home, the community and the primary school were so much more significant than my precious secondary school. That’s quite an admission I suppose. But once I grasped that, everything else fell into place.
You may know of the research carried out by the Kellogg Foundation in the state of Michigan into the greatest predictor of success at the age of 18 (measured on a whole raft of criteria). Top of the list – and 4 times more significant than the elementary school, with secondary schools in 7th place, was the quantity and quality of dialogue in the child’s home before the fifth birthday. Grasp that, and we start to think seriously about children’s learning.
You probably know that, wherever you go in the western world, there is no child (other than in boarding schools) who spends more than 20% of his or her waking hours in a classroom between the ages of 5 and 18. A full 70% of their waking hours are not even spent in school.
There is an absolute limit to how much of a child’s development you can – or should – squeeze into classroom hours. I am convinced that, because we are such caring people, we have already gone too far in trying to compensate for what society at large is no longer doing in the 70% of the child’s time.
I long for the day when a politician will have the guts to stand up before his constituents and refuse to put any more legislation onto the schools, and forcefully remind those constituents that the problems which their children experience is more to do with lack of nurture within the home, or lack of challenge within the community, or the lack of a sense of purpose within society as a whole, than it is with schools.
Good schools alone can never be good enough to give youngsters everything they need.
It wasn’t until a Sunday afternoon’s walk with my family 10 or 11 years ago that I realized the extent to which thinking about human learning had intruded into all aspects of my life. Tom, our youngest son who was around 8 at the time, was walking alongside me. Suddenly he looked up and asked “Dad, how do little children learn to talk?” I was so intrigued by the question that I delayed a split second too long in my reply. He looked at me most reproachfully and said, “I think that’s a pretty simple question but I bet you’re going to give me a long complicated reply”!
Let me try not to confuse you! This is a question that has concerned the best thinking of great philosophers since the beginning of time. However, until very recently, science has lacked the technologies to study the brain and start to make sense of how we learn.
I need to take this short explanation back to 1859, the year Darwin published “The Origin of the Species”, and set out the theory of evolution. The theory sparked enormous controversy, most especially because it implied not only that humans and animals shared a common origin, but also that our everyday behaviors were shaped by evolution.
Medicine, in 1859, was slowly emerging from a folk tradition but quickly saw in the theory of evolution a framework into which earlier findings about the body could fit. Into this same organizing framework later would be placed genetics, inheritance, DNA and theories about disease and genetic deformities. Now, nearly 150 years on, medicinal science is held in the highest regard, and surgeons are some of the best paid of professionals.
Psychology, the study of human behavior, had only become recognized as a separate discipline in the mid 1850s. It was a fusion of highly regarded Philosophy with the relatively new “white coat” subject of Physiology. This was a curious hybrid. Psychology could see no value in the theory of evolution. This was not surprising. A brain laid out on a marble slab has none of the obvious clues to its purpose that medics could see in a heart, a lung, a liver, a pancreas or a sex organ. The secrets of the brain were not obvious to the naked eye. Not until the discovery of PET and CAT scan technology in the late 1970s was it possible both to see the structure of the brain and to observe through this non-invasive technology, the brain actively ‘working’.
From the 1860s for just over 100 years Psychology effectively denied any idea that the brain was a product of evolution. In the early 1920s Behaviorism emerged as the dominant theory in psychology with its working assumption that anything that could not be measured either did not matter, or was a myth. It was in 1924 that J. B. Watson made Behaviorism’s defining boast: “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee you to take any one at random, and train him or her to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, merchant chief and yes, even beggar man or thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and the race of his ancestors.”
And there you have it. Psychology legitimized the belief that it was all up to the school to make of each child what it wished. Of course it didn’t work. Nor did Behaviorism’s ultimate false claim to provides an exact intelligence quotient on tests delivered at the age of 11 that could predict a youngster’s ultimate potential. The public never really bought this, probably holding the generality of teachers in no higher regard in the 1970s that they had in the 1850s.
Then in quick succession, starting in the late 1970s, three new disciplines emerged, all of which, from different perspectives, are concerned with the functioning of the human brain. Neurobiology owes its growth to electronic scanning technology. It is not specifically to do with learning but it is everything to do with what controls and activates different parts of the brain. Cognitive Science grew out of psychology. It was primarily concerned with how learning takes place and was much influenced by the search for artificial intelligence. Most recently Evolutionary Psychology emerged in the 1990s applying the theory of evolution to psychological phenomena and adding in evidence about earlier styles of living from cultural anthropology, archaeology, pollen analysis and genetics.
Each of these disciplines has its own methodology, which each carefully guards. On their own none of these subjects gives us a totally clear explanation of human learning. It will be on the ability of educationalists to synthesise all this into a compelling, all-embracing ‘story’, that schooling is dependant if it is ever to earn a status comparable to the medical profession.
The task of synthesis is awesome. It’s like an Impressionist painting. Stand too close and all you see is a mass of dots; step back and let your eyes mist over a little and a beautiful picture emerges.
Most of us are, on a daily basis, caught between these two perspectives.
Some while ago someone said to me, by way of a comment to knock me down: “I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Surely we humans have been using our brains to think for as long as we’ve been using our stomachs to digest food. Both processes are perfectly normal.”
That’s a nice analogy. Think about it. Over the past 30 or 40 years medicine has discovered so much about the chemistry of food and of the human digestive system, that we have a better ‘User Guide – so to speak – to the human stomach. With this most people are eating more sensibly and living much longer.
We’re just starting to write a comparable User Guide to the human brain. It could transform the way we individually do things and it could transform learning. By transforming learning I mean something different to simply reforming schooling.
A story to make the point. In 1927 Mercedes Benz produced 1400 cars. The directors were delighted and called in consultants to estimate, given the pace of technological change, how many cars the company could expect to make by 1977, i.e. in 50 years time.
Eventually back came the consultants’ report: “By 1977 so dramatic will be technological change, that the company will be able to produce 40,000 cars a year.” The directors were furious and sacked the consultants for leaving out one key variable – there was no way schools would be able to train 40,000 chauffeurs a year!
You may laugh, but I wonder if we are really prepared for the kinds of changes needed if we are to devise a system of education that truly goes with “the grain of the brain”?
Before I give you examples of what I mean by “the grain of the brain” let me actually give you my conclusion first. What I have to present is so politically incorrect that you need to be poised in advance to find holes in my argument! Here is my conclusion.
I believe that we have at present a system of education that is simply Upside Down and Inside Out. Upside Down because we take more seriously the education of the oldest children than we do the youngest (and have the largest class sizes in primary schools and progressively smaller classes in secondary schools). Inside Out because we are far more concerned at what happens inside a classroom than we are with what happens outside.
I will argue that until we reverse this priority, and this allocation of resources, nearly everything else that we do by way of educational innovation is marginal, like reorganizing the deck chairs on the Titanic.
I get into the most awful trouble when I say this for being so politically incorrect and apparently naive about the scale of what would be needed. Such descriptions will be on internal memos to ministers in many lands, going back over many years. Yet I believe that time is starting to prove to me and to many others who support this, to be right. In too many cases educational reform has, in the most elaborate and expensive way, failed to capitalize on just how people learn.
We humans are the planet’s preeminent learning species. It is our brain that gives us our superiority not our muscles.
The story I must tell goes back a long way. In the Stirkfontein Caves to the north of Johannesburg humans and animals have been sheltering for 4 or more million years. The calcium-rich water that drips from the roof slowly turns the fossilized bones into a form of calcrete. Archaeologists digging through this “timeline” have noticed that, up to about 1.5 million years ago most of the human bones bore marks of having been chewed up, but most of the large predators’ bones were untouched. Then from about 1.5 million years ago the animal bones show signs of having had the meat cut off them by flint knives, while the human bones are in tact.
1.5 million years ago our puny ancestors developed such good interpersonal skills that they became superb at hunting in teams. About this time the archeological record shows that we started to grow big skulls. Just why we are not sure. I have my own guess. It’s related to the amount of pictorial information that we carry in our brain. What we do know is that, at some stage in the past 150,000 years, our ancestors learned to talk, and as they developed group brains so their skulls inevitably had to get bigger to house the enlarged pre-frontal cortex of the brain that deals with abstract thought.
This created a most painful, deadly, problem for pregnant woman whose birth canal could not grow any larger because of our biped structure. Whilst all other mammals are born with their brains virtually fully formed we humans have reached an evolutionary compromise and give birth to our young at 9 months, when their brains are only 40 % formed. Should you women choose to carry your babies until their brains are fully formed, pregnancy would last for 27 months…and the baby would never get down the birth canal.
Evolution has empowered our young to, literally, ‘grow’ their brain over the first 3, 4 or 5 years of life by interaction with their immediate physical and emotional environment (instead of being entirely dependent on growth in the mother’s womb). As you all know, babies are born incredibly curious and they grow, as Kipling noted, to ask the why, what, where, when and how questions.
Our evolutionary heritage is much richer than just our ability to ask questions. It’s as if every baby is born with a metaphorical library of ‘do-it-yourself’ manuals that empower the young child to learn a whole range of skills through direct interaction in a way that formal institutions could never emulate. These ‘manuals’ have been ‘written’ through the sum of the experience of our distant ancestors and are encoded in our genes.
You all know about a young child’s phenomenal ability to learn to speak their native language by the age of 3 or 4. Some children in multi-ethnic areas speak 3 or 4 languages by the age of 5, with virtually no formal institutions whatsoever. Then think of the difficulty some of us might have had learning a new language in our mid-teens, or 20s or 30s. These early predispositions are enormously powerful.
Stephen Pinker, in his recent book “The Blank Slate”, estimates that we could well have more than a score of such skill sets – ranging from empathy, to theories of physical and emotional cause-and-effect. It is these that make it possible for the youngest children “to find their way” around this world.
Many of these predispositions appear to be “time limited”. They are ready to grow at those stages of life that our earliest ancestors found most helpful. We are beginning to understand that predispositions, not practiced at the appropriate time, are in some way neurologically ‘pruned’. They simply disappear. Learning that skill later is sheer hard grind.
Let me go back to the issue of language to make an important point. Over the past 20 or so years scientists have found half a dozen children who have grown up for the first 6 or 7 years of their lives in totally silent environments. They have neither heard language spoken, nor had any chance to speak. Despite all the skills and technologies at the disposal of scientists no one has succeeded subsequently in getting these children to talk. It’s as if nature had said, “You don’t need language in this generation; we can clear this part of the brain out and make room for something else.” Hold this idea of predispositions not used being pruned from the brain. I’ll return to this shortly when we consider adolescence.
I normally lecture in some detail about these predispositions. People seem to enjoy it. So much about the origins of our behavior is being discovered right now that I could entertain you for hours. I could tell you about our sophisticated mating procedures; about the reasons why we enjoy kissing some people more than others, or about the visual cues to the very young brain involved in breast-feeding. If I had the time I’d tell you about the significance for human behavior in the way the male eye differs from that of the female. Or I could tell you about the significance (to us humans) of smell and the shape of our faces.
All of this I would have used to remind you that, in the early years of our lives, we literally make our brains through this interaction with our environment, both intellectual and emotional. In “the world we have come from” these predispositions, developed in the first 7 or 8 years of life equip a youngster to go off to become a “life-long learner” – to do it for themselves.
Take a look at the diagram of human weaning. Starting form just before birth to the age of 20 and beyond, with Dependency below the line and Autonomy above, you can see the hypothetical line of human weaning. In the opening years of life the brain is like an intellectual dry sponge….it can’t help itself turning its daily experiences into various forms of structured knowledge. As the child grows so this spontaneous learning fades away and evolution impels the brain into the second period of synaptogues that we refer to as Adolescence.
I have to admit to a fascination with adolescence – that period when the once highly lovable, even cuddly, youngster suddenly starts to bristle with their new-found sense of self. No longer can you tell them anything and you watch, helpless, at their exuberant behavior.
In terms of this diagram there has to be a direct relationship between the quality of the experience in the earliest years with the ability of the teenager to deal with the ability of the teenagers to establish their own individual identities.
While we appear to be awash with research findings about the first 5 years of life we have relatively little research on the nature of adolescence. This is an unfortunate omission.
My understanding of the findings – such as we have – has convinced me that the complex emotions in adolescence are every bit as significant to human development as are the predispositions in the first 7 years. I happen to believe that these predispositions are probably as ‘time limited’ as any of the earlier skills. In other words, if not used in any one generation this predisposition to ‘do-it-for-myself’, which is so much a feature of adolescence, is eventually neurologically pruned.
We keep our teenagers in classrooms, their nose held ever closer and closer to the grindstone. We are afraid to leave them to their own devices, fearing that we have still more to give them. We have it badly wrong.
Cast your minds back only a few generations. Benjamin Franklin had his own printing press at 14; Nelson was already at sea by this 12th birthday; the majority of soldiers killed in the American Civil War were teenagers….and so it goes on.
Years ago I used to take my sixth form geographers from Manchester Grammar School to live with the nomads of southern Iran as they migrated through the Zagros Mountains. It was fascinating comparing my ‘educated’ 17-year-old English boys with the unschooled nomads. The latter recognized that 4 and 5 year olds were potentially able to care for the chickens. They were trained to do so and they were held fully responsible. Six year olds were trusted with the goats, and most of the sheep were minded in distant pens high up in the mountains each night by 8 and 9 year old shepherds. 11 and 12 year olds looked after the horses and cattle. When the tribe moved, much to the amazement of the English boys, everybody had a job to do.
“We are honoured to have these young men with us,” the headman said to me one evening, “but why are they not working alongside their fathers at home? For how else can they learn the wisdom of their elders?”
“I heard that question,” confided one of my students to me later. “It hurt me because I’m sure my Dad loves me but I hardly know him. We hardly ever talk. I feel ‘incomplete’.”
“Incomplete”. That, it seems to me, is an exact description of a problem, which, in our desire to find institutional solutions to all our perceived difficulties, we have created for ourselves. By constantly extending schooling I believe we are in danger of “infantisising” our growing youngsters.
“The grain of the brain” makes it essential that we have the most stimulating, most supportive environment when we are very young. Then we need to have the opportunity to do more and more for ourselves as we get older. We were not born to sit forever in a classroom absorbing all that is put in front of us. As soon as possible we want to be up and about and working things out for ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong. I think a civilized country should do all in its power to provide the very best teachers, but I fear for children when they come to believe that all they have to do is follow the teacher’s lead. In other words, when the don’t tak personal responsibility for their own learning.
There is a Catholic doctrine that can be interpreted in a secular way to define exactly what I mean: the doctrine of Subsidiarity. This was developed in the early 1930s to strengthen the resolve of Catholics in eastern Europe that it was perfectly right for them to have their own thoughts, and not to be cowed under the centralized beliefs of Communism.
It’s very simple, and goes like this:
It is wrong for a superior body to hold to itself the right to make decisions that an inferior body is perfectly able to make for itself.
Think about that carefully. Firstly I think it defines pretty exactly what good parents have always known should be the evolving relationship between themselves and their children. It’s easy to love a 4 or 5 year old; it’s easy to enjoy a 10 or 11 year old, but 13 year olds can take us off our guard! “They’re not old enough to think like that / to do that / to make that decision” we tell ourselves as we seek to constrain them. The battles then begin. If we’re lucky an older member of the family may take us on one side and remind us that we were like that once. It was only by letting us have our head that we have subsequently become the men and women we are now.
A good parent has the confidence to let their children make mistakes, knowing that they will also know how to learn to correct them.
Idealistic? Yes, of course. But growing up is difficult and there’s no denying that. It’s often dangerous, but taking away all risks leaves children even more vulnerable and unable to cope.
Now try applying Subsidiarity to what I argue should be the evolving relationship between teachers and pupils Especially between the changing nature of elementary and secondary education.
If we believe in the quality of what you can provide through the Primary Years Programme you are effectively accepting that the preparation for life-long learning starts in the earliest years of infant school. It won’t end until senility – the third stage of synaptogenes – takes over. The better the quality of the earlier years experience the more the child needs to be able to stand on its own feet in secondary school.
That is why I frequently throw out the challenge in terms of our having created an “over-schooled and under-educated society”.
* * *
Last month I was privileged to spend 4 days observing the life style of one of the very few surviving hunter-gatherer societies. These were the Hadza people in East Africa on the shores of Lake Eyasi in the Central Rift Valley. There are only about 1000 of them left. They have their own language and a rich folk history. They own no herds and plant no crops. They have minimal possessions. They move from place to place every few weeks as they search for new sources of roots, fruit and berries. There are very good reasons to believe that hey are a genuine ‘living artifact’ left over from the Stone Age. How they live now is how all our ancestors lived 100,000 or more years ago. Increasingly evolutionary psychologists are seeing in the life style of such people the explanation for so many of the behaviors that we now accept as being human norms.
It was a fascinating and delightful experience. In our behavior, in our facial expressions, in our relationships with one another, we are so like them.
One tiny incident I must comment on to help bring this lecture to a close. Near one of the grass huts I noticed, on the last afternoon, a half-hearted attempt to grow maize. Through my interpreter I asked the Elder what was happening. Some Norwegian missionaries had been trying to get the Hadza women to become settled agriculturists. Even though there is, in most years, insufficient rain to grow crops, the missionaries had given the women seeds, and spades, and shown them how to plant the crop. “Most years the crops fail”, said the Elder, “but the worst of planting crops is that, when the crops do flourish, the people who planted them won’t share out the harvest with other people. They say it is theirs, because they planted it. What they don’t eat in one year they want to save against a bad harvest. They become selfish. It is breaking our way of life. In a sense it makes some people more powerful than others because they can bargain with things that previously had been owned by everybody”.
In three or four short sentences the Elder was describing an event going on today which exactly replays what we are now coming to understand as being the pre-history of the human race.
As the eminent anthropologist Christopher Boehm said on reviewing the appropriate research, “The data do leave us with some ambiguity but I believe that as of forty thousand years ago, with the advent of anatomically modern humans who continued to live in small groups and were not yet domesticating plants and animals, it is very likely that all human societies practiced egalitarian behavior and that most of the time they did this successfully”.
The emerging synthesis about how we learn and why we behave as we do, is starting to suggest that this egalitarian behavior is deeply entrenched in our own genetic natures. It is also suggesting, as Adam Smith argued back in 1770, that human instincts have become more complex, reflecting the increasing complexity of settled agricultures, small towns and finally of cities, all of which have emerged in the past 40,000 years.
Some evolutionary psychologists are starting to see evidence that the social skills associated with each of these societies exist as ‘layers of innate behavior’ in each of us. Alan Fiske goes so far as to suggest that each of these social modes is manifested in maturing children in a spontaneous and uncoached manner. Three year olds have the egalitarian expectations of the Hadza while 8 year olds seem able to deal with the haggling of an Arab bazaar.
I was present at a State of the World Forum in San Francisco four years ago when an eminent biologist made what at the time seemed an extraordinary claim: “The future sanity of the world depends on the coming together of two great disciplines which have not talked together for more than 100 years – biology and theology”.
Nature and Nurture together shape our every activity.
There is no escaping the reality that we are a species full of mixed and confused motives. We constantly kid ourselves that we can have our cake and eat it. That we can oscillate between collaboration and competition as it suits us.
That Hadza elder recognized this. So did the mediaeval church when it defined the Seven Deadly Sins – pride, lust, envy, anger, covetousness, gluttony, and sloth. We don’t like being reminded of this. As adults in the 21st century we like to think that each of us has the right to pick our way through the moral maze. We have learned that many religions, in their overt desire to maintain a moral code, often participated in the most awful and amoral power struggles. In rejecting religious explanations of ‘who’ we are, we are in danger also of throwing out any sense of moral certainties by which we might live. In these ambiguous times, as that Estonian lady I quoted at the beginning suggested, we have left it to the morally ‘ anonymous’ claim that the free market should shape all our actions. An adequate supply of money leaves us free to do what we want, and to whom we want.
In a fascinating book published early last year two Harvard economists, Lawrence and Nohria, recount how they were sent to Russia in 1989 by the World Bank to rebuild the economy of that depressed country. They went in and, with great energy, set up an open market on the assumption that ‘consumer demand’ (greed if you like) would make everything work. They returned 5 years later to a country that had seen its GDP drop 50% since the introduction of those reforms; the country was demoralised and angry.
Lawrence and Nohria were devastated. Pure self-interest – the motivation so beloved by economists – certainly did not account for all human behavior. They began a 5-year search of the most recent research and explored the idea that human behavior is motivated by a small set of innate, subconscious, brain-based drives. They eventually concluded that there were probably four such drives.
Certainly humans do have a persistent drive to acquire objects and experiences that improve their status relative to other people. However we have three other powerful drives: to bond with others in long-term relationships of mutually caring commitment; to learn and make sense of the world and ourselves, and to defend ourselves and our loved ones, our beliefs, and our resources.
All four of these primary drives have been established in the human brain as a result of evolution, because the existence of these drives improves the odds that the genes of their carriers will pass into subsequent generations. Fulfilling one drive doesn’t, however, fulfill any of the others. Only when all four of the drives are reasonably balanced will any individual feel that their life is balanced; dreadful things happen, Lawrence and Nohria conclude, when any one drive dominates too excessively.
Reflecting on their experience in Russia ten years later, Lawrence and Nohria write: “Better advice for Russia would have had to be based on a much broader, more unified understanding of human behavior than the experts had available to them. The economists were simply the unlucky ones chosen for the task.”
They go on to say something with which I resonate, having struggled with the difficulty of creating synthesis: “Putting together a panel that combined experts from every field would only have generated endless arguments with no coherent advice, making matters even worse….What the Russians really needed was a well-rounded, seasoned general practitioner for an entire human society, an expert to use an old-fashioned term, in applied political economy. Such a person,” they concluded, “did not exist.”
And there you have it. In dealing with terrorism and in shaping tolerance, we British – and you Americans and Australians – every bit as much as every other player on the world stage, need thousands – hundreds of thousands – of “well rounded, seasoned, general practitioners for an entire human society.”
They are in desperately short supply. But they need not be.
Edna St. Vincent Millay captured the essence of our present predicament in her poem “Huntsman, what of the quarry?”
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
falls from the sky a meteoric shower of facts.
They lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill is daily spun
But there exists no loom to weave into fabric.
Where else are these “general practitioners for an entire human society” to come from if it is not from our schools? And what schools are better placed than the international schools who, in the composition of their staff rooms and in the rainbow colours of their children, come as close to a true microcosm of planet Earth as is possible to get?
However, as Einstein remarked: “You will never solve a problem by using the same techniques that earlier created the problem.”
Your schools will have to change. I make three suggestions.
Firstly, if our pupils are to become qualified to act as stewards of our humanity then we need a curriculum that ‘joins things together’ rather than splits them apart. A curriculum that values synthesis as much as analysis. A curriculum that honours emotion and individual experience, and spiritual values. “Education”, wrote Vaclav Haval three years ago, “is the ability to perceive the hidden connections between disparate phenomena.”
Secondly, we need to honour a process of learning that “goes with the grain of the brain”. You need to honour the principle of Subsidiarity. It has been the failure to do this over recent years that has given us a strangely ‘detached’ intelligentsia – people who know how to make all the right arguments, but never feel themselves competent enough to do anything about it.
Thirdly, we need to ensure that our young people really do know what it is that makes us humans tick. We are indeed a wondrously ingenious species, but the confusion about our moral values also makes us extraordinarily dangerous. So ingenious are we that our generation is the first to have the knowledge to blast our part of the universe to pieces. We have become so enamoured with immediate gratification, and the so-called rights of the individual, that we are forever marginalising the most vulnerable group in society – the children.
We can do all these things. And we must do so for, as an American Indian put it: “We have not inherited this world from our parents; we have been loaned it by our children”.
When I hear politicians saying that our children have to reach ever higher standards I want to slip in my own rebuke, “we adults have to be better advocates for the real needs of these youngsters who will become our guardians as we become old because, at the moment, it is we who have not got our acts together.
I’m convinced that we really can do better than we did in the past.