Children’s Role in Human History: Implications for Schooling

On February 26, I (Clive) read Ivan Semeniuk’s interview in the Toronto Globe & Mail with anthropologist Niobe Thompson, producer of the CBC TV series The Great Human Odyssey. According to Thompson, human life has been quite tenuous over the millennia and only the ingenious have survived. “Our closest call came about 150,000 years ago when…there were fewer than 1,000 breeding adults left” due to “punishing volatility” in Africa’s climate (sounds like Canada today!).

Thompson goes on to talk about key pockets of humans that have survived through incredible ingenuity, involving their “inventing technology to solve the challenges of their world.” This has required creating a whole culture in which everyone participates, including the children. “Whenever I am living with traditional cultures I have the experience of being overwhelmed with the skills my hosts have for living in their environment.” Thompson goes on to talk about the key role of children’s learning in this:

A person cannot become a hunter or a free-diving gatherer or a reindeer nomad as an adult. This is an immense package of skills that one must begin mastering as a child.

This set me thinking. To what extent are children in schools today learning “inert ideas” and “remote matters” (John Dewey) rather than things fundamental to surviving and thriving in the real world? Dewey would agree that one cannot master (and reconstruct) the requisite “immense package of skills” as an adult. The process must occur in earnest from the first day of school (and prior to that in the home). Unfortunately, however, as Nel Noddings says in Education and Democracy in the 21st Century (2013), schooling today is going in the opposite direction.

I do not foresee dramatic changes in the basic structure of curriculum…. Indeed, if we continue in the direction we are now headed, the curriculum will become even more isolated from real life…. It is this tendency that we should resist. (p. 11)

Children do learn a lot of useful things in school: we and our societies are much better off than we would be without schooling. But at present we seem to be headed in the wrong direction. So resist we must. Even in the right direction, we have a very long way to go. Perhaps human survival is not a stake, but human well-being around the planet certainly is.

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