Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Teaching Human Nature

I came across this item in the Washington Post, about a school in Washington, the Amistad Academy, which teaches black and Hispanic students they do not have to fail. They do something that I find rather interesting, and which cuts across what might be thought of as Standard Educational Philosophy - that students need to be treated in an egalitarian non-elitist fashion, and be allowed to "express themselves".

To achieve their aim, they give sanctions - both positive and negative (shock!) - and offer markers of status within the school community, as well as markers of being in the community (a school shirt - if you misbehave, you lose the right to wear it, and must wear an ordinary shirt). This is a deliberate attempt to overcome gang membership markers and status.

Why I find this interesting (apart from the what seems to me obvious point that children are unfinished by definition, and have to be shown how to express themselves, and mostly what it is acceptable to express) is that this melds nicely with some ideas I have been floating for some time now (and which aren't original to me): that humans are pack animals striving to find the best available position in their pack, and use a variety of behavioural and cultural markers to identify those who are in-pack and those who are out-pack.

Human behaviour - in schools, in workplaces, and in the broader social polity - is driven by this strategy we all have for establishing as best we can our position within the pack, and increasing our status. Bullies in the playground or the office are asserting dominance over others using their prior position or physical attributes. Drivers of expensive but impracticable cars are asserting their social position in their pack, as well as identifying which pack they are in. Gangs are a kind of mutual aid society, and the amount of aid you'll get depends critically on what status you have in that gang.

Leave it there, and we have the beginnings of an argument for social Darwinism of one form or another, but it doesn't stop there. Knowing that forms which survive are fitter than others in biology, for instance, merely states a fact about the animals. If you want to save the endangered bilby you don't do it because it is already fitter than its competitors, you do it because the bilby has value to you and you want to protect it for that reason.

Knowing these things about ourselves - that we are status-driven pack animals - enables us to overcome our biology to an extent, and to channel it so that the outcomes are more in line with our values. Kids matter, in non-dominant social groups as well as dominant ones, so we should use our knowledge of ourselves to make sure that black and Hispanic and indigenous and other minority groups can succeed. If you compete with a gang, as this school and its supporting society does, you need to supplant their tribal markers with your own. This is what Amistad seems to be doing.