Why are we as individuals and societies all so different, yet at the same time so curiously similar! The colour of our skins may vary but in comparison to the overall structure of our bodies and what we are discovering about our inherited predispositions to behave in certain ways, we all conform ─ English, African, Chinese or Aborigines ─ to the same genetic blueprint. Yet we most certainly don’t live in the same way. Why?
There is no doubting that the British are – or at least have been – an amazingly inventive and creative people. They pioneered parliamentary democracy, led the world into, and out of, the first Industrial Revolution and created in the nineteenth century the greatest empire the world has ever known. From Shakespeare and Milton, to Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin and Francis Crick (the man who discovered DNA)1, these relatively tiny islands have made an enormous contribution to world culture and scientific thought, and made its language the lingua franca of international trade, diplomacy and science. The British certainly knew how to use their brains. The question is, how did they do it, given this is a society that for generations has ascribed a low status to technologists and academics, and an even lower one to school teachers?
With the same inherited instincts – mental architecture if you like – an exposure to life in very different cultures, we humans can become very different people. Cultures take a long time, many centuries, to build up, but equally they are totally dependent for their survival on the successful transmission of their values, ideas, history and beliefs from one generation to the next. It is the impact of our culture that makes either bushmen or Londonschoolboys, polished young Etonians, or asylum seekers ─ our blood is the same. The failure of only one or two or at the most three generations leads to cultural extinction – as happened with the Incas, the Aztecs, and could happen soon to the Pacific Islanders, whose marine nomadism is totally dependent on culturally dependent navigational skills passed between each generation2. The British can never take their creativity for granted.
Cultures decline, as well as grow. What contributes to rapid growth under one set of conditions may prove a limitation under another. Economies respond to evolutionary change in exactly the same way as Darwindescribed evolution in biological terms. Factors which one generation simply took for granted can easily be lost, yet the implications of that loss may not come through for two or more generations. A teacher from Indiawho had worked in Englandfor some ten years wrote, “It seems to me that many youngsters in the developing world are, in practical terms, far better educated than their peer groups here in England. In Indiachildren growing up really do understand how things fit together. Here in Londonwe teach them about things, but back in Indiathey know this from their own experience and they have to live their own learning”3. That is a most telling phrase.
Cognitive scientists recognize that thoughtfulness comes as much through our experience of dealing with conflicting cultural expectations, as it does through the interaction of these with the individual characteristics we have each inherited from our ancestors4. This makes a mockery of any belief that the home, the community, or the school, alone can do it all. The education agenda for the future has to be as much concerned with community issues, as it is with schools; as much to do with children of the wealthy as it is to do with children living in poverty5. The former may have everything so well delivered to them in pre-packaged form that they have no incentive to work things out for themselves, while the least privileged may be good at working things out, but not have the means to do anything about it. This is the world of today’s child, and we need to understand this much better if we are to provide solutions to the future that will release the talent that we know is there.
To make sense of who we are, and who we might become, we have to know almost as much about our culture as we do about everything scientists are now starting to tell us about human nature.
Thesis 18: 24th August 2006