This paper addresses a broad and fundamental question: Is culture transmitted to or acquired by the rising generation primarily by teaching or by the self-initiated and autonomous efforts of the young? Most parents, educators, and scholars whose world-view has been shaped by membership in a Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democracy (WEIRD) would identify teaching. From this ethnocentric view, recent scholars have gone further and claim teaching as an evolved, universal, and fitness enhancing trait unique (among primates) to humans. Drawing on a broader cross-cultural and historical perspective, this paper argues that teaching is rarely employed in cultural transmission, that the costs almost inevitably out-weigh the benefits, that adults or parents are, generally, neither willing nor gifted teachers, that children prefer to learn autonomously, and even that traditional “educational” institutions such as rites of passage and apprenticeship exhibit relatively little evidence of “good” teaching practices.
Teaching is common in contemporary societies that I have characterized as Neontocracies – where children are elevated to a very high status and afforded generous resources by their families and the society at large with little expectation of a later return. It is uncommon in the far more widespread Geronotocracy, where children remain largely invisible or disregarded until they are old enough to be useful.
Infanticide, chronic illness, high infant mortality, inter-familial strife, and the mother’s important role as a provider mean that infants are secluded or otherwise kept in a quiescent state – for their own well-being. Teaching and other means to stimulate the infant’s cognitive and linguistic development would not be compatible with this model.
In both the ethnographic and historic records, we have ample evidence of children learning their culture through observation, emulation, and make-believe play and practice with toy tools in their own garden patches. Children learn through their assistance to the mother in child-care, gardening, and household maintenance. They learn from emulating their slightly older and more competent sibling caretakers. Furthermore, when anthropologists query children and adults regarding culture transmission, there is a clear consensus that independent, self-paced learning is the default mechanism, and teaching is dis-preferred. Numerous studies show that – absent teaching – children become competent in the characteristic skill set (hunting, finding tubers, collecting marine resources, herding, planting) at relatively young ages.
The thesis that teaching is unlikely, unnecessary, and uncomfortable is also borne out by a cross-cultural and historical analysis of the more formal pedagogical institutions designed to transmit pieces of the culture. These include the rite of passage and apprenticeship. Puberty rites are quite common and, not surprisingly, they adhere to a general pattern. This includes the removal of the child from the natal home, isolation and hardship shared with others in the same age cohort, painful body modification – often circumcision or clitorodectomy – and a steady stream of threats of dire consequences for the youth’s failure to demonstrate obeisance and respect for older, more senior members of the community. The apprenticeship may be quite similar involving hardship, physical punishment, and menial, exhausting labor. This ordeal insures the apprentice will uncomplainingly comply with the requirements imposed by the master. The master does little more, by way of teaching, than demonstrate correct practice and then harangue and abuse the student for inadequate performance. The earliest schools were based on the apprenticeship, and the punitive and unsympathetic pedagogy of these institutions continued to be the norm until well into the modern era in the West and are still the norm in most village schools.
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