August 13, 2002
Skool Daze

One of the things that irritates me the most about racist attitudes is how difficult they can be to argue against. At least at first. Certainly black folks and Hispanic folks seem to be causing all the problems, right? I mean, that's what we all see on the TV news in the evening, isn't it?

Race would seem to be the easy answer, but it's not the right one. The genetic sequences that control the color of our skin are completely separate from those that create our brains. Once you get beyond the differences that are literally cosmetic, we're a whole lot alike. Nearly identical, in fact. With the right set of bones, I can tell without a doubt whether or not a person is male or female, because that really is a fundamental, physical difference. But I can only make an educated guess as to race, and only if I have the whole skeleton.

What we're doing is mixing up skin color with ignorance. It's stupid people who are dangerous, and jerk knows no color.

We're simply not that far away from our primate roots. If you judge by the art left behind, we didn't really start becoming cognitively human until about 50,000 years ago, when cave paintings and rock carvings suddenly started appearing all over the world. Before that time, as much as six million years depending on how you count it, it wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say our ancestors were not much more than a particularly weird looking variant of chimpanzee that had got good at banging rocks together.

One of the problems with an intellect as new and different as ours is its lack of pre-programming. Lobsters don't have to learn how to be lobsters... they just are. Same with frogs, fish, wasps, lizards, and untold other types of critters. Oh the higher up you go in sophistication the more you actually have to learn how to do things, but even then it's mostly figuring out the sequence and putting the finishing touches on what's already written in the genes.

Humans aren't like this at all. We have to be taught how to be people. When we were all living in groups of 30 or less, children learned by watching their clan hunt mammoth, gather blackberries, make hand axes, or tan leather. The development of agriculture about fifteen thousand years ago triggered several innovations, most of which we still use today. Guilds, apprenticeships, schools of basic learning and colleges of advanced instruction all were created at this time as ways of coping with the new requirements of an urbanized agricultural society.

However, it was still quite possible to teach a child all they needed to know to function on, say, a family farm, just by keeping them on that farm. As long as they didn't want or need to do anything else, they could be productive and even flourish.

Industrialization delivered a very nasty knock to all these systems. Population densities exploded to unprecedented levels*. At first everyone had to work in the factories, but eventually technology and rising wages allowed most of the family to remain at home. Revolutions in agriculture meant there was more food to go around. Advances in medical science dulled and eventually broke the scythe of diseases that regularly harvested thousands of babies before their first birthday.

These changes signaled the death-knell for pretty much every form of "traditional" education created up to that time. Kids couldn't watch mom and dad to learn their trade, because mom and dad worked in a factory far away. Eventually mom was able to stay home, giving daughters at least someone to emulate, but boys continued to be a very real problem.

Cultural mores were still advocating the huge families once required to ensure enough surviving children to work a farm. Instead of having eleven children and seeing three of them survive, people were having thirteen children (because parents were living longer as well), and having ten of them survive. In the cities this resulted in infestations of children with little more to do than eat and cause trouble.

These were the pressures that lead to the development of the public school systems. A large number of children who raise themselves are a flat-out menace to society. The boys rapidly coagulate into youth gangs, threatening the safety of everyone not willing to shoot them all. The girls end up gravitating toward the strongest of these bright chimpanzees, getting themselves pregnant with unsupportable, untrainable kids, perpetuating the problem.

The answers found to these mid-19th century problems would ultimately become what we all know as the public school system. They not only provided a kind of baby-sitting service for working-class families, they also allowed the rapid enculturation of these children into the society, and gave them the skills needed by industries to grow and prosper. A public university system enabled the gifted and talented to continue far beyond the skills required to work in a factory, thereby setting the nation up for another wave of innovation and cultural development.

Of course this is how the system works in a perfect world. Problems crop up all over the place when you dump in real people. The existing power elite usually try to limit the mobility of certain kinds of children in a school, a ghastly methodology codified in the United States until well into the 20th century. This one practice can be traced directly to the root of most minorities’ cultural distrust of structured learning. What good is it going to school when, no matter how hard you try, you are doomed from the start to failure simply because of the color of your skin, the country or even the part of town where you were born?

There's also the opposite problem of fanatics clinging desperately to the old ways. A frighteningly large number of Americans still believe the only good place to raise a child is in the home, or in a church. That these methods of teaching were almost completely invalidated nearly two centuries ago is of no concern. A modern school is a vector for rational, scientific living, and it is extremely effective at spreading this contagion. When a subculture's belief system is incompatible with rational, scientific living, the only way it can survive is to remove its children from exposure.

The school systems themselves are imperfect to say the least. Corruption, chronic under funding and underpayment, and the political bloodsport of faculty, administration, and parental interaction all combine to make public schools nearly impossible to truly run well. In some cases it's so bad parents don't have a choice but to teach their kids at home, which really is no choice at all for most folks**.

These are all symptoms of a 200-year-old problem that still hasn't been completely solved. While it may not be perfect, it does work in many cases, and each new idea, each interesting technique, catches more and more kids.

The ultimate truth is genius doesn't always run in family lines, and hardly ever follows "breeding" or "class" or "color" or any other stupid artificial distinction we make about ourselves. It can spring up anywhere, not just in the richest homes on the hill but in the poorest barrios deep inside the city. The only way we can discover and train and harness this undiscovered talent is through the public school system, otherwise we may miss them.

Because there's nothing more tragic than a brilliant drug dealer.

Posted by scott at August 13, 2002 06:11 PM

eMail this entry!
Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember info?