There exists a complex interplay among our human natures, the societies that we construct, and the tools we utilize to maintain and further those societies. Paul Ehrlich’s Human Natures and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel both examine this interplay and seek to elucidate the factors that, whether we are conscious of it or not, have lead to the world as we know it today. Indeed, the world’s most intractable problems: war, famine, climate change, overpopulation, disease, all are rooted in the complexity of the human condition.
This year I was invited to deliver an Ignite-style presentation at the 2010 Educon conference held at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA. Educon is an unconference, a gathering of ed tech types both in and out of the public education world, spanning grade levels (including higher education), and content areas. The focus Educon is on conversation and facilitating the types of conversation that lead to thoughtful pedagogy and technology use. At the time, I was thinking about the increasing popularity of social networking sites and how the nature of literacy was changing. The resulting presentation, “The Writing Revolution: R U Literate?,” was, for me, an epiphany about the nature of literacy in a world of ever-changing power structures. Here is an excerpt:
Why literacy? Because literacy has the power to transform.
Frederick Douglass wrote in his memoir The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave about the moment his life was forever transformed. He had been sold to the Auld family in Baltimore and Mrs. Auld took it upon herself to teach Frederick Douglass to read. Her husband found out and told her “If you teach a slave to read, there would be no keeping him.” Douglass describes thinking “From that moment, I understood the pathway to freedom.
Literacy has power.
In Jared Diamond’s brilliant unpacking of the reasons for human society, culture, and the rise of certain of these societies and cultures over others, he reveals the essential ingredients for power: guns, germs, and steel. That technological innovation and gains in knowledge that have led to the current world order are rooted in the almost accidental acquisition of these three things is a powerful idea. As a person interested in the power of literacy, I was struck by how central the development of the written word was to the gaining of power and dominance. Diamond discusses at length the advantages of literacy: the value in communication over long distances in war, the ability to retain more and pass along knowledge rather than relying on collective human memory. Literacy, in Diamond’s analysis, was key to the gaining of power and the technological advantages that allowed for the maintenance of that power. It is no accident that literacy was long reserved for those in power. Frederick Douglass recognized it, his slave master recognized it. And it continues to be recognized as the struggle for education continues in countries around the world.
I became a teacher because of a strong commitment to social justice. As a person of privilege, a white, American, middle-class female, I fully exploited my own literacy and power in order to educate myself and thus retain my status in the middle-class. It seemed to me that issues of inequity were rooted in the inequitable education received by students in this country, and I devoted myself to working to reverse these inequities. I finally became certified to teach the year that No Child Left Behind passed, a change that fundamentally altered the educational landscape in a way that rendered large amounts of my teacher preparation program moot. I was hired to a full-time teaching position not because of my progressive views on education, but because of my background in the area of standardized testing. While I am middle-class, the University of Michigan is nonetheless expensive, and the Princeton Review paid their test-prep tutors handsomely. I was certified as part of my Masters program, and my research there continued to center on standardized testing. It was not lost on me at the time that the expensive tutoring paid for by those privileged enough to afford it was in part responsible for the results that indicated parental income as an accurate predictor of a student’s score. This testing literacy was power, and people paid for access to it. For all of the NCLB’s focus on test scores improving, it was clear to me that what these tests measured was, in a small way English and Math, and in a large way measuring with exactitude the economic and educational inequities present in our society. Once again, the literacies and the power were inextricable.
Paul Ehrlich, noted author of the hugely influential and controversial Population Bomb, in Human Natures presents his argument against biological determinism. This text, written in 1999 or whatever, was pushing back on the ideas saturating the popular thinking about the strong, fixed nature of human beings, determined solely by the accident of genetics. Women are worse at math than men: it’s in their genes. War is a human evil: it’s due to our warlike ape ancestors. Ehrlich, ever the astute biologist, takes the long view of human history and highlights the places where the argument for biological determinism falls apart. Today, scientists touting biological determinism would be laughed off the stage. The scientific gains in biology, genetics, biochemistry, and cognitive science have revealed as many questions as answers. What is sure is that the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture can be answered with: it depends.
What Ehrlich does best is to remind us of the danger of taking large truths and placing them onto the individual. It is the same in education: no one way of teaching and learning will suit all teachers and learners all of the time. Genetics are not the cause of the achievement gap, but part of the blame can be laid at that complex interplay of culture, history, and power. Recognizing the differences in general trends versus individual students is important for substantive reform to take place in the educational environment.
The world is changing, it has always been changing, and it will continue to change. Technology, and the advantages new technologies bring to a society, is often the driving factor behind the ever-changing landscape. As educators, thinking through the large cultural forces at work in our classrooms can be a useful lens for considering our pedagogy and our implementation of new technologies in light of our content. Thinking back to the ideas literacy and power, part of the narrative around social networking tools is the way that they have amplified the voices of the powerless: the protests in Iran as a prime example. While this narrative doesn’t completely capture what is going on in social networking spaces (for example, white flight from MySpace, the tendency for people to engage only with those who already agree with them, the lack of true interaction beyond traditional societal boundaries, all of these have been documented by ethnographers and other scholars), it does raise the troubling question of how we might be preparing our students to access the power associated with these changing literacies. After all, educating all of our citizens was rooted in the belief in democracy, and in a democracy we value all of the voices equally. Education, in light of our human natures and human conditions, is still a pathway to power.
Ehrlich, Paul. (2002). Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. New York: Penguin Group.
Diamond, Jared. (1999). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton.