You all know by now that I teach Introduction to Anthropology classes for a local university. My role is pretty small and many of my students are just trying to
fulfill a social science credit requirement, so I try not to take myself too seriously. Over the past few semesters, my approach to teaching has undergone some substantial changes, more of which I’m currently making to my lesson plans for the upcoming term, but there’s one thing that’s remained constant. Our species survived and flourished, not because we did or do anything so drastically different from other primates. Rather, it’s a question of degree.
Cooperation and Creation
All anthropoids (the great apes and Us) make tools to some degree. We all cooperate. We all share. We all practice social regulation essential for cohesive community building. Humans do thes things to a much deeper and more elaborated extent than any other extant primate species, which is why we survived. That’s not intended to be an either/or statement regarding why we are currently the last Homo standing. There are several potential reasons for that, which I won’t go into today.
But we evolved in small groups spread across a vast landscape not particularly kind to the makers of mistakes. We’re here. And, barring killing ourselves through war, ignorance, or climate catastrophes exacerbated by willful blindness, we have the chance to move forward. 7 billion or 7, we still have a responsibility for one another. And part of this responsibility of mutually assured survival entails that we maintain communities capable of absorbing change and human variation. The closed society, like a closed thermodynamic system, is one doomed to increasing decay into stillness.
We also must keep all our hands in the game, quite literally when it comes to understanding how the physical world works. One way to do that is to practice a craft. It might fall under the heading of a hobby or it might be a form of skilled labor, but especially in a society such as this, it must be chosen. I encourage my students to touch the world, above and beyond academic pursuits and earning wages to pay for continued life status. Why?
The Disconnected Human
Isolation is a death sentence for much of our history on the planet. To be cut out of a social group is detrimental to any primate, some of which will actually die without physical contact. But for humans, it was also a literal death, because life is harsh and living requires the cooperative efforts of a closely bound group. Today, this may be less literally true, but studies indicate that social isolation takes a very real toll on physical health.
In terms of a whole culture group, particularly this one, I see our increased distance from even a basic understanding of how the physical world works as a sort of isolation. It is a separation from others. In our consumer economy, you never need to know how materials respond to physical forces, because you are not responsible for building or making anything.
If you need anything from dinner to a house, you buy it. Someone else is responsible for that building or making, which renders us dependent. But it also makes us careless and disrespectful. How many people treat masons or tailors, line cooks or farmers with respect, considering that these people have the knowledge to house, clothe, and feed us? When was the last time you remember vocational training put on the same footing with a university or academic education?
These features of our culture bother me. They spell out a social trajectory that is a bit distressing, because we are a society of individuals who are pummeled with factoids and subject matter, but are rarely shown why we need to learn physics and maths. Never mind that the arts have taken the brunt of budget cuts in my lifetime. And the result is, when paired with test-oriented inculcation, entire generations who cannot think, cannot make, cannot survive if a single cog in our modern social machine is removed. This is the opposite of the dynamic and adaptive cooperative species that emerged to become recognizable as our human forebears.
Rough and Smooth
Of course, I speak generally. There are, on the individual level, quite a few people who do interact in these ways with their community and physical world. What I seek to do, on the small scale, is to encourage my students to pursue these endeavors. I provide a situational reward framework that offers incentives. They’re taking my class to fulfill an academic requirement, and usually have little interest in taking the next, more focused step.
So, I offer Brownie Points that will enhance their academic marks, for going to cultural events, for participating in community projects, and for investigating crafts or skills. Did you learn how to sew so you could make your own CosPlay outfits? Brownie Points! Are you learning to cook at home to save money or impress a sex partner? Brownie Points! Have you been learning how to rebuild engines or how to construct housing units as a personal extension of academic endeavors? Brownie Points! All I need is documentation–a ticket stub, selfies at the Masquerade, pics of you on a building site or behind the line at the soup kitchen, progress pics–whatever.
I simply want my students to know that being involved–cooperative, creative, dirty to the elbows with community and with the making of stuff–has value, and this is the simplest way to show that.