Friday, June 28, 2013

Raising the Children

Jared Diamond.  The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?  New York: Viking, 2012.  ISBN: 9780670024810.

There are many interesting ideas in this book, but this one struck me as something particularly worth mulling over (from pages 207-208):
States do have military and technological advantages, and advantages of vastly larger populations, over hunter-gatherers.  Throughout recent millennia, those advantages have enabled states to conquer hunter-gatherers, so that the modern world map is now divided completely among states, and few hunter-gatherer groups have survived.  But even though states are much more powerful than hunter-gatherer bands, that doesn't necessarily imply that states have better ways of raising their children.  Some child-rearing practices of hunter-gatherer bands may be ones that we could consider emulating ... I don't recommend that we return to the hunter-gatherer practices of selective infanticide, high risk of death in childbirth, and letting infants play with knives and get burned by fires.  Some other features of hunter-gatherer childhoods, like the permissiveness of child sex play, feel uncomfortable to many of us, even though it may be hard to demonstrate that they really are harmful to children.  Still other practices are now adopted by some citizens of state societies, but make others uncomfortable--such as having infants sleep in the same bedroom or the same bed as parents, nursing children until age three or four, and avoiding physical punishment of children.

But some other hunter-gatherer child-rearing practices may fit readily into modern state societies.  It's perfectly feasible for us to transport our infants vertically upright and facing forward, rather than horizontally in a pram or vertically upright but facing backwards in a pack.  We could respond quickly and consistently to an infant's crying, practise much more extensive allo-parenting, and have far more physical contact between infants and care-givers.  We could encourage self-invented play of children, rather than discourage it by consistently providing complicated so-called educational toys.  We could arrange for multi-age child playgroups, rather than playgroups consisting of a uniform age cohort.  We could maximize a child's freedom to explore, insofar as it is safe to do so.

I find myself thinking a lot about the New Guinea people with whom I have been working for the last 49 years, and about the comments of Westerners who have lived for years in hunter-gatherer societies and watched children grow up there.  A recurring theme is that the other Westerners and I are struck by the emotional security, self-confidence, curiosity, and autonomy of members of small-scale societies, not only as adults but already as children.  We see that people in small-scale societies spend far more time talking to each other than we do, and they spend no time at all on passive entertainment supplied by outsiders, such as television, video games, and books.  We are struck by the precocious development of social skills in their children.  These are qualities that most of us admire, and would like to see in our own children [or even ourselves, right?], but we discourage development of those qualities by ranking and grading our children and constantly telling them what to do.  The adolescent identity-crises that plague American teen-agers aren't an issue for hunter-gatherer children.  The Westerners who have lived with hunter-gatherers and other small-scale societies speculate that those admirable qualities develop because of the way in which their children are brought up: namely, with constant security and stimulation, as a result of a long nursing period, sleeping near parents for several years, far more social models available to children through allo-parenting [voila the truly traditional family, which is not about sex or gender or any of that crap, at all], far more social stimulation through constant physical contact and proximity of caretakers, instant caretaker responses to a child's crying [easier with allo-parenting, i.e. more than two adults per child], and the minimal amount of physical punishment.
The chapter contains many more insights, but these paragraphs represent a pretty good summary.  What strikes me is that my own upbringing resembles a more "hunter-gatherer" one in certain ways.  My parents took me out of school after second grade, so the majority of my social contact occurred in mixed groups (containing adults and children of different ages, with relatively little of my time spent relating exclusively to age-mates).  I always had friends who were significantly older (and eventually younger) than I was, doing things I did not (and/or could not) do, and I did not really experience a "typical" adolescent identity crisis (though I did have one, in graduate school, which is where I finally awoke to the reality of the adult world in modern Western society as it exists outside the rhetoric people use to describe it).  As a result of my own experience, I don't have a finger on the pulse of society: I have never known or cared what "the American people" wants or likes, since in my experience "the American people" is a rhetorical fiction (three words reducing innumerable pluralities to an impossible unity).  I only relate meaningfully to the people I know, who are never going to be "the American people" (or the sinister "public servants" who minister to the needs of this chimaera).  When you come to me with plans for "the American people," I instinctively recoil--perceiving that you want to impose something on my people against their will, and that you feel this will be easier if you can invoke "the American people" as your justification (my mob is the only one that matters, so you had better roll over and do whatever I say).  I don't like the American people--paradoxically, since I embrace many tenets that are historically fundamental to the American social experiment (e.g. the idea that individual human beings have alienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, even when they may choose to exert those rights in ways that I would not, personally: until you commit clear criminal damage against another person, I don't mind how you choose to express yourself).

The environment I experienced as a child was necessarily much less rigid than the one I have encountered as an adult: my family lived on the edge of an old Southern rus rustica slowly turning into modern suburbia.  We had an enormous garden.  We spent lots of time together, working on a variety of different things (garden plants, landscaping, schoolwork, cooking, cleaning, installing solar panels, books, bees, church stuff, martial arts).  We didn't "play" much with outsiders: we went to activities where there were agendas we pursued, agendas that might include playing (e.g. at church or the dojo) but were not necessarily defined by it.  We had toys, but the best toys we had (before computers) were those we made ourselves.  While we were active in a religion that many see (with good reason) as patriarchal (in a pretty chauvinist way), we did not discriminate against women ourselves (at least not on purpose: I never thought of myself as qualitatively better than any of the females I interacted with because of my genitalia; what mattered to me was always being a good person, and I knew many women who were really good people, in every sense of the word--morally upstanding, professionally skilled, and socially adept).

Entering the adult world was disruptive and scary for me.  Unlike the hunter-gatherers Diamond writes about, I did not feel that my childhood prepared me for adult reality.  But this was not because my parents pulled me out of school: I know plenty of people whose time in school made them even more vulnerable than I feel.  It was not that I lacked something growing up, really.  I liked my childhood.  I feel like it prepared me to do many good things (e.g. how to work hard, how to get along with many different kinds of people, how to be self-motivated, how to solve problems in real life, how to be comfortable outdoors, how to embrace alternatives to modern conveniences when they become obnoxious or inconvenient).  But it did not prepare me well to fit into the world of age- and class-segregated professionals whose ranks I was supposed to join upon finishing my stint in the university (which I am at last about to do!).  After 10 years bumbling around in pursuit of terminal degrees that might land me remunerative employment (if Zeus pulls my lot from the right jar), I feel like there is a great gap in American culture--a gap between theory and practice--that leaves many people like me dangerously blind and helpless.
Hunter-gatherers grow up knowing how they will live.  They learn to hunt and gather as their ancestors did (and do).  I grow up being told that if I am "good" (at something, e.g. solving some kind of abstruse problem on a college entrance exam), then someone will give me a "job" (doing something, that could be anything).  I frequently heard advice like this: "Get an education!  And everything will work out.  God (or somebody else wise and powerful, e.g. the President) will provide."  This was disconcerting, particularly as I came closer and closer to failure in my academic efforts.  I had friends who were smart, worked hard, and failed.  Knowing them pretty well, I could not see their failure as a reflection of shortcomings I did not possess.  I saw my own human weakness, and it seemed a lot like theirs.  I learned to live with a constant sense of my own irredeemable inadequacy.  Where my childhood gave me a way of life that reinforced my security, showing me how I was competent and could provide livelihood (to myself and my family, i.e. my cooperative collective), my adulthood has offered me only alienation: its way of life is to make me subservient to masters I never know, subject to impersonal forces of supply and demand whose operation I cannot see for myself (until the pink slip arrives on my desk and it is too late).  As a child, I felt there were clear expectations of me, and that I was able to see and meet those expectations.  They made sense.  (If you don't tend the squash plants, they will be eaten by bugs, and we will have no squash for dinner.)  As an adult, I am not sure what people want.  (If you get bad reviews from teachers, colleagues, or students, your bosses might reward you or fire you, depending on circumstances too numerous and mutually contradictory for you to make heads or tails of).  I don't know that I meet expectations.  I am pretty sure that much of the time I don't.  I live in constant fear of my little job--fear that I might lose it and become a burden on my family, fear that I might keep it and become a burden on society (which might not need people like me plugging away diligently at whatever little job I happen to be doing).

As I see it, my parents had for themselves clear goals that I could see and support.  I saw and shared their goal to have squash for dinner (or solar panels to supplement the grid, or blueberry bushes to make breakfast more interesting).  My bosses in society (political leaders, religious leaders, academic supervisors) either don't have clear goals (what do the American people want? the Mormon people? academia? professors? students? bosses?) or have goals I am not comfortable with (we want people to serve us against their will with goods and services to which we feel entitled for many reasons that you will find laid out in excruciating, impossible detail in our mission statement).  I don't know what success looks like in the adult world.  Actually, I know exactly what it looks like: it looks just like failure, except that I come out of it triumphant (so far), while not all of my friends and colleagues are so fortunate.  I feel like I am a piece of meat in the adult world, a little pawn being pushed around by bigger men in a game whose stakes I am only barely able to see.  Instead of teaching me how to fend for myself, the way my family tried to do, social institutions have preferred to teach me how to serve them: pay us your tithes and taxes, whenever you can; when for some reason you cannot, remember that this is the fault of our political and religious opponents, whom you should oppose always and at all cost.

I wish I knew how to hunt, how to build, how to survive (and enjoy life) without a job--or continuous access to modern luxuries that many of us have been socialized to regard as essential (e.g. electricity, air conditioning, automotive transportation, grocery stores, hospitals, and my least favorite, "insurance").  Useful education, in my view, would teach me how to tend to my needs at minimal cost (to myself and others), making me a maximally autonomous individual.  But that is not the kind of education I have received at church or school.  Paradoxically, education in an institution does not really set people free: any freedom it offers comes at the expense of some self-sacrifice, some self-effacing contribution to the institution.  This is not an inherently poisonous or awful thing.  I don't mind giving something in exchange for something else.  But it becomes problematic when I give institutions everything I am, and all they can give me in return is empty promises like, "Hope for change!" and "God will provide!"  I didn't need to pay thousands of dollars in tithing, taxes, or tuition for that kind of knowledge, people.  I don't need to put in thousands of man-hours reading books and writing up reports that I then tear to shreds and write over, if the end-result of all my labors is a shrug: "We don't need professional humanists (or buggy-whip artisans) any more.  You should have chosen a better career, one that made you really useful."  Well, if I could see what utility means in this obscene place we call the world (or the market or even, gag, Wall Street), then maybe I might know how to serve it better.  If you could show me something to believe in or work for that weren't a pie-in-the-sky founded on transparent nonsense (or blatant theft, Wall Street), then maybe I could make something you might like (or at least avoid making myself a drag on society in pursuit of something worthless).

I am personally satisfied, at least at the moment, with the fruit of my labors as an adult.  If I am fired tomorrow, I will walk away from my position with some good experiences, and no student debt (thank all the people who founded scholarships for clueless undergrads with a taste for reading ancient Latin and Greek).  I will take whatever skills and aptitudes I have and seek a place to apply them meaningfully.  But I won't count on their translating easily into any of the narratives I heard as a student (narratives in which it was taken for granted that I would become a tenured professor, take out a mortgage on a house, have five kids, and retire to tend roses at the age of 65, providing a regular source of revenue to society in the form of tithes and taxes).  I don't think it is realistic to plot this kind of future, ignoring the increasingly obvious reality that it can always be subverted (when I fail to make tenure; when the education bubble bursts and tenure disappears entirely along with all the "free" money; when there is not time or food enough to keep another kid in my apartment; when the housing market prices us out; when Japanese beetles eat all the roses and the result of my constant worry is premature senility).  I guess what I am saying is that I wish school were more of a training ground for honest-to-goodness entrepreneurs (not just the pretenders who want to talk but cannot act with real responsibility), and less of an assembly-line reducing authentic, expansive human beings ("I contain multitudes") to narrow skill-sets designed to serve the inhuman and inhumane business-needs of corporations like GoldmanSachs, Monsanto, or the US federal government.  I don't really want a job.  I never did.  I want a life.  That is all.  It doesn't have to be easy.  It doesn't have to be expensive (in terms of capital: it will always require hard work, from me most of all, but I like that; I want to work at something I believe in, something that isn't the rat-race I see at the center of adult American life these days).  But it has to be real, and I have to be able to pursue it in ways that are authentic and maximally independent (respecting my individual autonomy: I don't mind being told what to do, but I do mind being expected to offer abject deference when my boss appears manifestly duplicitous or incompetent--as all bosses do sometimes, myself included).   

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