A Knowledge Inseparable from Social Life

By Vinay ranjan saraswati (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
In modern state societies, there is formal education: schools and after-hour classes, in which specially trained instructors teach children material set by school boards, as an activity separate from play. But education in small-scale societies is not a separate activity. Instead, children learn in the course of accompanying their parents and other adults, and of hearing stories told by adults and older children around the campfire. For instance, Nurit Bird-David wrote as follows about southern India’s Nayaka people: “At a time where in modern societies children begin schooling, say at age 6, Nayaka children independently go hunting small game, visiting and staying with other families, free from supervision by their own specific parents, though not necessarily from adults. . . . Teaching, additionally, is done in a very subtle way. No formal instruction and memorizing here, no classes, no exams, no cultural sites [schools] in which packets of knowledge, abstracted from their context, are transmitted from one person to another. Knowledge is inseparable from social life.

–Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?

The Luxury of Efficiency

By Crops for the Future (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I’m currently reading Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, in which he examines traditional societies and compares them to modern state societies, and I came across a passage which lends an interesting perspective to a word Will brought up recently: efficiency.

Diamond describes a traditional form of planting that has greatly perplexed modern minds: field scattering. Why are these ignorant peasants and tribal peoples wasting their energy in planting and tilling and traveling between many small plots, rather than consolidating their yields? “To modern economic historians, that was “obviously” a bad idea.”

It turns out that it has a lot to do with managing complexity in the face of immediate needs.

“In any given year there are big differences between yields of different fields, but a peasant can’t predict which particular field is going to produce well in any particular year,” Diamond states of the Cuyo Cuyo farmer.

So in the face of the unknown, the peasant scatters his potential yield. This decreases his overall yield, and ensures he will rarely have a great abundance (which he wouldn’t be able to store for long anyway), but also ensures that he will rarely starve.

“If your time-averaged yield is marvelously high as a result of the combination of nine great years and one year of crop failure, you will still starve to death in that one year of crop failure before you can look back to congratulate yourself on your great time-averaged yield.”

Thus, “through long experience, and without using statistics or mathematical analyses, Goland’s Andean peasants had figured out how to scatter their land just enough to buffer them against the risk of starvation from unpredictable local variation in food yields.”

I wonder what lessons there may be in this for schools.

In the face of stark accountability (“starvation”) and potential closure, a school may strategically “scatter” its efforts to meet its immediate needs, rather than “efficiently” investing in more coherent and systematic measures that will, over time, accrue in more lasting impacts and yields.

After all, when you are facing starvation, your primary concern is not to starve. But when you already have a buffer of wealth, you can take greater risks.

We often talk about how much money America spends on education in comparison to other countries, with little to show for it. Yet school funding is often on a perpetual cycle where schools are encouraged to scatter their money willy-nilly on immediate needs, rather than take bigger risks and strategically invest in longer-term investments.

I’ll stop there, as I’m probably pushing the analogy too far. But it’s interesting to consider how the concept of “efficiency” can be considered as a product of luxury.