Jared Diamond is a geographer and author of many bestselling books about civilisation, including Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse. In The World Until Yesterday, he combines his scholarship and his personal experiences in the New Guinea highlands to discuss how non-state societies of hunter gatherers and subsistence farmers and herders differ from modern industrialised state societies. In so doing, he sheds a light on the differences between our modern world and the way that humans have lived for the majority of our existence on this planet.
Although the whole book is fascinating, there is only one chapter that is really relevant to the themes of this podcast: the one entitled Bringing Up Children. In it, we can get a much broader perspective on the ways that different societies approach childhood and education than we ever could by comparing industrialised state societies with one another (say, comparing the People's Republic of China to the United Kingdom).
The chapter deals with the following themes: childbirth; infanticide; weaning; birth interval; breastfeeding; infant-adult physical contact; fathers and "allo-parents"; responses to crying infants; physical punishment; child autonomy; multi-age playgroups; and child play and education.
There are two reasons that I wanted to talk about this topic. The first is that I want to understand the range of human societies, cultures, and attitudes as well as possible, to make sure that my own understandings and viewpoints can take a broad perspective and discover and challenge any assumptions I might have rather than myopically studying the same society all the time. I believe that this makes me less likely to be an "accidental extremist" - somebody who holds an extreme viewpoint but doesn't realise it because everybody around me assumes the same as a matter of course, since we belong to the same culture. One potential example of this is the assumption of the need for school itself, as most humans that have ever lived have not spent a single day in school, nor have they ever felt the need to.
The second reason is actually to do with other people's arguments around what is "natural". For example, the unschooling movement, an offshoot of homeschooling where no instruction takes place, is largely based on the idea that copying the way that children have been brought up for hundreds of thousands of years is a better way to do things than to submit to modern assumptions about the necessity of schooling. By understanding something about the societies that inspire this line of thinking, we can both come to appreciate their perspective, and be in a reasonable position to engage with their ideas.
Enjoy the episode.
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