Many people believe that the first schools were probably established to train priests but the metasystem of education has roots in both the Military Industrial Complex and the metasystem of Religion. Some schools trained priests but others trained soldiers and members of the Establishment to command and rule.
One of the best known was Plato's Academy, in ancient Greece. Some modern scholars still idealize it, but the reality was less than ideal.
Plato was descended from Codrus, the last king of Athens, and Codrus claimed descent from the sea-god Poseidon. Plato himself was more aristocrat than philosopher and, like other aristocrats of his time, he believed that some men were "natural slaves" and others were "natural rulers." He believed that education should be for the elite only and he saw it mostly as a way of conditioning them to feel superior to the masses.
Some of Plato's modern fans like to think he was a democrat and a humanitarian but that's not so. In fact, he seems to have been about as anti-democratic and anti-humanitarian as it is possible to be.
Plato thought all women and children should be "owned" by all men -- all aristocratic men, that is -- in common, and he did not approve of freedom for anyone -- not even for aristocrats. In his ideal society everyone knows his place and nobody, except the philosopher king that Plato says should rule, has any freedom of action.
Consider this passage from Laws XII:
"The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, or even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace -- to this leader he shall direct his eye and shall follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, move, or wash, or take his meals only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently and to become incapable of it.
"In this way the life of all will be spent in total community. There is no law, nor will there ever be one, which is superior to this, or better or more effective in ensuring salvation and victory in war. And in times of peace, from the earliest childhood on should it be fostered -- this habit of ruling others and of being ruled by others. And every trace of anarchy should be utterly eradicated from all the life of all the men and even of the wild beasts which are subject to men."
Plato's ideas were popular because he was wealthy and powerful and because his support of priests and aristocrats was useful to the Establishment. In later years his image was adapted by translators and scholars to make him more acceptable to Christians. Philosopher Sir Karl Popper suggests that much of Plato's reputation is based on deliberate mis-translation.
Plato had little interest in education as we conceive it. He saw school as a way to condition students to The System and, as much as possible, to nurture those aspects of The System that Plato himself found most satisfying.
Some apologists argue that even if Plato's ideas were wrong they were advanced for their time. That's not so.
The philosopher Democritus was born in Thrace, about 40 years before Plato was born in Athens, and he studied in Egypt, Persia and India among other places. He developed and taught a theory that the universe was made up of tiny particles he called 'atoms.' For some reason they were always in motion.
Some of these atoms had hooks and different materials were made of different mixtures of atoms which had somehow become hooked together. Different atoms were shaped differently and, for example, Democritus said water flows because water atoms are round and they slide easily over one another. He thought the universe was probably infinite and that it contained many planets. He was off-base on some points but he was centuries ahead of Plato and he laid what should have been the groundwork for modern science.
But, largely because of Plato and his admirers, relatively few people have heard of Democritus. Aristocrats and priests did not like him because he said all men were equal, because he laughed at the pretensions of aristocrats and because he suggested that men invented gods to explain phenomena such as thunder, lightning, volcanoes and earthquakes. These ideas did not play well with people who, like Plato, lived on the sweat of slaves and who justified their positions by saying that the gods had made them rulers.
At one point Plato tried to have all Democritus' books burned but Aristotle convinced him that there were too many of them and that they were too well respected.
Aristotle was another 'great philosopher.' Born the son of a physician to the Macedonian court he became a star student at Plato's Academy. Like Plato he believed in gods and rulers and that human happiness could be achieved only in obedience to both. Like Plato, Aristotle argued that some men are 'natural' slaves but he took the view further, with the argument that even free men who work for a living should have no voice in government. The working class should not rule, he said and the ruling class should not work.
Aristotle accepted the Ptolemaic view of the universe, in which the planets and stars were supposed to be mounted on crystal spheres which surrounded the earth and which were moved by gods. He also thought that everything on earth was made up of the four 'elements' of earth, air, fire and water. He rejected Democritus' ideas partly because he could not imagine that atoms could be in continual motion.
As a philosopher Aristotle was no match for Democritus but he lucked out when he got a job as tutor to the Macedonian prince who became Alexander the Great. By some accounts Alexander kept in touch with Aristotle for the rest of his life and sent him letters and biological samples from the new territories he conquered. After Alexander conquered most of the known world any philosopher who wanted to be taken seriously had to teach what Alexander believed and that was what Aristotle had taught him.
Aristotle's view of the world was hopelessly wrong but, because it suited The Establishment, it dominated philosophical thought for nearly 2,000 years. In the 15th century the Polish physician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus proved with mathematics that the Ptolemaic view of the universe that Aristotle had taught was wrong but he refused to publish until he was dying and, even then, a preface to his book explained that his system was just a mathematical convenience that made it possible to predict the movement of the planets.
Every serious astronomer knew that Copernicus' mathematics worked and they must have known that his model of the universe was valid but in 1600, 57 years after Copernicus published, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for teaching a Copernican view of the universe. In 1616 Galileo Galilei was ordered to stop teaching Copernican ideas and in 1633 he was put under house arrest for the rest of his life, because he said that Aristotle's view of the universe was wrong.
The modern church apologizes for the persecution of Galileo but Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine, who ordered it, was canonized in 1930.
Because of Galileo's arrest Rene Descartes delayed the publication of his Discourse on Method for three years, until 1637. He explained that because he could find no fault with Galileo's work, he was afraid that someone might find fault with his.
To this day some scholastics consider Aristotle to be the most important philosopher in human history. He may be but, if so, he should be known for the strangulation of science rather than for any contribution to it.
Plato's Academy taught aristocrats to be aristocrats but modern state-operated schools teach the masses to be masses. Public education began in England with the Elementary Education Act of 1870, which established a state-supported system of elementary schools. Author Alvin Toffler explains the reasons for this, in The Third Wave. . . .
"the early mine, mill and factory owners of industrializing England discovered, as Andrew Ure wrote in 1835, that it was 'nearly impossible to convert persons past the age of puberty, whether drawn from rural or from handicraft occupations, into useful factory hands.' If young people could be prefitted to the industrial system, it would vastly ease the problems of industrial discipline later on. The result was another central structure of all Second Wave societies, mass education.
"Built on the factory model, mass education taught basic reading, writing and arithmetic, a bit of history and other subjects. This was the 'overt curriculum.' But beneath it lay an invisible or 'covert curriculum' that was far more basic. It consisted -- and still does, in most industrial nations -- of three courses: one in punctuality, one in obedience and one in rote, repetitive work. Factory labor demanded workers who showed up on time, especially assembly-line hands. It demanded workers who would take orders from a management hierarchy without questioning. And it demanded men and women prepared to slave away at machines or in offices, performing brutally repetitive operations.
"Thus from the mid-nineteenth century on, as the Second Wave cut across country after country, one found a relentless educational progression: children started school at a younger and younger age, the school year became longer and longer (in the United States it climbed 35 percent between 1878 and 1956) and the number of years of compulsory schooling irresistibly increased."
Modern schools continue the program Toffler wrote of and they offer some extra benefits that Toffler did not mention. One is that schools prepare children for life in The System by teaching them to be helpless. Psychologists around the world have studied the phenomenon they call 'learned helplessness' in dogs, cats, rats, cockroaches, goldfish and people since the 1950's, but the system of education has been creating it since the early days of mandatory schooling.
Experiments show that when any animal learns that it has no control over its environment, it stops trying to control that environment. In a typical experiment dogs were placed in a 'shuttle box' which has a low partition down the middle. The floor of either side can be electrified to give the dog a shock and the dog can avoid the shock by jumping the partition.
To condition a dog to feel helpless experimenters electrified both sides of the box at the same time, so the animal could not escape the shock by jumping the partition. After conditioning the dog would cringe and whine and urinate when it was shocked, but it would not jump the partition.
For the second stage of a typical experiment the experimenters would put a second, unconditioned, dog in the box and electrify only one side at a time. The new dog would jump the partition to avoid the shock but the conditioned dog would not. Even though it could see that the other dog avoided the shock, it would not jump the partition.
People react the same way. I don't know of any experiments in which people were shocked but in the late 1970's tests at a Veterans Administration hospital at Northport, New York, found that after a few weeks in hospital, patients seem to be conditioned to be helpless.
In the Northport experiment outpatients and patients were tested for their ability to learn to use mechanical controls to turn off an annoying noise. Outpatients learned the task quickly but patients who had spent a few days in hospital took longer to learn and some patients who had spent weeks or months in hospital never did learn.
In her report of the experiment psychologist Maritza Aminita Jonas noted that hospital patients have little or no control over their environment. "Choice of food and time of meals, television station, physician availability, standard procedures (such as temperature and blood pressure readings) not to mention the time and type of medical information concerning the individual, are all important factors over which the patient has little or no control."
School children learn that they are helpless when they have to spend most of their day in a classroom, not talking to their friends and learning or pretending to learn things that do not interest them.
In people and animals, Jonas says, learned helplessness makes the individual passive, slows learning and reduces the individuals' sexual and social functions.
Schools also support the system by diminishing the influence of families. This is a valuable function because if children learn everything from their parents they will consider their parents to be the ultimate authority. If they learn in school, from teachers who sometimes tell them their parents are wrong, they will learn that the teacher is an authority and -- because teachers defer to official orders -- that The System is the ultimate authority.
In the world of humans we respected, and sometimes obeyed, humans. The leader of a hunting party, for example, led because he knew the country and/or the quarry well and because most of the members of the party thought he was the most competent. Individual hunters cooperated with him, rather than obeyed him.
In the world of The System our teachers, foremen, managers and other superiors are appointed by The System and most of them have never proved their competence to us.
In many cases we don't know whether our immediate superiors know how to do the job they supervise or not. In others we know that it does not matter how much or how little they know because they are just a conduit for decisions made by someone else who has no direct contact with the situation and who may know very little about it.
In some systems, in fact, superior skill or intelligence may be a barrier to promotion. Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler's architect and successor as chancellor of Nazi Germany, wrote that most senior Nazi party officials chose deputies and assistants who were not smart enough to replace them. In the same way, we have to assume that in other systems some managers may refuse promotion to their best subordinates.
Most of them would probably not admit this, even to themselves, but we have all heard the phrase 'too smart for his/her own good.' In most organizations the way to promotion is to be a 'team player,' and a team player is not one who thinks for him or her self. A good team player will never question the decisions of his captain, or allow human considerations to hamper the operation of a system.
Schools also serve as babysitters, freeing parents to serve The System rather than their families. Because The System takes care of their children fathers can be made to feel that their jobs are more important than their families and even some mothers who can afford to stay home consider it more important to serve The System than to raise a family.
Schools also teach children to conform. Whatever the activity they must act as they have been told to act, and original ideas are liable to be punished. Schools destroy initiative by teaching children that the only acceptable activity is whatever the teacher wants them to do. In a natural family a child will pay attention to whatever interests him or her at the time and will decide in his own mind whether to play or to build something or to sit and watch. Children in school learn to do what the teachers tell them to do and they are taught that what they want and what they think are irrelevant.
Schools also teach children to concentrate on things that are of no interest to them. To any healthy mind a bee buzzing around a flower or a puppy playing with a ball are far more interesting and important than, say, a list of the kings of England or of the presidents of the United States. School teaches children that their own judgment is of no importance and that The System will tell them what to be interested in.
Schools teach children to obey the teacher because she or he is a representative of The System. In many schools children can't even go the bathroom without the teacher's permission. This is an important lesson for children who will grow up to become part of systems that will, eventually, control most of their waking hours and many of their dreams.
Schools also teach what educational theorist Ivan Illich calls "the need to be taught." In Deschooling Society he argues that if we were offered the opportunity, most of us could learn most things on our own.
This has proven to be true. Since the advent of computers, schools have been unable to keep up with the new skills required to use them and, as has often been recognized, children who have grown up with computers can usually learn to use new programs on their own. Older people, who have learned 'the need to be taught' have problems, partly because most computer programs do not include well-written instructions.
And above all, schools have taught most of us to believe in education. As the products of education themselves teachers respect education and, as responsible teachers, they teach their students to respect it.
Education should be respected, but not as much as some educators seem to think it should be. Let's remember, first of all, that the word 'education' usually refers to learning that is of little practical use. Learning that is of practical use is called 'training.'
An 'educated' man may be able to read and write ancient Greek but he can probably not build a house or fix a car. A 'trained' man has learned to build a house or fix a car or do one of the thousands of jobs that keep our society working but he probably can't read or write ancient Greek.
The distinction between education and training probably stems from the days when priests managed education and tradesmen trained apprentices. Because priests out-ranked tradesmen, education outranked training and it has been that way ever since. Some school systems now offer technical training but most teachers believe that, even if it is of no particular use, 'education' is somehow better than 'training.'
Not long ago even engineering and science were considered to be 'training.' 'Education' was the study of dead languages, mythology, superstition and the misinformed opinions of dead scholastics. The church court that convicted Galileo considered traditional belief to be more valid that observed fact.
But even if early education was useless it was also restricted and, even for members of lower classes, it might offer a chance to join the elite. Because educated people shared exotic knowledge with other educated people they were accepted by the Establishment and entitled to comfortable and/or well paid positions in the service of rulers.
Civic administrators in ancient China were chosen by an exam in which candidates were required to write a poem. Their work was judged on the quality of the poem and of the calligraphy, neither of which is important to the job of administration but both of which are important to administrators who were themselves chosen for their poetry and calligraphy.
Educational qualifications also filtered senior administrators in the British Empire, but in Britain the standards were slightly different. In most cases an applicant would be hired for a good job if he came from an exclusive school and for a lesser job if he came from a lesser school.
The British system made selection easy because relatively few people went to exclusive schools and it worked because senior administrators don't have to know or understand much anyway. (Remember von Holst's experiment? The fish with the lobotomy became the leader.) If actual knowledge is required, they have underlings to provide it.
Some modern schools provide technical training but, above all, a university degree is proof that the graduate has been accepted into at least the lower levels of the Establishment and has been able to live with the rules and demands of systems. In this it performs a sorting function because people who have not been able to afford or have not been accepted by a university need not be considered for membership in the Establishment. If they do not complete their education it may be because they are too independent or self-motivated to put up with the restrictions of school and would therefore not make good servants of The System. Most people who have chosen or been chosen for 'training' rather than 'education' in their youth are liable to be type-cast for life, and can never hope to be considered for a 'management' job.
One of the most important functions of modern education is that it teaches us to accept information only from approved sources. Most of the ideas in this book are my own but I still need lots of quotes and footnotes to prove that they are derived from 'authorized' sources. Even so, many scholars will refuse to consider my work because it is not part of a scholarly tradition.
Even Plato apparently felt he had to appeal to authority to get his ideas accepted. Most of his work was written in the form of fictional 'dialogues' which pretended to be reports of discussions between Socrates -- Plato's teacher and probably the best-respected philosopher in Greek history -- and his disciples and friends.
There's a bitter irony in this because Socrates was condemned to death for 'disrespect of the gods,' (actually disrespect of the rulers of his day), but Plato invokes his name to demand slavish obedience to priests and rulers. Because Socrates wrote very little, much of what is said to be his philosophy comes from the writings of Plato.
Advanced education for the masses is a recent development and, as might be expected, it offers more benefits to The System than to the masses.
Because it takes so long advanced education gets people over that dangerous period, in which they are open to new ideas, before they enter the work force and long before they are in any position to make important decisions.
In his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money English economist John Maynard Keynes wrote ---
"There are not many who are influenced by new ideas or theories after they are twenty five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest."
University education has the advantage that it takes young people out of their homes and exposes them to conditioning by a system without any parental influence that might counter it. At schools run by servants of The System, whole generations of would-be thinkers can be trained to be mindless automatons.
University education also helps to put a brake on both technical progress and social change. Most universities pretend to search for new ideas but the fact is that most university professors and lecturers have completed their own education years ago and they have no need to develop or even consider new ideas. This is an advantage for The System because systems do not like change.
Both ancient Egypt and China developed considerable technology in their formative years but once the systems of priests and kings or emperors developed, technical progress stopped for thousands of years until the systems were destroyed.
Advanced education tends to slow technical progress because it teaches all students the same things and it locks many of them into the mistakes of their predecessors.
The great age of technical progress has been the past couple of hundred years. Many of the developments have been made in the United States -- a country which was relatively free of The System until quite recently -- and most of them by men who were not part of The System and who were not well 'educated' in The System's terms. Our modern world is based on the work of practical men like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Wilbur and Orville Wright. Edison did not complete elementary school, Ford had eight years schooling before he went to work in a machine shop and the Wright brothers were bicycle repairmen. All of them would be considered 'unemployable' in the modern world.
In the 1970's and 80's computer technology was changing overnight and many of the most important advances were made by inventors who dropped out of school to develop their own ideas. Now real progress has slowed. Advertisers and marketers continue to trumpet 'new products' but most of the real developments of the modern world are in communications, record keeping and military weapons -- all of which serve The System.
We get a lot of ballyhoo about 'improvements' in consumer goods but most of the changes are either cosmetic or made to reduce the cost or increase the salability of goods. Changes that increase the utility, efficiency or durability of goods are sometimes deliberately avoided.
I don't pretend that we could maintain our present level of technology without advanced education. In many fields we are past the stage where a natural genius like Edison can make significant advances with no education at all.
But on the other hand students are taught to think in conventional ways, and few of them will break free to develop new ideas. As we have several times in the past, we have probably reached a plateau of technical progress.
Advanced education also helps to create and maintain a culture of debt. Many university students have to borrow money to pay for their education and living expenses and they are deep in debt before they start work.
This has a double advantage from The System's point of view. One is that people with debts must take whatever job they are offered and put up with whatever it demands. The other is that people who learn to live in debt will accept debt as normal.
We see this in the millions of North Americans who keep their savings in RRSP accounts that pay five or ten percent interest and, at the same time, maintain a credit card debt that costs them typically 18% interest. Their debt is part of their lives.
The culture of debt offers an obvious advantage for The System because people who are in debt can't afford to rebel. They are tied to a treadmill and, because they are conditioned to it, they are glad to be there.
All levels of education condition students to fit the system by inoculating them with 'conventional wisdom;' which might be defined as whatever 'wisdom' The System chooses to recognize. In Galileo's day conventional wisdom included the 'fact' that the world was the center of the universe.
Even when it is wrong, conventional wisdom is a powerful force. In the foreword to the third edition of The New Industrial State economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote of ... "a sizable group of economists who unhesitatingly associate whatever they have been told to believe in their youth with absolute scholarship. Anything alien to such installed belief is deficient."
Conventional wisdom survives partly because the leaders of the world are mostly students who were trained in school and went from there into the real world. In order to be accepted as 'management trainees' they had to ape the views and behavior of the power elite and, in order to join the elite themselves, they had to go 20 or 30 years without challenging any sacred cows. By the time most leaders actually have much power, their ideas are hopelessly stuck in the past.
And they may never change, because they think they are right. Before they can change they must be willing to admit that most of their lives have been based on a mistake and that most of their past decisions were wrong. By Galileo's day no sane man could seriously believe that the stars were points of light on huge crystal spheres that surrounded the earth, but church leaders who had never questioned Aristotle's ideas could not afford to admit how stupid they had been.
Even if he knows the truth a member of the elite may find it convenient to support a falsehood. In The Affluent Society Galbraith devotes a whole chapter to the concept of 'conventional wisdom.' In a nutshell, he argues that the man who tells people what they already believe will generally get more public approval than the man who tells them something new.
That's understandable. Suppose that you are a hypothetical prince of the Catholic Church, about 1616. You know that the church says the earth is flat and the center of the universe, but you also knows that astronomical calculations based on this view do not work out.
You know that for more than 50 years astronomers have been basing their calculations on Copernicus' view that the world is round and that it and other planets orbit around the sun, and you know that calculations based on this premise work out.
Now Galileo says the world really is round, and that it orbits around the sun. Do you agree, or do you arrest him?
In Galbraith's words, "while the strategic advantage lies with what exists, all tactical advantage lies with what is acceptable."
In other words, you arrest Galileo.
You can't afford to admit that he is right because that would mean the church was wrong, and the power of the church rests on the belief that it is right.
So if you support Galileo it will be you and him against the authority of the church. If you support the church it will be you and the rest of the church against Galileo.
Sooner or later the truth will out but that's no problem for you because you're an old man and, without your help, it will take years for it to happen.
If you support the lie you will keep your comfort and prestige for the rest of your life. After you are dead people may know that you were part of the power structure that made a mistake, but the structure will still be there and it will protect your reputation along with its own.
If you support the truth you may spend the rest of your life in conflict and, possibly, jail. After you are dead people may know that you supported the truth, but that won't help you then.
Galbraith does not write of princes of the church but he observes that "the speaker or writer who addresses his audience with the proclaimed intent of telling the hard, shocking facts invariably goes on to expound what the audience most wants to hear." In the modern world, part of the art of politics is to determine exactly what the majority of voters want to hear.
In the long run conventional wisdom may be proved wrong but, since he may be dead before that happens, it makes more sense for an authority figure to support an accepted falsehood than a novel truth.
In The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money economist John Maynard Keynes wrote .. "Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally."
Plato's Academy also stressed sports and military training, partly because both Plato and his students owned slaves and they had to be prepared to crush a rebellion. Most modern students are destined to be wage slaves rather than slave owners but school sports and other extracurricular activities still serve The System because students who join school teams or a band or other school activity inter-act with a system rather than with each other. In many cases, they are tied more closely to a system in extra-curricular activities than they are in school.
A school band, for example, is a very tightly integrated system. Musicians who play in a band are expected to play exactly the right note -- as decided by someone else -- at exactly the right time -- as decided by someone else. The result may be beautiful music, but it is created by a system rather than by individuals.
Of course there is no alternative. If we want the kind of music a band or an orchestra plays, we must have a band or an orchestra. I don't say that we can get along without systems, I'm just trying to explain them and their place in our lives.
Sports teams are also systems and I find it interesting that in North America, where we think of ourselves as 'individuals,' some of our most popular sports leave very little room for individual action.
Compare, for example, American and Canadian football with the world football game that we call 'soccer.' In North American football an attack is usually an organized 'play' which is often a traditional maneuver developed years ago, and is practiced and performed by rote. In a game the 'play' for each situation is chosen by one person -- nominally the quarterback but sometimes the coach -- and each player does exactly what he has been told to do.
Soccer players play for a team too, but each man is expected to think for himself. Each player has a 'position' to cover but once the game starts, there is no-one to tell him how to cover it.
In American and Canadian football only certain designated players are expected to 'carry the ball' and score points. The players are team-mates but some are 'grunts' while others can be stars and they all do what they are told. Players on a soccer team are more nearly equal, and they are all expected to analyze the play and think for themselves.
Baseball is even more structured than football and in all team games the player is part of a team -- a system -- and he or she plays for the team rather than for him or her self.
School sports also teach us to be selectively cooperative -- we cooperate with team-mates but not with our opponents. It should be no surprise that systems are competitive because they began with an army and the culture that has grown out of that beginning sustains a myth that competition is part of our nature.
In fact that belief has been discredited by the evidence of Axelrod's computerized tournament of Prisoner's Dilemma games but, because the glories of competition are now part of our culture, the myth persists.
Most of us believe that our 'education' makes us superior to 'savages' but that's an illusion. Compare the education of a modern 18-year old white American or Canadian girl with the training of an 18-year old Indian girl who was raised a couple of hundred years ago in a tribe that lived by hunting and gathering. Assume that the white girl is an upper middle class WASP and the Indian is a typical member of her tribe. The white girl can read and write, but the Indian girl knows much more about the world in which she lives.
By the time the Indian girl was considered fit to marry she would have known how to identify hundreds of plants, where to find or how to grow them, when and how to harvest them and how to use all the different parts. Pulitzer Prize winning author Jared Diamond says the average hunter-gatherer can identify, find and use up to about one thousand different plants.
That alone is a lot of learning because most tribes had multiple uses for each plant. Consider the common cat-tail, for example. In spring you can eat the stalk, raw, or the head raw or cooked in batter. In fall you can grind the head into flour which can be baked into cakes and at any time of year you can dry the roots, grind them up and use the powder to make a drink that has been compared to coffee; or you can mash fresh roots to make a medicinal poultice. The stalks can also be dried to make arrows and the leaves woven to make baskets. The Indian girl might well know another half-dozen or so uses for the same plant and multiple uses for almost every other plant in the area where she lives.
In addition to the plants she would also be expected to know almost all the animals that live in her area. She would know where and how they live and how they can be hunted or trapped and she would know their anatomy in detail. Given a dead animal she could skin it and tan the hide, butcher it and preserve or cook the meat and make thread or string from the tendons, household tools from the bones and so forth.
She would also know how to make all the clothes she, her husband and their children might need, how to make several different types of shelter, how to braid ropes, bowstrings and other fiber products, how to weave baskets and perhaps blankets and how to make most of the tools, weapons and implements people need to live in comfort.
Most of the white girl's knowledge, on the other hand, is superficial. She knows the names and she thinks she knows something about the personal lives of some singers and movie stars, but the names may be assumed and many of the personal details she 'knows' are fictions created by publicity machines.
The modern girl knows the names of machines but she probably does not know how to use many of them, or how any of them work. She probably knows how to use a computer but, in most cases, most of the jobs she knows how to do with the computer serve the needs of systems rather than of people. She may know the names of some dead kings and philosophers, but the Indian girl is just as likely to know the legends of her tribe.
The white girl may speak a second language but the Indian girl may also speak a second language. The white girl probably does not know how to find or prepare her own food, clothing or shelter.
The Indian girl's knowledge is different from the white girl's, but it is more extensive and much more useful.
Even a typical farm girl of 100 years ago was better educated, for real life, than the average modern girl. My mother was a city girl but by the time she was 18 years old she could sew as well as most professional seamstresses and cook better than many modern professional cooks. Her father had servants and so did she when she was first married, but she was still expected to know how to keep house.
A farm girl of the same era would have known all that my mother knew and more. She would have known how to churn butter and separate cream, how to pluck and clean a chicken and clean a fish, how to help a cow give birth and how to bake bread, how to lay a fire and bank it for the night, how to saddle and ride or harness and drive a horse, how to make jam and preserve vegetables, how to take care of sick people and how to candle eggs, how to knit, weave and spin and so forth, and she could do it all without reference books.
The ultimate test of the level of skill required is the ease of conversion from one culture to another and 'primitive' men and women around the world have proved that they can easily absorb the knowledge required to live in our culture. People from modern cultures are seldom able to adapt to 'simpler' cultures, because of the higher level of skills required.
The more 'primitive' the culture, the higher the level of skill required to live in it. A modern girl could probably learn enough to get by on a pioneer farm but, starting as an adult, she might never learn enough to be considered competent in a mesolithic culture.
As a general rule I don't think fiction is a good guide to real life but I do like author Terry Pratchett's humorous fantasy novels. One of my favorite passages is his definition of 'ignorant' in a footnote in The Hogfather.
"Ignorant: a state of not knowing what a pronoun is, or how to find the square root of 27.4, and merely knowing childish and useless things like which of the seventy almost identical-looking species of the purple sea snake are the deadly ones, how to treat the poisonous pith of the Sago-sago tree to make a nourishing gruel, how to foretell the weather by the movements of the tree-climbing Burglar Crab, how to navigate across a thousand miles of featureless ocean by means of a piece of string and a small clay model of your grandfather, how to get essential vitamins from the liver of the ferocious ice bear, and other such trivial matters. It's a strange thing that when everyone becomes educated, everyone knows about the pronoun but no one knows about the Sago-sago."
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