Our Ancestors and neighbors and Us–Homo Novo?
Joseph Ugoretz | April 17, 2010 | 4:00 pm | Who Are We? What is Human? | No comments


(Google has this little-known tool–so I made a quick “SearchStory“. Kind of fun, maybe a useful tool? You can try one. They are very quick and easy.)

We’ve talked in the past about the differences between training and education, and one difference we mentioned (or at least I mentioned it) was that “training” is something for animals. Education is for human beings.

But there’s a deeper question at the core of that distinction, and in this unit we can start to explore that deeper question. What does it mean to be a human being?

One way to begin defining a word or concept is to look at it differentially–to try to define what it’s not. There are several ways to slice up the concept of “human being.” Anthropologists and paleontologists look at our pre-human hominid ancestors (there’s a great timeline here). Sahelanthropus tchadensis (around 7-6 million years ago) really wouldn’t fit what we think of as “human” today. Homo neanderthalensis (200-28 thousand years ago) was a lot closer, and what we used to call “Cro-Magnon” is now pretty much accepted as “early Homo sapiens sapiens.”

So at some point between Sahelanthropus tchadensis and Homo sapiens sapiens some very important things changed.

And we can also slice the concept in terms of species–we have some very intelligent non-human neighbors today. Dolphins and chimpanzees are probably the closest to us, but my dog, Jerry, certainly thinks he’s a human being. And my cats are certain that they are superior to human beings.

Or we can go in another direction–a different kind of neighbors. Is an intelligent alien (probably not a Martian–but what about a Vulcan? A Romulan? an Overlord?) a human being?

And there’s yet another direction. The artificial beings–computer intelligences, cyborgs, androids–are they human?

So if we look at those various slices, we see that there are certain things that the non-human ancestors and the non-human neighbors don’t have, while the human ones do.

And if education is something for human beings–what is it about human beings that education is for?

In Yiddish, as I’m sure some of you know, the word mensch means a lot more than just a human being. To be a mensch is to be what a human being should be (Judaism has some pretty definite ideas about what qualities are included there–but what are your ideas?). And maybe that’s what education is for–to make us what we should be.

How can education take us to the place where we are the best that we can be?

Homo homini lupus or Homo ludens
Joseph Ugoretz | April 17, 2010 | 4:25 pm | Who Are We? What is Human? | No comments

photo by verago @ picasaIt could be that quite a bit of your conception of how education shapes human beings is related to your conception of just what human beings are at heart before they’re shaped. Homo homini lupus (“Man is a wolf to [his fellow] man”) is one way of looking at that basic human nature. The idea that people are naturally predatory, violent, selfish, destructive, and in need of constant supervision to prevent that nature from breaking out is inherent in many ideas about education (and politics, but that’s a separate subject). Education, in this view, is about teaching people to rise above their nature–or at least to control it.

But then there are other views. Homo ludens (the title of an excellent book by Johan Huizinga, if you want some extra reading) says that humans (or human culture–which may or may not be the same thing) are defined by play. Animals do play–but it might be worth thinking about (“playing with the idea”) whether the full development of play–particularly of games–is a defining human element. And this certainly can be explored (“played out”–but I’ll stop with that–you see the point) in schooling. We’ve talked in previous units about the role of learning in play and play in learning–and how sometimes one can completely ruin the other, sadly.

And we can look at some other definitions at the same time. Humans make art. Is creativity (or creation) the definitive human characteristic? Homo generum? Heinlein’s Valentine Michael Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land says that man is the animal who laughs. Homo risum? (Excuse my terrible Latin in each of those!)

Or are we the animal with a soul? (And what is a soul?).

What is it about being human that education can speak to, and how should that speaking take place?

Would You Want Your Sister to Marry a Cylon?
Joseph Ugoretz | April 17, 2010 | 4:50 pm | Who Are We? What is Human? | No comments

In considering what we are as humans, what makes us humans, it’s also important to consider how we treat the beings among us who are different kinds of humans (or not human at all). As humans, we have a very negative history of dealing with other beings–particularly when we judge them as not being human, as being less than human. Genocide, slavery, factory farming, vivisection, destruction of habitat, imprisonment, exhibition as curiosities or captives, the list of ways that we humans abuse non-humans or less-than-humans is not a list that makes us look very good at all.

There are non-human partners in your life, in your planet, every day. Some of them you may eat (I enjoy a good hamburger, a chicken pot pie, or a bite of yellowtail sashimi myself). Others may provide your clothing, belts, shoes, the tests which ensure that your medicines or other products are safe, or the down that fills your fluffy pillow.

photo by ckroberts61 @flickrWe are moving to a world with more recognition of the non-human beings around us. And we are creating more beings and intelligences (how big a step is it from an iPad or a Roomba to a Cylon? Maybe a long step…but maybe not all that long!) to help and serve us. And (maybe–someday) we might be meeting intelligences from other worlds than ours. We’ve been listening for a long time. It’s possible that soon we’ll hear something. Or have “someone” come to visit us. How will we react to these beings? Will we accept them as partners and comrades? Even as friends? When they look at us, and see how we have treated our neighbors in this world, how will they judge us? How much integration, how much assimilation will we want? Would you want your sister to marry a Cylon?

Education, in the past (and maybe the present?) has often played a role in determining how our fellow beings are treated. In this country, not all that long ago, Native American children were removed from their homes and families and placed in schools where the motto was “kill the Indian and save the man.” It seems that we’ve made progress since those days–we no longer have schools which are segregated by race…at least not explicitly, not by law. But the struggle to end segregation in schooling was a long and hard one, and may still not be ended.

Think about where your education has taken you–has it been a force for tolerance and diversity? Should it have been? When colleges (including this one) recruit students, what should we be looking for? What kinds of diversity are important in a college? And how can we make sure that we get that–how will we proceed when Cylons or Bulburs or genetically-enhanced animals want to join us fully, in education and in the world?