Benign Neglect

An anthropologist looks at contemporary parenting.

The Reluctant Scholar

While evolution has shaped humans to be voracious learners—almost from birth—the conditions under which this learning takes place have almost never included anything that looks like contemporary classrooms, teaching and lessons. Read More

Children or boys?

Do little Matses girls learn to paddle a canoe and fish? Do Tuareg girls aspire to sleep under the stars in a camel caravan? We may be able to learn a great deal from these anthropological observations, but to start with let's be clear about what is meant by "children" here.

What a good title your book has!

Girls vs Boys

You've jumped to a future installment. Are you one of those who starts mystery novels at the end to see "Who done it?" Actually, the Matses girls are also very adept in the water and around canoes. They're less involved in fishing because, at this age (8) they're helping Mom take care of the baby, among other chores. As far as the herders are concerned, there are certainly gender differences but girls learn to deal with goats in much the same way that boys learn about camels. And, yes, from a fairly young age, boys exercise a great deal more freedom including the freedom to lie out under the stars.


A great viewpoint, to steer us back to 'innate learning.' Learning is a natural form of intelligence and human development, and need not be 'imposed,' which assumes beings are 'blank slates that need to be taught everything and controlled.' Instead, Nature, Intelligence, Interacting with one's environment, and "natural growth,' were once cornerstones of some of the best educational programs in the nation, producing innovative thinkers and people who interacted more naturally with their Environment, both learning from it, and contributing to it. Thanks.

Excellent, excellent

Excellent, excellent article.

But your subtitle: “Don't blame it on teachers, tests, the curriculum, or T.V.” seems to be the exact opposite to the argument that you make in the article, that kids learn best when they are not being actively taught by teachers with a set curriculum and tests. As for TV, it is hard to see how watching TV is an example of “active learning”.

“Morelli makes the point that Matses children are active learners, guided largely by their own curiosity and drive to master their environment. They enjoy enormous freedom to manage their own lives and are only gradually encouraged to bend to the demands of the family to do necessary chores. And, for most important skills that the child must learn, the hands-on approach works best. The rewards for the diligent learner are almost immediate—imagine the welcome the boy and his fish will enjoy. As so many ethnographers before her, Morelli notes the conspicuous absence of “teaching” in the development of these children.”

I hope you will get rid of that misleading subtitle!


Don't blame it on teachers, tests, the curriculum, or T.V.

Point taken Katie but the story gets more complicated. Let me briefly reveal my hand. As we move along our timeline of change and complexity, I'll describe a growing demand for individuals to acquire knowledge that can't just be "picked up" through observation. It is opaque compared to the transparency of the tasks carried out by villagers. I'll look at the institutions that been developed to respond to this problem and how these have changed over time. But, bottom line, there is a really poor fit between the evolved mechanisms for learning one's culture in the long, distant past and the knowledge demands of the information society. In my own thinking, "scholars" as distinct from learners are made not born.


Hi David

Well that does sound intriguing. Looking forward to reading more of your argument.


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David Lancy, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at Utah State University and author of The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings.


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