Beginnings of Education

How far back do we go to get our first glimpse of that all important moment in history when knowledge was recognized as valuable, and its passage from one generation to the next became a social phenomenon? Quite possibly, we may have to go back a million years or even more to capture that particular moment (Hadingham, 1979). Certainly by the time of the great migration of Homo erectus from Africa to all corners of the Old World it would have been expedient, to say the least, to have some pattern of formalized passage of information from one generation to the next (Harris,1977).

It was indeed not only expedient but absolutely imperative for the survival of the individual, and more importantly the clan. We do not know exactly how the information was passed, but certainly by language as well as gesture (Sumner, 1963). Those individuals who showed greatest retention and beneficial use of the information became leaders, teachers, eventually shamans and wizards like Merlin (Mishlove, 1975). There was quite certainly an element of ritual incorporated in the process, for was not the clan’s life inexorably tied to its environment, and how the clan interacted within that environment determined its very survival?

What the rituals were we do not know, but during the million and a half years of Homo erectus we can be somewhat assured that it reached formal levels, levels that included dance, chant, music, and perhaps the beginnings of a cosmology (Sagan,1977). Yet, the information within the ritual was of a very practical nature, dealing with fire and tool making, sewing and hunting. Indeed, it is quite certain that this information was highly ritualized in order to convey to the student the cosmic importance of this knowledge.

If this knowledge was used by an individual for beneficial purposes, that person would be designated as a wise person, or, as among Native Americans, a wisdom keeper. It is not necessary to draw too sophisticated of a picture here, but it is important to see its beginnings, "primal" as they may be. It is within the context of these early informational exchanges that the foundations of the educational process were laid. What is also critically important here is to appreciate the emerging techniques within our earliest ancestors of levels of communication and information exchange that were not necessarily based in the limited contexts of verbal and gestural conveyance (Ranzi, 1982).

Increasing sophistication

It is logical to assume that during the time of the Neanderthal people, (150,000 years ago) a more sophisticated concept of the importance of knowledge was extant (Hsu, 1972). This judgment is not reached by speculation alone, but by the apparently more advanced state of their social and technological systems evidenced by relatively recent archaeological discoveries (Ranzi,1983). The significance of this in regard to ritual in education is that it belies an emerging awareness of the wholeness of life, its mystical properties and, perhaps most importantly, its perpetuation through knowledge and wisdom. Therefore, the passing of information (knowledge) which leads to reason, which then leads to wisdom does insure the clan’s position in the great continuum or Gatto’s Great Enterprise (John Gatto, New York's teacher of the year). And what is of crucial importance is the recognition that this "Great Enterprise" in itself is endless and not confined exclusively to the physical arena. A clear example of this are the Chumash five imaginal senses described below. By the time of our more recent ancestors, (35,000 years ago), the Cro-Magnon peoples, we are given more concrete evidence of a highly ritualized system of information transference. The cave art in Lascaux, France, dated between 20,000 and 15,000 years ago, is clear evidence of depiction of a natural world in which the artist was interested, "not with pleasing, but with invoking, and the purpose of the painting and engraving was vitally connected with the survival of the clan" (Hadingham,1979,p.204)). The art of this period abounds throughout Europe and Asia, consistently portraying the world of mankind, our place in it, and the need for knowledge to carry us forward in the Great Enterprise.

Most of the information however, was still conveyed through language and gesture while the use of the more sophisticated visual aids of representative art and symbology were yet to come. In regard to those thus far unexplained imaginal senses, it may be appropriate to at least name them, for indeed by the time of the Cro-Magnon people these senses were surely developed and recognized as an important element in the evolution of the people. These senses are: The sense of self healing, the sense of self destruction, the sense of penetration, the sense of perception, and finally the sense of revelation. (Wolf,1991) Briefly, they refer to a perception of the universe in which the human animal is capable of interacting with reality through the mind in ways generally conceived of as paranormal. The sense of self healing is the recognition of the ability of the mind to strongly effect the healing process. The sense of self destruction is a similar, but reversed process of the mind, influencing an individual's ability to sustain life. The senses of penetration, perception and revelation all pertain to the capability to penetrate the veneer which separates consensus reality from cosmic reality, allows us then to perceive of a broader reality, which then culminates in the revelation of one's true "place" in the scheme of things.

During this almost two million year period then, (three to four million if we include Homo habilis and their immediate predecessors, the Australopithecines), there was an unbroken line of human social and technological evolution based on a hunting and gathering existence in which the interconnection of all events and things was self-evident (Ferris, 1992). Individuals found all information relevant, their identity was secure, and it all insured the continuation (cosmic) of the Great Enterprise of life. Education was a matter of cosmic importance and was presented as such to each succeeding generation.

A Change in Direction

One of the first, and perhaps greatest changes in this two to four million year process, was instigated by our changing role from hunter-gatherers to agriculturists. In this change we see the beginning of the process of education, as well as its ultimate goal shift from its original form and purpose to one far less universal (cosmic), and far less rewarding in any sense (Strayer, 1963). If the original purpose had been to acquaint an individual with the mysteries of life, and then relate them to the group’s everyday activities, it now became increasingly important for workers (toilers in the field) to use their time and energy to subdue and control nature. Education also became to a great extent an endeavor available primarily to the elite (Langer, 1980). I refer to this elitist education of the time as focusing on the arts of reading, writing and mathematics. It is true that the great and rich stories of these cultures continued to be recited by the masses, but those who would eventually hold the power of the land needed a more tangible education. This transition did not come overnight, but by the time of extensive agricultural societies of five to six thousand years ago, whether in the old or new world, a hierarchy had definitely been established, and in this, only the wealthy and powerful were given access to the knowledge that lead to power.

Whenever wealth and power become the goal of a people the results are usually the same-a loss of relationship to the natural powers and an eventual destruction through environmental abuse. An elite group of people determine the standards by which everyone else lives, and this includes the information that is made available to the masses. What education there is for the common people is doled out in a form which perpetuates the status quo, and the status quo which agricultural societies required was the separation of man and nature. This separation was most effectively incorporated into the overall European ethos during the Renaissance. One cannot deny the benefits in art, science, literature, and medicine that accrued during this time, but it is equally certain that this period ushered in the mindset which allowed Europe to exploit nature on a level until then only hinted at by earlier cultures. What is of importance in this period to the theme of this paper, is that education in all areas was influenced by a basic philosophy which encouraged the individual to have less and less reverence for the natural forces which tied our species to the overall harmony of life on this planet (Martin, 1969). Its ultimate expression was evident in the Age of Discovery in which a small group of people (Western Europe) took this philosophy to include indigenous peoples as elements of nature to be subdued and controlled. The most blatant example of this attitude, and its ultimate consequences was the conquest of North and South America, and the attempted destruction of an entire race of people numbering into the tens of millions of individuals (Williamson, 1989). Let it not escape our attention that this occurred at least in part because the educational process itself had encouraged it.

Influence of the Industrial Revolution

It was not, however, until the advent of the industrial revolution that this mindset was fully imprinted upon western culture. Particularly in North America life was still centered around the rural farming community until the 1890’s. Even by 1906 more than 75% of American households were farming families (Hofstadter, 1955). This is significant in that regardless of the influence of the Renaissance, and the subjugation of the Native Peoples of America, most Americans maintained a contact with the Earth generated by their rural life style. The Industrial Revolution changed all of that within fifty years.

Whatever recognition of man's role in a benevolent nature had been preserved by rural lifestyles, it was quickly and effectively eliminated by the needs and goals of a country "on the move." The Great Enterprise of living in harmony with the environment, trusting and having reverence for its life-giving properties, was seen as suspiciously "Un-American". One need only look at the vehemence directed toward those early voices for reverence for nature during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to see the enormous change that human perceptions had gone through since our days as hunter-gatherers (Miller, 1992). Whether we look at Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson or Muir, each was soundly criticized for their beliefs by a society too ashamed to admit their ecological folly. The situation now has come to a crisis. The evidence for the destruction caused by the "control" mentality referred to earlier, and the recognition that this could only have come about if the masses had agreed to it, points out the interconnection between education for material goals as compared to education as a ritualized performance to acknowledge oneness with the Earth. When reviewing our educational history then, we see that there has indeed been a consistent departure from the recognition that we are first and foremost, creatures whose life is still connected to the natural cycles of the Earth, and it is in the knowledge of this that our greatest evolution as a species can occur. Our education system has focused on developing a synthetic purpose, the accumulation of goods as motivation for learning. Although it works to some extent, it does not satisfy the craving for wisdom, that which was once the ultimate purpose of the learning process.