Margaret Mead


From School and Society, V. 26 (July-December, 1927), pp. 466-68.

OUR elaborate educational system looks like an enormous advance over the methods of primitive man who sat on the floor of his hut, knife in one hand, a block of wood in the other, teaching his son how to carve a charm which would keep the ghosts away. But are there not certain aspects of the education which we give our children which differ very little from those used by primitive man with his so much narrower horizon?

True, when the Eskimo mother or the Sioux Indian father taught their children the technique and the lore of their forefathers, their task was a very different one from that which confronts the modern teacher. The primitive instructor had to teach the child entrusted to his care all that he himself had learned from his teachers and his own experience; his task was simply to pass on to the next generation the sum of his civilization, undistorted, unexpurgated, unadorned. The child must learn how to make a bow and arrow, how to build a canoe, how to hunt, how to address his elders, how to deal with the spirits—each of these was a separate technique which had been worked out and handed down from one generation to another, changing, sometimes slightly, sometimes radically, in the hands of human custodians. But in the teaching method there was no assumption of changes to come. The pupil was exhorted to make as good a canoe as his mater. Occasionally a master might hope that his pupil would make and even better canoe, one that was swifter, smoother, stronger. But such improvement was expected to proceed along well-defined lines; the boy was to make a better canoe, not invent a rowboat.

Seldom was the technical education conducted in such a way that the pupil was taught general principles, either principles of mechanics or properties of materials. Every Samoan mother must teach her daughter how to make some dozen articles by weaving palm leaves---mats, carrying baskets, fishing baskets, thatch, planters, blinds, fans, etc., requiring variations in the procedure but all based upon the essential principle of weaving with halves of palm leaves so that the midrib holds firm and spaces the leaflets used as the waving strands. Yet the woman who can weave all of these articles with skill and speed does not generalize this experience when she passes it on. She does not say: "Arrange your weaving materiel so that the central rib provides the stiffness where it is most needed, at the top of a blind, on both edges of a floor mat, for the rim of the basket. Upon the amount and position of the stiffness required will depend the kind of weave you use. For articles not requiring a close texture use green leaves, as they are much easier to weave; but for articles in which holes are undesirable, dry your leaves first and so avoid shrinkage," etc. Instead she says: "To make a basket for serving octopus at the feast which the young men bring to a visiting girl, take two young elm leaves, like this. Split off the center rib so it is about this thick. Leave your leaflets on each leaf like this and put the two together like this. Now cross this one over that one like this," etc., for every single article. Each item of technical knowledge is imparted separately. An analogy to this form of instruction may still be found in the way many mothers teach their daughters to cook. Little girls learn "to make Johnny cake," "to make ginger bread," "to make biscuits," one separate piece of skill after another, often never made articulate even in special formulas. From this mass of special cases, the good cook later builds up a mass of informed generalizations and becomes the good cook who can never "tell any one just how she does make that cake."

In sharp contrast to this method is our attempt to teach traditional techniques like cooking and farming in schools. Here every attempt is made to reduce the results of experience to general principles which the pupil can apply to particular cases. Our students are taught the properties of chemicals, the possibilities of mechanical principles, always with the implied hope that the gifted among them may work out new combinations, develop not only better but new and different applications of the knowledge which is passed on to them.

And in the field of technical education we may well congratulate ourselves upon many significant advances over the methods of the Eskimo iglu, the medieval workshop or the colonial kitchen. Rules of thumb, special formulas for special cases, single track training which excludes the findings of related techniques are to be outlawed. But in our teaching of the social sciences have we made any such significant advances? The teacher of domestic science knows how to make cake, not simply how to make "angel food," "jelly roll," "cream puffs" and "cup cake." The child is taught the principles of cake baking, as in mathematics she is taught to think in numbers so that she can count apples or eons in the same terms and need not apply a separate vocabulary and a separate set of concepts to counting breadfruit as opposed to counting human beings. But in the teaching about society the child receives no such groundwork for abstract and constructive thinking. He is not taught about Homo Sapiens but about Americans in 1927 who live in Arizona or New Hampshire. The Samoan chief taught his son to stay in the back of the house, to bow when he passed a chief, to give the sacred fish to the high chief and never eat them himself, to use carefully selected honorific terms when speaking to men of rank, to learn his place in the council of the young men and never speak out of it. Is not much of our teaching just such a collection of uncoordinated precepts, formulas, admonitions? A good citizen pays his taxes; gives money to charity; does not gamble; takes his hat off to ladies, in a house, a church or an elevator; doesn't eat with his knife, respects his neighbor's life and property. But the child is given no teaching as to the potentialities and limitations which man has shown through the ages, in Tasmania and in Egypt, in New Guinea and in Greenland, under the influence of different civilizations with vastly different patterns of behavior. As far as his ability to think about mankind goes, he is still in the position of the little girl who has been taught to make "cup cakes." She not only knows very little about cakes in general, but if she thinks about them at all she is likely to generalize incorrectly and think all cakes are like cup cakes.

If the children in our schools are to be the technical inventors of to-morrow, we realized that it is necessary to teach them the nature of material things. If we expect them to make important contributions to our management of society, they must be similarly equipped. Anthropology is a special technique for enabling people to stop outside their own civilizations and view them objectively. By the study and analysis of the diverse solutions which other members of the human race have applied to the problems which confront us to-day, it is possible to make a more reasoned, a more scientific judgment of the needs of our own society. Obviously the bulk of ethnological research can not be taught to school children. But it can be taught to the teachers of those children. Only by giving the students in normal schools and teachers' colleges the very best equipment for thinking about social problems can we hope to have teachers who will give their pupils a groundwork for constructive thought instead of a series of rules of thumb.

Margaret Mead
The American Museum of Natural History
New York, N. Y.




Text scanned by Michael Van Dyke

Research by Mark Krasovic

H-Net, Humanities & Social Sciences Online

Michigan State University