Helina is a member of a stone age tribe. The ice age is waning, and as the giant sheets
and pillars of ice drift slowly away, in their wake lie fertile ground and new sources of
food. Helina is glad for this, but also wary, as there are many hungry mouths on this plot
of land besides hers. She finds herself commonly at the physical mercy of strange and
powerful creatures: bears nestled in caves who tower at more than twice her height
when rearing back to roar on their hind-legs, massive striped tigers with canine teeth the
size of her forearm and the jaw strength to splinter trees!
Yet, she survives.
No; she thrives.
Her children, heeding her example, will one day colonize the entire world, dominating or
domesticating practically every single living thing they come into contact with, eventually
turning their thirst for more, more, more towards the stars themselves. Her children are
Now, Helina might be fictional, but the moral of this little story isn’t. We take it for
granted today that we don’t have to fear a pride of lions chasing us down as we bike
into work, or that the descendants of one of our most traditionally feared enemies, the
wolf, now sleeps at the foot of our bed. But how did this happen? Many potentially
viable answers can be given, but for me, one stands out above the rest: our ability to
teach and be taught.
As a species, however, we are never ones to rest on our laurels. Just as we have
refined our ability to throw projectiles (from chucking spears to shooting guns), we have
also refined our ability to educate ourselves (from stories at tribal campfires to attending
In a series of articles, I’ll chart a few of the details of this process of refinement,
chronologically documenting the evolution of education across time and culture; along
the way, I’ll point out a few of the common themes we come across and hopefully, we’ll
also find some lessons in this analysis that we can use for the future.
We begin our story in the era historians call prehistory. Since the modern study of
history often picks up the tale at the invention of writing (since that is the most
accessible kind of record we have about the past), prehistory must then necessarily
encompass all the time a culture spends without writing things down. Depending on
what part of the world one studies, ‘prehistory’ can stretch up to relatively recently!
It’s easy to dismiss this period of our past as stagnant and unintelligent. The truth is, it’s
anything but. It may not look like it at the surface, biased as we are with our current
pace of improving technology, but this time period boasts some of our species’ most
creative innovations. This includes the development of stone tools (transforming from
crudely shapen rocks to razor sharp scalpels of flint), the harnessing of fire (used to
hunt, to cook, to warm and light shelters at night), and the discovery of agriculture
(heralding the coming of civilization as we know it and the end of prehistory). All of
these advancements would be impossible, however, without another, fundamental
one: the development of rudimentary education.
To prove this, you only have to imagine a world in which it was impossible for human
beings to pass down the discoveries they made. With each new generation, every
invention would have to be made again, every development would have to start from
scratch. We would be incapable of building upon the work of our parents and grandparents, and thus reduced eternally to remaining at exactly the same situation.
Perhaps this is the fate that other animals find themselves in, even the ones with similar
levels of brain size and density: like in the greek myth of Sisyphus, forever pushing the
boulder of innovation up a hill, only for it to roll back down to the bottom when they die.
As an aside, I should note here, that even for the most simple of animals, the boulder
might not roll all the way back down upon death. In some ways, Darwin’s theory of
evolution can also be seen as a theory of education; random mutations in an individual
of a species can have the possibility of allowing it a better chance at surviving through
changing environments. Those mutations are then passed down genetically at a higher
rate than those that made the individual’s ‘fitness’ worse. One of the big problems
however, that this is an education that takes a very, very long time.
What is it that seperates us, then, from chimpanzees and dolphins and everything in
between? I think it’s pretty clear: language. The ability to communicate, not just
emotionally and instinctually, but rationally and systematically; the ability to pass down
complex and abstract pieces of knowledge. This is the system that allows us to forego
the development of specialized instincts, something that most animals have hardwired
into their genetic code. For example, take a lab mouse that has never seen, heard or
been anywhere near a cat in its entire sanitized existence. When you place a cotton ball
dipped in a little feline urine, the mouse, who has no concept of what a cat even is, will
instantly back away and cower in fear.
Even though humans lack many of these genetic instincts (though we do still have
some; for example, a basic diving reflex in which facial contact with cold water triggers
the slowing of the human heart in order to save on oxygen), the ability to pass down
information with language in a short time span allows us to replicate their function.
When I was young, my mother told me a thousand times to watch my head when I
crouch under tables, and now I find it ‘instinctual’ to check repeatedly when I do so. This
is a very simple example, but in its essence, it is evolution on an incredibly shortened
timescale; an equivalent adaptation in another species would have required hundreds of
generations across hundreds of thousands of years.
Returning to the development of language, there are many heavily contested theories
for its starting point in humans. Some suggest that its origin is in the vocalized
interactions between mother and child, a social pasttime required initially to comfort a
crying infant that later develops into a complex system of sounds and metaphors inside
of a family unit. Others point to the tendency of humans (and other primates) to mimic
the sounds around them, particularly those associated with their own ways of life (e.g.
mimicking sounds of tool use to indicate a need for a particular instrument), which later
would also develop into a specialized system of speech.
There are many more theories for the development of language, but what did we use
this ability for? As outlined previously, one obvious use was the immediate passing
down of technological advancements from generation to generation: the development
and refinement of wooden tools such as bows and canoes, medical knowledge of which
herbs and treatments to apply to which ailments, which plants and animals were edible
and which were poisonous. However, it was not only immediately practical knowledge
that was passed down. We know from ancient burial sites, religious monuments and
beautiful cave paintings that pre-historic humans were enormously concerned with
many of the same things that we are concerned with today: the nature of death, the
techniques of self-expression, the structure of the world. One can imagine stories and
songs being told and sung around nightly campfires by prehistoric humans, attempting
to explain strange phenomena that they experienced, both external and internal; a
lightning strike indicating the displeasure of a rain god, a headache caused by spirits
trapped in the head. Although this is not education as that we would recognize, it
would’ve been the beginning of the scientific and philosophical examination of the world
we take for granted in our studies today.
Furthermore, this form of ‘folklore’ was also used frequently as a traditional form of
passing down valuable facts of survival, encoded inside ancient rituals, songs and
stories. An example of this is the ban on pork by Abrahamic religions. Many
anthropologists believe that this ban, though explained as the will of God by practioners,
actually arose as a survival tip for tribes in the Middle East; with a climate that
maximized the need for water and nutrition, domesticating large herds of pigs (who are
scavenging omnivores that will eat virtually anything) would have spelled disaster for the
surrounding ecosystem. This form of education of course, has its limits. Imagine the use
of calculus being passed down through songs and dance, instead of through textbooks!
This brings us to the very end of prehistory. As time passed and climates changed, the
use of agriculture brought the rise of cities and societies in certain parts of the world,
which in turn necessitated the invention of writing; this was to be a development in the
history of education that is as vital as the development of language was. In the next part
of this series, we will look at the great civilizations of antiquity: Egypt, Greece, Rome,
China and India, and examine their own individual takes on the means and purposes of
Before that however, let’s reflect on the lessons that an often misunderstood part of our
past has to give us. Throughout prehistory, it was our ancestors ability to impart
complex ideas quickly that allowed us to stand out early from the rest of the animal
crowd; no bigger part of this could be played than in our use of abstract, rational
language. Even though high school and university classes today might seem a very
different beast from the stories and rituals used in the past to impart knowledge, it is
important not to forget what I believe the underlying and unchanging purpose of that
education: survival, both group and individual.
Though hopefully, like Helina and other prehistoric men and women, the education you
are taking will not only allow you to survive, but to thrive as well.