As I get older in years I have taken to rereading books from our home’s many bookshelves. We are a family of readers and some books have kept a thirty plus hold on the mind. For various reasons, the works of Colin M. Turnbull are certainly among those texts in the keeper list. This rereading reminds me of the ever developing sense of identity we have. If we are lucky enough to live on in decades, we live different lives. My wife and I have lived the lives of teachers for the past thirty two years and we brought the books we read and their ideas through this pedagogical work. Recently in rereading Turnbull’s book, The Human Cycle, I remembered how deftly he describes childhood among the Mbuti people while comparing it to his upbringing as a well to do member of the English/Scottish establishment. His insights remain profound and resonate deeper than ever as I ponder how new trends in western education harken to the types of schools and society we should and can create for children.
Mbuti children grow outward through exploration and discovery and inward through using their senses to find who they are as individuals. Their physical, intellectual,and spiritual selves are not segmented into different compartments but rather are constantly interacting as they become their indivisible selves. Mbuti children experience intense early physical connection with their mother and have a deep sense of family togetherness that link them to people and place. Mbuti life is complete with mutuality and as the child develops and faces challenges, they are able to face them and grow as individuals. Mbuti children grow up among family who are part of and connect with the spirit of life itself and this is what they draw from to understand variation in people and to find resolution in conflict.
As we have entered into the twenty first century, now almost two decades in, many schools are recognizing skills or practices that seem necessary to survive and thrive in this modern day while also serving humans in any time and context. Many are calling them the 4Cs or more than 4Cs. They speak to the notion that not only do we need adults to be collaborative and creative but that childhood should be replete with opportunities for children to work together in collaborative ways rather than competitive ways and to learn from adult models who do the same. More and more we are creating opportunities for children and teachers to work together and connect themselves to the world around them. More and more we are trying to create school and classroom cultures that create conditions that allow children to work together while also allowing them to use all their senses and talents to find themselves as individuals. All of this work is emergent or re-emergent and is a far cry from the dividing, separating, and often dehumanizing contexts we have created in the name of school for many many years in western institutions.
Teachers have long worked within these constraining confines, some subverted them quietly and others reinforced them while most intuitively understand that raising children in fragmented, competition, highly standardized, factory like settings is not a natural condition for the human species. Still, Turnbull’s deep anthropological work does not glorify a native existence. It tells it like it is, but his comparison to the cruelty and distance of his own upbringing gives us all an easy opportunity to reflect on what we want and what we can design for children in terms of their learning environments. To this aim, I say Bravo to all our nation’s schools that are putting communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking first and a Bravissimo to those who add caring as a quintessential “C.”