Human Superiority and Other Educational Tropes

In my son’s 4th grade classroom – which I happened to visit yesterday – the chalkboard had written upon it the following explanation of the difference between humans and animals:

Birds build nests.  Humans build houses.

Birds can fly.  Humans build airplanes.

There was more but I don’t remember it all.  The point seemed to be that animals’ skills are both narrow and limited while human skills are unbounded, as is their potential.

As an initial matter, the opposition is flawed.  For the comparison to work, all humans must be able to build houses and airplanes just as all birds (or the vast majority, anyway) can build nests and fly.  Of course, this is simply not so.  The majority of humans can build neither a house nor a nest.  And most of us certainly couldn’t build an airplane, much less fly one.

So, the comparison should say:

Birds build nests and can fly.  Some humans can do some of the following: build houses and build and fly airplanes.  Precious few can do all three.

Phrased thus, the human side of the equation appears much less majestic.  It rather highlights the fact that most of us lack basic survival and building skills that birds (and other animals) possess in abundance.  We compensate for our individual shortcomings by relying on a select few people who possess the skills necessary to create an environment in which the rest of us can survive (as I write this, a contractor is at work on my house, insulating a portion of the house too cold for my family to inhabit).

One wonders, therefore, why we aggrandize humanity.  One further wonders why we feel entitled to take credit for the achievements and abilities of others while simultaneously derogating other beings who are individually far more skilled and better adapted for survival than we.

This hubris has cascading consequences.  Because we classify nonhumans as “lesser creatures,” they fall beneath our normative notice.  Thus, industrial farming, canned hunting, pseudo-scientific experimentation, and other horrific wrongs are routinely perpetrated upon them because they allegedly lack the necessary qualities for membership in the moral community.  Our laws memorialize this normative vision, which then gets perpetuated in (among other places) my son’s classroom.

I want to talk to him about all this. But I don’t know what to say.

David Cassuto

4 Responses

  1. I really hope you say something to the teacher, this incredibly poor use of logic shouldn’t be happening in the classroom.

  2. What to say to your son? Simple. Take your analysis of what was on the blackboard and ask him about it in Socratic (of the gentle sort) questioning. He’s probably smart enough to begin analyzing the teacher’s construct against his own experiences.

    The teacher is a tougher nut for several reasons. First, this is some merit in teaching by universalizing propositions that lack full integrity on analysis. That’s especially true when teaching young children. But it may well be that THIS particular blackboard lesson can be changed in an enriching rather than complex way. What have to lose by speaking to him/her?

  3. This reminds me of an exchange I had one time with a young boy at a livestock auction. He was making fun of a turkey, telling his friend that the turkey was clearly dumb because his vocalizations were incomprehensible. I overheard him and interrupted him by pointing out that perhaps the turkey was speaking perfect turkey language, and HE was the one who could not understand. It’s amazing how humans can reduce a situation to a one-sided perception, completely forgetting that we are only 1 of many species sharing this earth, and we are certainly not all-knowing or above reproach.

  4. […] Prof. Cassuto previously wrote about a visit he took to his son’s school where this reality was misrepresented. I think a lot of us would love to have a better instinctual skill set, and we envy animals that […]

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