Before Education

What Children Learned, Why, and How

Let’s step back. Away from the hustle and bustle, the gadgets, the information age, and the world where we need to know a million ‘things’ to succeed. We are going back, or to the side however you want to view it. To a time in history before there was any idea the children needed to be educated by the state. Or to places today, where indigenous people still live outside of the idea of formal education systems.
We lose our own innate wisdom when we ignore how these people educate their children. It is true our children may have different things to learn than the children of indigenous tribes. But it is also true that if we just look at this human instinctual side of education, we may learn a few valuable lessons we can apply to our own educational philosophies.

Children learned survival.

This included skills such as hunting and gathering food, planting and harvesting crops, building shelter and crafting clothing. They also learned how to make tools, and other items used in making daily life possible. These skills were learned by direct activity, mimicking and practice. They were not learned by studying the skill in a book, being shown pictures, or reading how-to articles. The learning was active, not passive. The action was to practice the skill until mastery was achieved.

Children learned morality.

Yes, primitive culture had morality, it may have often been different than morality as we think of it in our culture today, but always there were cultural rules that were in place in order to preserve the smooth functioning of the tribe and to ensure that all the members of the tribe could survive. These customs were generally explained with stories. The stories would be told and retold until the child had absorbed the moral.

Children learned community.

Parents were the primary educator of children, however, learning took place within a community. The child grew up interacting with other adults and children of both older and younger ages. There was no artificial separation of the child from the group as a whole.

There is so much to soak in while contemplating this rudimentary model of education. Survival in today’s culture may require a completely different set of skills than was necessary for a primitive culture, but survival might just be a good way to think of education. What tools does the modern child need to survive in our current world? What moral lessons do we want to emphasize with the stories we choose? How can we ensure our children are submerged in greater communities and not lost in the darkness of emotional isolation. Modern man may not struggle as deeply to survive physically, but there are many modern challenges to our emotional survival. We ignore these areas too often, and we have the rising suicide rate to show that it is time to stop neglecting emotional survival skills.

While much has happened between primitive cultures and our current technologically advanced society, I think we have some lessons to learn from these cultures. If we teach survival, morality, and community, as core purposes of our education systems, our systems would improve drastically.
This post is just one in a larger series I will be doing where I explore different educational philosophies throughout different era’s in history. I had no idea I would be starting here. I thought I would start with Aristotle or Confucius. But when I read a few short paragraphs in “The History and Philosophy of Education: Voices of Educational Pioneers” by Madonna M. Murphy, I realized I had almost missed a bright glowing gem. There was something before formal education, something worthy of our notice and remembrance.

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