Other animals use tools, communicate, and coordinate but there is a vast difference between the kinds of learning possible with their minds and signals and the kinds of learning possible with our minds and symbols. Our capacities for learning are off-scale beyond all other forms of life. Not only for each of us individually, but for us a species.
We are the species that learns together.
Other animals are stronger and faster. Some are even cunning in packs and behave intricately intelligent in hives, but none can learn together even remotely like we can. Learning together drove the evolution of language and the invention of tools. Together we learned our way from primitive tribes to modern nations. What makes human life so different than all other known forms of life is our capacity for learning together.
We are who we have learned to be.
The difference between human lives today and the lives of humans 10,000 years ago is not a biologically evolved difference in our genes or brains, the differences between our lives today and the lives of our ancestors are learned differences.
History is the story of our learning together. We learned our way from stone to steel, speech to writing, wheels to space shuttles – from tokens to microprocessors, and from talking sticks to the internet. We learned our way from blood-letting to neurosurgery, from burning ‘witches’ to the Bill of Rights. We learned our way from fire to electricity, from Homer to Shakespeare, from painting caves in France to making Avatar, and from imagining atoms to creating nuclear reactors and microprocessors. Our lives are different from our ancestors because of how much we’ve learned.
But history is also the story of how poorly-slowly we have learned and the kinds of communicable learning disorders we can get mired in. It took many generations to learn our way out from under the rule of kings and churches – to learn our way into democracy and out of slavery, and to learn to make progress towards gender, racial, and social equality.
Today, virtually all our issues and challenges are artificial – our own creations. From social conflicts to our economic, political, and environmental challenges, from the ethics of corporations to bullying at school, from the rise of personal supercomputing to the future of jobs, the solutions to all our problems involve – depend on – our learning – on how well we learn together.
For each of us, and for all of us together, learning affects everything.
Any meaningful reform of education must begin by re-defining, socially-broadly, the word learning. Learning isn’t just an ancillary mental utility, learning is the central dynamic of being human.
If we change how we think about learning we change everything.
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