How MACOS Could Have Been Better

Man: A Course of Study was an education program developed and implemented in the 1970s based on the work of psychologist Jerome Bruner. The idea was to study the complete lifespan of different animals in greater and greater complexity. An American politician was able to eventually kill the program because he didn't like the Inuit, or Eskimos, which were studied in the program.

There is a good documentary film on the political controversy called "Through These Eyes". I won't dive into that very much. Instead, I'm going to look at the merit of the program and how it could have been better. Here's the link to the documentary:

The basic idea of the program was to study the whole life cycle of salmon, then herring gulls, then baboons, then the Netsilik Eskimos. Studying animal behavior is quite a bit different than studying science, technology, engineering, and math. That's why this program was made. To develop the thinking skills necessary to study human behavior and culture.

To a large extent I think the resistance to the program was dumb and came from a religious fundamentalist perspective. People were scared that their kids were being taught about the ways of "primitive" people in a way that wasn't demeaning to the Inuit. It seems kind of ridiculous. But, I think there is a flaw that was found in the program. I think it would have been best to work on making the program better rather than scraping it, but it's amazing what people will do when they're scared and uninformed.

It's almost impossible to study a culture when you're in that culture. It's like a fish trying to figure out that he's in water, it just never occurs to him that there's another way. But, if the fish were to study birds then he might question his own watery existence. That's not bad. But, if the fish then decides that it's ridiculous, all of these different things that creatures can live in, so he decides he's going to leave the water and try out air for awhile, well, then that won't work out that well.

That's somewhat similar to what could psychologically happen to some of the kids. They're looking at how the Inuit live and comparing it to their own lives. You have to compare it to your own life, it's the only solid reference point that you have, especially as a kid.

So, if the kid learns that the Netsilik Inuit believe that there is a Sea Woman goddess that lives at the bottom of the ocean, and there is a Moon Man, and that the wind power Sila is a baby whose parents died fighting giants, then they might compare this to their own beliefs. If the Inuit beliefs seem ridiculous and made up, then maybe the kids own cultural beliefs are just as ridiculous and made up. That's what the Inuit would think. It's a natural conclusion to come to.

It's then natural for the kids to think about rejecting all cultural beliefs and systems, rituals, and mythologies as silly superstitions. The problem with that is that humans are cultural creatures, without culture they cannot survive. You cannot have humans without rituals. If you try to eliminate these types of things then the whole society will fall apart. Not good. Look at the Communists in Russia when they tried to erase traditional Russian culture and religion, and implement a synthetic rationalist designed culture. It didn't go very well for humanity.

This doubt about culture is a logical conclusion that the intelligent kids will naturally come to. Just like the idea that humans are animals. (Many adults still don't realize that humans are animals to this day. It's usually a religious fundamentalist thing too. Something about God not being powerful enough to make intelligent animals, or God not being smart enough to invent evolution. This still astounds me every time I encounter it.)

The Inuit have magical religious amulets too. Kids in school wear crosses. What's the difference? It can be hard to tell. You can see why studying other cultures scares some people quite a bit. And, it's legitimate to be scared of the erosion of culture. Without a shared framework to help shape how we organize as a society and to help mold how we perceive and act in the world, humans are lost. It's a real issue. The key is to incorporate this discussion into the curriculum.

By seeing different rituals and mythologies the kids question which is better. They have some indecision and decide to just throw them all out. It's easy to use analogies from the material to show that this is probably the worst option.

Look at what the Inuit eat versus what you eat. They eat pure seal fat, raw fish eyeballs, etc. You eat hamburgers, fries, fried chicken, hot dogs, ice cream, etc. Which is better? This could be a great discussion. Think about how much depth there is here. First, better for what? Are we talking about nutrition? Are we talking about taste? Are we talking about storage and transportation? We realize that you need to know what is intended before you can determine what is better. You already need to have a value system in place to answer the question. Then, you realize that context is huge. That might be best explored by talking about clothes and housing, which we'll look at next. You realize that the heritage, the cultural history, is actually important and plays a huge role in what is appropriate and desirable. That it grows organically. That culture is a living, adapting, evolving thing which adjusts to the situation. You realize that if you couldn't decide between the Inuit diet and your normal diet and decided to reject all diets that you would starve to death. Food is necessary for life, just as ritual and shared beliefs are necessary for human culture, and culture is necessary for social organization, and social organization is necessary for life. We could even go deeper into the necessity of organizing behavioral patterns by transmitting them through narratives. These are all great discussions to have.

Clothing and housing is another great example. Which is better, your house or an igloo? Well, it's hard to build an igloo in most of the world, so that's not very desirable unless it's in a specific context. That's a huge lesson. Things don't make sense if you pull them out of context. Which is better, wearing seal skins or whatever clothes you wear? Same thing. Better for who? Better when? Better for what? These are the discussions that should be taking place around housing, and clothing, and food. But not just those things. These are the same types of discussions that should be taking place around religions, rituals, mythologie, stories and narratives, etc.

These are the things that are the foundations of human cultures. Why have some cultures developed advanced technology and others didn't? Why did some cultures develop writing and others didn't? Etc. These are huge and complex questions. But it's important to realize that different contexts play a role, and some of the parts of those contexts are the myths, stories, rituals, beliefs, etc. Some cultures emphasize expansion, some protectionism, some learning, some violence, some peace, some individualism, some conformity, some ambition, some submissiveness. All of these things have results. All of that is worthy of thought and discussion.

Anyway, you can see that I think the program was a huge missed opportunity. With some adjustments it could have significantly improved our struggling education system. But, instead, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. Governments always control the education system for a reason.

Hopefully, in the future there is the possibility that someone somewhere will build a program that allows for these in-depth explorations of what human culture is, how it works, why it's necessary, and how it could be better.


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