Teaching in Hunter-Gatherers

Review of Philosophy and Psychology 9 (4):771-797 (2018)
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Abstract

Most of what we know about teaching comes from research among people living in large, politically and economically stratified societies with formal education systems and highly specialized roles with a global market economy. In this paper, we review and synthesize research on teaching among contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. The hunter-gatherer lifeway is the oldest humanity has known and is more representative of the circumstances under which teaching evolved and was utilized most often throughout human history. Research among contemporary hunter-gatherers also illustrates a complex pattern of teaching that is both consistent with and distinct from teaching in other small- and large-scale societies with different subsistence practices and cultural forms. In particular, we find that the cultural emphasis on individual autonomy and socio-political egalitarianism among hunter-gatherers differently shapes how teaching occurs. For example, teaching clearly exists among hunter-gatherers and appears in many forms, including institutionalized instruction in valued cultural and technical skills. However, teaching tends to be less common in hunter-gatherer societies because people live in small, intimate egalitarian, groups that support each other’s learning in a variety of ways without teaching. Furthermore, foundational cultural schemas of autonomy and egalitarianism impact the nature of teaching. For example, adults and older children limit their interventions, permitting autonomous learning, and, when they occur, teaching episodes are generally brief, subtle, indirect, and situated in a present activity. We discuss the implications of this research in terms of discussions of the evolution of human cognition and the co-evolution of teaching and culture through the process of cultural niche construction.

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