Monday, March 24, 2008


In a review article in a recent issue of Science, archeologist Fiona Coward asks "How and why did humans learn to learn?"

We are not the only species that learns. Some behaviors of other animals -- from ants to birds to dolphins -- are learned by imitation of other members of the same species. We share with our primate cousins a so-called "mirror neuron system," which automatically maps the observed actions of others onto one's own motor system.

Humans, however, seem to be unique in going beyond imitation to intuiting another person's intentions and states of minds. Coward suggests this might be the prerequisite for cumulative cultural transmission of learned behaviors.

Which is to say, many animals learn, but only humans teach.

Teaching is perhaps the quintessential human characteristic, the thing that insures the cumulative transmission of cultural knowledge and behaviors. Parents teach. Elders teach. Older siblings teach. And teachers teach. The transmission of culture gave rise to a professional occupation -- the teaching of children and young adults. It is, I like to think, a noble profession. No teacher goes into teaching with a view to making money or garnering glory.

America's great experiment with secular public education is one of our nation's glories, the glue that binds a diverse population together into a tolerant and mutually respectful whole. The respect given to that project and to the teachers in it is a good measure of our self-respect as a people.