Our educative instincts took their present shape during the hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary history when our ancestors were all hunter-gatherers. As one pair of anthropologists put it, the hunter-gatherer way of life is the only stable way of life our species has ever known (Lee and DeVore 1968). By comparison, our post-hunter-gatherer existence has been very short and turbulent. The advent of agriculture, beginning roughly 10,000 years ago, set into motion an ever-accelerating rate of cultural change in how we humans live; but however we live, we continue to do so with the biological drives and capacities that were honed by natural selection during our hunter-gatherer days.
We can’t go back in time to observe education in our pre-agricultural ancestors, but we can make reasonable inferences about that process by examining it in those groups of people, in various isolated parts of the world, who managed to survive as hunter-gatherers into modern times. Today, the pure hunting and gathering way of life is almost completely obliterated, wiped out by intrusions from modern civilizations. But as recently as the 1970s, and to some degree even later, it was still possible for anthropologists to find and study hunter-gatherers who were nearly untouched by modern ways. To learn about education in hunter-gatherer cultures, I have studied the anthropological literature on children’s lives in such cultures. To supplement that literature, I (along with graduate student Jonathan Ogas) identified ten prominent anthropologists who, among them, had studied seven different hunter-gatherer cultures on three different continents and questioned them extensively, with a written questionnaire, about their observations of children’s lives in the cultures they observed.
For all of this work, I have focused exclusively on the variety of hunter-gatherer cultures that anthropologists refer to as immediate-return or egalitarian hunter-gatherers, or sometimes as band societies. These are cultures in which people live in small bands (typically of 20 to 50 persons, including children) that move from place to place within a large but circumscribed territory to follow the available game and vegetation. They have a highly egalitarian social structure, make decisions by consensus, own little property, share food and material goods within and even across bands, do not have means for long-term food preservation, have little occupational specialization except that based on gender, and reject violence as a legitimate means of solving problems (Kelly 1995). Among the cultures of this type that in one way or another were included in my study are the Ju/’hoansi (also called the !Kung, of Africa’s Kalahari Desert), Hazda (of Tanzanian rainforests), Mbuti (of Congo’s Ituri Forest), Aka (of rain forests in Central African Republic and Congo), Efé (of Congo’s Ituri Forest), Batek (of Peninsular Malaysia), Agta (of Luzon, Philippines), Nayaka (of South India), Aché (of Eastern Paraguay), Parakana (of Brazil’s Amazon basin), and Yiwara (of the Australian Desert).
I have ignored, for this study, the category of hunter-gatherer society referred to as delayed-return or non-egalitarian hunter-gatherers, typified by the Kwakiutl of the American northwest coast and the Ainu of Japan. These are relatively sedentary societies where people exploit a particular local resource for food (commonly fish). They are characterized by high population densities, food storage, resource ownership and defense, hierarchical social structures, inherited status, and relatively high rates of violence and acceptance of violence as legitimate. Archeological evidence suggests that these cultures are more recent than the egalitarian band cultures and are less likely to represent the predominant living conditions of our pre-agricultural ancestors (Kelly 1995). In line with the practice of some anthropologists, when I use the term hunter-gatherer, unmodified, I am referring specifically to the band, egalitarian variety.
Despite great differences in their geography and their specific ways of hunting and gathering, hunter-gatherer societies (of the band type) are remarkably similar to one another in their basic social structure, social mores, and approach to education. Such similarity, across continents, adds confidence to the view that these societies represent reasonably well the kinds of hunter-gatherer societies that preceded the advent of agriculture. The research literature and our survey concerning children’s lives in hunter-gatherer cultures reveal a remarkably consistent story, from culture to culture. Here are four conclusions that appear to apply to all hunter-gatherer cultures (of the band type) that have been studied (for more details, see Gray 2009a):
Hunter-gathererer children had to learn an enormous amount to become effective adults.
It would be a mistake to assume that because hunter-gatherer cultures were “simpler” than modern cultures, children had less to learn. The hunting-and-gathering way of life was highly knowledge-intensive and skill-intensive, and because of the absence of occupational specialization, each child had to acquire the whole culture, or at least that part of it appropriate to his or her gender.
To become hunters, boys—and girls, too, in those cultures where women as well as men hunted—had to learn how to identify and track the many dozens of different species of birds and mammals that their group hunted. They had to learn how to craft to perfection the tools of hunting, such as bows and arrows, blowguns and darts, snares, nets, and so on. And, of course, they had to develop great skill at using those tools. To become gatherers, girls—and boys also, to the degree that men also gathered—had to learn which of the countless varieties of roots, nuts, seeds, fruits, and greens in their area were edible and nutritious; when and where to find them; how to extract the edible portions; and how to process them. In addition, hunter-gatherer children had to learn to build huts, make fires, cook, fend off predators, predict weather changes, navigate their hunting and gathering grounds, treat wounds and diseases, assist births, care for infants, maintain harmony in the group, negotiate with neighboring groups, tell stories, make music, and engage in the various dances and rituals of their culture.
Hunter-gatherer adults did not direct children’s education or in other ways tell them what to do. Children and even adolescents were free to play and explore, on their own, in their own chosen ways, “from dawn to dusk.”
In the words of hunter-gatherer expert Richard Lee (1988, p. 264), hunter-gatherers were “fiercely egalitarian.” They eschewed any attempts by one person to control the behavior of others. They had no chiefs or “big men”; they made all decisions within the band through debate until consensus was reached. Such egalitarianism was necessarily coupled with extraordinary personal autonomy. Hunter-gatherers did not tell one another what to do. Each person was free at any time to leave the band and join another band, and would do so if he or she felt put-upon. People were always free, on any given day, to join or not join a hunting or gathering party. If they joined, it was because they wanted to, not because they were compelled to. Food was shared, and they would get the same portion regardless of whether or not they had taken part in getting the food.
Remarkably, these principles of equality and autonomy were applied as much to children as to adults. Adults did not tell children what to do any more than they told other adults what to do; they believed that children’s own wills should be their guides. Here is a sample of quotations, from various researchers and observers of hunter-gatherers, that reinforce this point (Gray 2009a):
“Aborigine children [of Australia] are indulged to an extreme degree, and sometimes continue to suckle until they are four or five years old. Physical punishment for a child is almost unheard of” (Gould 1969, p. 90).
“Hunter-gatherers do not give orders to their children; for example, no adult announces bedtime. At night, children remain around adults until they feel tired and fall asleep.… Parakana adults [of Brazil] do not interfere with their children’s lives. They never beat, scold, or behave aggressively with them, physically or verbally, nor do they offer praise or keep track of their development.… Children do not go to parents for help or to complain about one another.… Adults do not give any indication of being worried about the psychological future of their children. Whether or not their children will become effective adults is not an issue” (Gosso et al. 2005, pp. 218, 226).
“The idea that this is ‘my child’ or ‘your child’ does not exist [among the Yequana, of Venezuela]. Deciding what another person should do, no matter what his age, is outside the Yequana vocabulary of behaviors. There is great interest in what everyone does, but no impulse to influence—let alone coerce—anyone. The child’s will is his motive force” (Liedloff 1977, p. 90).
“Infants and young children [among Inuit hunter-gatherers of the Hudson Bay area] are allowed to explore their environments to the limits of their physical capabilities and with minimal interference from adults. Thus if a child picks up a hazardous object, parents generally leave it to explore the dangers on its own. The child is presumed to know what it is doing” (Guemple 1988, p 137).
“Ju/’hoan children [of Africa’s Kalahari Desert] very rarely cried, probably because they had little to cry about. No child was ever yelled at or slapped or physically punished, and few were even scolded. Most never heard a discouraging word until they were approaching adolescence, and even then the reprimand, if it really was a reprimand, was delivered in a soft voice” (Thomas 2006, p 198).
To her description of Ju/’hoan child-raising practices, Thomas (2006, pp. 198–199) adds: “We are sometimes told that children who are treated so kindly become spoiled, but this is because those who hold that opinion have no idea how successful such measures can be. Free from frustration or anxiety, sunny and cooperative, and usually without close siblings as competitors, the children were every parent’s dream. No culture can ever have raised better, more intelligent, more likable, more confident children.” [Thomas’s statement about the lack of close siblings as competitors refers to the fact that births for hunter-gatherer women are usually spaced at least four years apart. The continuous, on-demand nursing of children until they are three or four years old apparently produces a hormonal effect that delays ovulation in women who are lean, as hunter-gatherer women are, and serves as a natural means of birth control.]
Hunter-gatherer children generally stay within eyeshot or at least hearing distance of their mothers or other adults until they are about four years old, at which age they begin to prefer the company of other children and begin to run freely with other kids. In our survey, we asked the ten anthropologists how much time children in the culture they observed were free to play each day, and the answer we received from all of them was essentially this: “They were free to play almost all of the time, from dawn to dusk.” Here are three typical responses (Gray 2009a):
“Both girls and boys had almost all day every day free to play” (Alan Brainard, concerning the Nharo, of southern Africa).
“Children were free to play nearly all the time; no one expected children to do serious work until they were in their late teens” (Karen Endicott, concerning the Batek of Malaysia).
“Boys were free to play nearly all the time until age 15–17; for girls most of the day, in between a few errands and some babysitting, was spent in play” (Robert Bailey, concerning the Efé, of central Africa).
These comments are consistent with published reports. In a formal study of Ju/’hoan children’s activities, Patricia Draper (1976, pp. 210, 213) concluded: “Girls are around 14 years old before they begin regular food gathering and water- and wood-collecting. This is in spite of the fact that they may be married before this age. Boys are 16 years old or over before they begin serious hunting.…Children do amazingly little work.” The Hazda (of the Tanzanian rainforests in Africa) are sometimes cited as an exception to the rule that hunter-gatherer children engage in little productive work. Hazda children forage for a good portion of their own food. But a study of Hazda children, aged 5 to 15, revealed that they spent only about two hours per day foraging, in the rich vegetative areas near camp, and that even while foraging they continued to play (Blurton Jones et al. 1994).
A number of researchers have compared the child-raising practices of hunter-gatherers with those of agrarian (farming) communities. While hunter-gatherer parents are indulgent and permissive, agrarian parents are typically strict and autocratic (Barry et al. 1959). While hunter-gatherers value their children’s willfulness and independence, agrarian parents value obedience. While hunter-gatherer children are free to play and explore all day on their own, agrarian children are required to work a good portion, if not most of the day, at chores in the home and field. A study of peoples in Botswana with mixed hunter-gatherer and agrarian subsistence revealed that the more a family was involved in hunting and gathering and the less they were involved in farming, the more time children had to play (Bock and Johnson 2004).
Researchers have offered a variety of interrelated explanations of the differences between hunter-gatherers and farmers in child-raising practices. Perhaps the most obvious explanation has to do with the immediate economic benefits, or lack of such benefits, gained from children’s work. Hunting and gathering are knowledge- and skill-intensive, but not labor-intensive. The adults hunt and gather with a sense of play, and they have plenty of time left over for such leisure activities as gossiping, visiting friends in neighboring bands, making music, and in other ways playing (Gray 2009a; Sahlins 1972). Moreover, the birth rate among hunter-gatherers is relatively low, so there are relatively few young mouths to feed. Hunter-gatherers simply don’t need child labor. In contrast, farming is highly labor-intensive, and much of that labor is unskilled and can be done by children. Farmers typically have more children than do hunter-gatherers, and to feed and care for them all the children must work.
Other explanations, quite closely related to this immediate economic one, focus on the values imparted by the different methods of child rearing and on parents’ goals in child raising (Barry et al. 1959; DeVore et al. 1968). The social and economic life of adult hunter-gatherers requires assertiveness, creativity, and individual judgment. To have influence in a society where decisions are made by debate and consensus, you must be assertive. Hunting and gathering themselves require creative, diverse methods and on-the-spot judgments to meet the unpredictable, ever-changing conditions of nature. As Whiting (in DeVore et al. 1968) has pointed out, the permissive parenting style of hunter-gatherers seems ideally designed to promote assertiveness, creativity, and independence. In contrast, most agrarian societies have a stratified, hierarchical social structure, with landowners at the top, where obedience to lords and masters may be essential to survival. Moreover, farming itself depends more on adherence to tried and true routines than on individual creativity. It is no wonder, then, that farming parents should be motivated to beat the willfulness out of their children and train them in lessons of conformity and obedience.
When hunter-gatherer adults were asked about their child-raising practices, they talked about each person’s right to make their own decisions, but they also pointed out that young people learned through their freely chosen activities and would begin to contribute to the band’s economy, on their own free will, when they were ready to do so. Their view of education seems well summed up by a Ju/’hoan folk expression that can be translated roughly as “Children teach themselves” (Bakeman et al. 1990).
Hunter-gather children acquired the skills of their culture, and consolidated their knowledge, by playing at culturally valued activities.
Hunter-gatherer children were never isolated from the activities of adults in the band. They observed all that went on and they heard the gossip, stories, and debates of adults. They incorporated all this into their play, not because any adult told them to but because they were naturally motivated to.
In response to our survey question about what the children played at, we received many answers that showed that children played at activities that were of economic or social value in their culture (Gray 2009a). Digging up tubers, fishing, smoking porcupines out of holes, cooking, caring for infants, climbing trees, building vine ladders, building huts, using knives and other tools, making tools, carrying heavy loads, building rafts, making fires, defending against attacks from make-believe predators, imitating animals (a means of identifying animals and learning their habits), making music, dancing, storytelling, and arguing were all mentioned by one or more respondents. The specific lists differed from culture to culture, in accordance with differences in the skills that were exemplified by adults in each culture.
All of the respondents said that boys in the culture they studied engaged in a great deal of playful hunting. The two respondents who studied the Agta (of the Philippines)—a culture in which women as well as men regularly hunt—noted that girls as well as boys in that culture engaged in much playful hunting. Young children, with little bows and arrows (or other weapons, depending on the culture), might in their play shoot at butterflies, toads, and rodents. Eventually, as they became skilled, they might in their play begin to kill some small animals and bring them home to cook. Over time, playful hunting gradually became real hunting, still in the spirit of play.
Collin Turnbull, who studied and wrote extensively about the Mbuti (of Africa’s Ituri Forest), described how Mbuti children of both sexes (age 9 and up) practice the art of argument in their play. He wrote:
It may start through imitation of a real dispute the children witnessed in the main camp, perhaps the night before. They all take roles and imitate the adults. It is almost a form of judgment for if the adults talked their way out of the dispute the children having performed their imitation once, are likely to drop it. If the children detect any room for improvement, however, they will explore that, and if the adult argument was inept and everyone went to sleep that night in a bad temper, then the children try and show that they can do better, and if they cannot, then they revert to ridicule which they play out until they are all rolling on the ground in near hysterics. That happens to be the way many of the most potentially violent and dangerous disputes are settled in adult life. (Turnbull 1982, pp. 142–143)
Turnbull noted in his writings that Mbuti children would build a whole village of play huts, some distance away from their band’s actual temporary village, and then use that as a playground to act out scenes they had witnessed among the adults or to improvise new ones. In her response to our survey, Nancy Howell reported the same observation concerning Ju/’hoan children. Apparently, hunter-gatherer children, in their play, spend a great deal of time practicing the arts and crafts of adulthood.
Hunter-gatherer children and adolescents played and explored together in age-mixed groups.
The play of hunter-gatherer children occurred almost always in age-mixed groups. A typical group playing together at any given time might consist of half a dozen children ranging in age from 4 to 11, or from 7 to 15. Even if hunter-gatherer children wanted to segregate by age, they would rarely find more than one or two playmates within a year or two of their own age. Because hunter-gatherer bands were relatively small and births were widely spaced, the number of potential playmates for any given child was limited. As Patricia Draper put it, in her response to our survey: “Any child with enough motor and cognitive maturity could enter into any game. Older teenagers and adults could and did play as well, though not for as long or with the same enthusiasm as the children.” I will return later to the issue of age mixing. I think it plays a huge role in children’s natural means of education.
Education at a Modern Democratic School Designed for Self-Education
At this point you might be thinking: “Well, that system of education may have been fine for hunter-gatherers, but we are not hunter-gatherers. The educational needs of our children today are very different.” Indeed, our children’s educational needs are in some ways quite different from those of hunter-gatherers. For starters, we have reading, writing, and arithmetic—skills that were foreign to hunter-gatherer cultures. Some educational researchers, including at least one who brings an evolutionary perspective to his work (Geary 2008), have argued that children’s natural ways of learning are inadequate for learning the three R’s and that is one reason why school-imposed drill is essential. I might agree were it not for my observations and research at a remarkable alternative school, the Sudbury Valley School, located in Framingham, Massachusetts.
Sudbury Valley defies the usual conceptions of what a school must be in our modern era. Here is a brief description. The school admits students from age 4 on through high school age, on a first-come first-served basis, with no attention to measures of ability. It is a private day school, but it operates on a per-pupil budget less than half that of the local public schools. In recent years, the school has generally had between 140 and 200 enrolled students and nine or ten adult staff members. The school is governed by the School Meeting, which makes all school rules, at which each student and staff member has one vote. The school has no curriculum, gives no tests, does not monitor students’ progress, and does not assign students to classes or special spaces. All students, regardless of age, are allowed—all day long, day after day—to go wherever they wish in the school’s two buildings and ten-acre campus, to associate with whom they please, and to do whatever they wish as long as it does not violate any of the school’s democratically legislated rules (which serve to protect the school community and the rights of individuals).
What the school does provide is access to tools of learning. There are computers, books, a woodworking shop, a fully equipped kitchen, a pond, a nearby woods, athletic equipment, and adult staff members with expertise in a wide variety of endeavors who provide help and instruction when asked. The students have access to all of this, but they are never required or coaxed to take advantage of any of these resources. Just as is true of hunter-gatherer children and adolescents, they are free to play and explore on their own, all day, every day, and that is what they do. The staff at the school—and the parents who send their children there—believe, as hunter-gatherers did, that children who are allowed to play and explore freely will learn what they need to know to become effective adults.
The school has been operating in this way for 43 years. It has hundreds of graduates, including many who did all of their primary and secondary schooling there. Follow-up studies—including one that I conducted many years ago—show that the graduates have done very well in life (Gray and Chanoff 1986; Greenberg and Sadofsky 1992; Greenberg et al. 2005). Those who have wanted to go to college—a group that constitutes the majority of the graduates—have had no difficulty getting into good colleges and doing well there, and others have pursued good careers (in such areas as arts, skilled crafts, information technology, and business startups) that do not require college. Collectively, the graduates occupy the whole range of professions that we value in our society. The great majority of them report no regrets at all about attending such an unusual school; they feel that the school gave them many advantages. Relatively recently, a worldwide Sudbury school movement has been spreading. Today, worldwide, there are roughly 40 schools explicitly modeled after Sudbury Valley (a list can be found at the Sudbury Valley School website).
How do students learn at this school? Research that my university students and I have conducted indicates that they learn in very much the same ways that hunter-gatherer children learn (Gray 2007). They explore and play, in age-mixed groups as well as alone, at activities that are valued in the culture around them, with tools that are crucial to the culture. Whereas hunter-gatherer children played with bows and arrows, digging sticks, and vine ladders, Sudbury Valley students play at computers and at games that involve the written word and numbers. They explore not just by examining the immediate physical and social world around them but also by reading about the subjects that interest them and by asking questions of staff members and other students. Sometimes, a group of students will ask a staff member to lead a course or regular discussion group on a topic of their interest. In this environment, no bell tells them to stop pursuing a passionate interest; they can delve as deeply as they like, for as long as they like, into any subject that they like. In the process, they develop the basic skills and the passionate specific interests that lead, eventually, to a career decision.
Another pool of children and adolescents learning on their own in our society are those involved in the rapidly growing “unschooling” movement (Kirschner 2008). These are young people who don’t attend school at all. They are usually officially registered as homeschoolers, but in fact are not subjected to any curriculum or tests at home because their parents subscribe to the philosophy that children learn best when they pursue their own interests in their own chosen ways. I have recently collected many stories from unschooling parents about how their children learned to read and to calculate with numbers, and collectively, those stories make a case very similar to that resulting from our studies at Sudbury Valley (for an analysis of the stories, see Gray 2010a, d). Children on their own initiative, in a literate and numerate culture, naturally play with words and numbers and thereby become readers, writers, and proficient enough with math to meet the demands of life in our culture. Sudbury Valley children and unschooled children do not develop the fear and loathing of math that is so common elsewhere in our culture, so if they choose to study math formally—for example, to prepare to take the math SAT or ACT for college admission—they learn quickly, eagerly, and efficiently. As is true of people in the larger culture, a few enjoy numerical and abstract symbol play so much that they go on to become mathematicians, and a few others enjoy words so much that they become writers.