Turning mammals into people

Henry Srebrnik
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A few months ago I was talking to a friend who teaches history at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. She bemoaned the lack of historical and geographical knowledge of many people in her courses and described one particularly egregious case.

She had asked a student to describe some of the aggressive behaviour among European countries that had led to the Second World War. He began talking about Jacques Cartier — in other words, confusing the events of the 1930s with those of European expansion into the Americas in the 16th century! Such is, sometimes, the astounding lack of knowledge about the most basic of facts.

At campuses everywhere, the humanities are hurting, as students gravitate to majors more closely linked to their career ambitions, and so we will hear more and more such stories. But the mission of a university goes far beyond creating a competent work force through training students for this or that functional task.

To get back to my conversation with my colleague, I told her I’ve come to the conclusion that my job as a teacher, first and foremost, is turning mammals into human beings. What do I mean by that?

Most mammals are highly developed creatures, and are intimately aware of their immediate environs and how to survive in them. But what is it that differentiates one particular species, homo sapiens, from the rest?

Cats, dogs, monkeys, and even the great apes, live in a spatial and chronological “present.” They are aware of their physical surroundings, and their territory may extend to even a dozen square miles in some cases. But beyond that, they know about virtually nothing.

If they live on Prince Edward Island, unless they’ve been transported somewhere else by people, they have no idea about the rest of the world, from neighbouring New Brunswick to far-off China or Russia. They can’t communicate with fellow creatures beyond their immediate habitat.

They also have no sense of their history. They don’t even know about the lives of their immediate ancestors, much less something that happened a century or two earlier.

Unfortunately, I have run across students in my classes who cannot find the Pacific Ocean on a blank map, nor have any idea why 1939 is an important year in modern history. (To give you a sense of what it’s like not to have an historical time frame in your head, try to answer the following: what happened in the years 1423 and 5763? Actually, they are the Muslim and Jewish calendar equivalents to 2003 — the year the United States invaded Iraq.)

Such students may have some knowledge of a recent event that took place within their lifetime — say, the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States — but little beyond that. They probably know who Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were, but not Benito Mussolini or Nikita Khrushchev. As for geography, while they have seen pictures of various places on television or in films, and so might recognize downtown New York or Toronto, the larger geographic context is often missing. And knowing where Australia or India are located on the planet is too much to expect from some.

Theirs is a world almost as circumscribed, and their horizons almost as limited, as those of their fellow mammals. I couldn’t imagine living in a world without being able to visualize, so to speak, the geographic and historical setting within which it exists. Can someone understand today’s France or the United States without some knowledge of their histories and their specific locations? I know I wouldn’t be able to. But of course other mammals live out their lives that way, and do just fine.

For a person, though, that is a terribly limited way to go through life. (And in any case even remote places may have a powerful impact on our lives.) It’s our job to make our students part of what used to be called the great chain of being and have them realize that there is more to the world than the here and now.

If you have no comprehension of time and space beyond your immediate surroundings, you can’t make sense of the world. We were all mammals when we were born, but education is what turns us into humans.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Organizations: University of Prince Edward Island

Geographic location: Jacques Cartier, Americas, United States Prince Edward Island New Brunswick China Russia Pacific Ocean Iraq New York Toronto Australia India France

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