It is difficult to interpret one’s childhood events correctly. There’s the danger of distorted memory, superimposed details and meanings, admixtures of other people’s interpretations, and so on. So I haven’t commented, so far, on the “What Makes Man Human?” uproar I started in fourth grade, even though I have thought about it often. (Actually, I wrote about it once—and then deleted what I wrote.)
My school had adopted the MACOS (Man: A Course of Study) curriculum. We learned about the Netsilik Inuits and their way of life. We studied various animals: salmon, baboons, and so on. Parts of this were quite interesting. But then the teacher posted a piece of chart paper on the wall with the question “What Makes Man Human?” Students were to list their answers below the question. As I remember it, this list generated some excitement.
I found the exercise silly, so I added No. 20 to the list: “Nothing—human is just another word for a person.”
My classmates reacted with outrage; several took it upon themselves to chide me and erase my entry. Just where the teacher was at this time, I don’t know. I wrote about the incident; it’s the only writing from that time that I still have.
Afterward, I was encouraged by adults to pursue this matter further: to demonstrate that humans were not as distant from animals as we commonly assume. I took on this challenge for a little while, but that was not my original point. At the most obvious level, I was pointing out the redundancy of the question. If “man” and “human” are synonymous or close to synonymous, then it makes no sense to ask what makes man human.
At another level, I think I wanted to shake things up. I realized that the answers would be predictable, so I wanted to throw in a justified surprise. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate this at the time, but I remember the desire to break through the humdrum predictability of it all.
I understand, looking back, why my classmates were so upset. They had taken this assignment seriously and were offended that I had not. Beyond that, they may have taken my response as an insult to humanity itself. They may have thought I was saying that there was no such thing as a human being. They had every reason, in that case, to be ruffled.
But the irony is that they responded by erasing my words. One human attribute is the ability to challenge common assumptions and to break from the norm. (Animals have this ability too—take, for instance, the lone penguin in Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World—but it’s more pronounced in humans, or so it seems.) My classmates decided that my response was not acceptable and therefore had to be obliterated. If they thought I had demeaned humanity, well, they demeaned it doubly.
I recognize that I was being provocative on purpose. I recognize, also, that my classmates had good intentions; they took the assignment seriously and were trying to do it well. The problem lay in the posing of an important-sounding question that was supposed to evoke humdrum responses. When, under the pretext of “critical thinking,” you squelch that very thing, you create a mental trap. The only way to think critically, under such conditions, is to criticize the very undertaking—and the student who does so will not be thanked by peers.
Where was the teacher? That is my lingering question. The school had a cozy and lax atmosphere; we wandered around and did what we wanted, more or less, as long as we completed certain activities. I was somewhat miserable, not because I needed to be told what to do, but because I missed the exchange with a wise adult. Peers were not good judges of each other or of subject matter. Their judgments were often based on what made them comfortable or uncomfortable as a group.
I see similar problems in schools today. Students need an adult’s guidance; they need to be lifted above their immediate judgments and preferences. Teachers offer perspective, among other things; they help students see the value of things that fall outside the norm. If anything makes man human, keen questioning does, and this takes vision, practice, and gumption.