June 26, 2009

The right kind of infection

The Powell et al. article on cultural complexity 90,00 years ago, published in the June 5 issue of Science, has some interesting consequences for education policy, though it's an archaeology article. The argument the authors make is that one needs a certain population density before one can find surviving signs of cultural complexity (archaeological evidence of more sophisticated used of symbolism and technology). Sub-Saharan Africa had both those population densities and archaeological evidence from 90,000 years ago, as did Eurasia 45,000 years ago.

Powell et al. are arguing that the development of the earliest human cultural skills may have depended on nothing other than density. This is an appealing story: get enough humans living in proximity, and whatever culture is developed will be maintained while the various subpopulations (clans, etc.) interact and teach each other, keeping the ideas floating around the population in a way that would not happen in a sparse population with little interaction between subgroups.

I suppose that as someone without an archaeology background, I have no insider knowledge of the contribution this paper makes to studies of human evolution. The authors are portraying the issue as an explanation of how human culture could appear suddenly (on the eon-scale) without resorting to changes in biology (esp. cognitive capacity). We'll see what other researchers of human evolution say about that, but there's something important there for education.

The article suggests that one can categorize various cultural characteristics by the extent of continuity across time. Isolated behaviors and skills may not survive unless they spread beyond the individuals who may exhibit/learn them for a time. With enough contact among people, knowledge, skills, and behaviors can become continuous; that continuity is the subject of the article. But one can look at knowledge, skills, and behaviors that are more than continuously existing. Are they common (maybe the experience of a minority but where everyone knows several people who have that experience)? Are they the normative expectation? Are they ubiqitous (universal or nearly so)? That's a five-category, ordinal variable for the extent of cultural behavior in a population: isolated, continuous, common, normative, ubiquitous.Okay, there's a sixth category, absent. 

Many of the debates over education policy are about shoving the national population from a common experience of X to a normative expectation of X, or from a normative expectation to the ubiquity of X. In the space of 70 years, high school graduation moved from a continuous population behavior to a normative experience; that's the story in my first book. But the rhetoric surrounding a national population's experiences often obscures variations. As Claudia Goldin has pointed out, high school graduation became normative in the midwest and northeast by 1940, while it moved much more slowly in the South (for Southerners of all races/ethnic backgrounds). And today, while approximately a quarter of teenagers leave high school without a standard academic diploma, there are many high schools where graduation is common but not the majority experience, and probably a few high schools where graduation exists every year but is not common.While the latter should be alarming to anyone, in reality the majority of high schools in deep crisis fall in the former category, schools where graduation is common but not the majority experience. 

There is an argument that the Powell et al. article suggests: if culture "spreads" once there is a sufficient number of "carriers," maybe we should look at education as akin to a disease process that we want to propagate. This is close to the contamination theory Geoffrey Canada has (or had when Paul Tough followed him around while writing his book about the Harlem Children's Zone). There are both ways in which that argument is interesting (esp. in communities where half or more teenagers drop out without a high school diploma) and others in which it is disturbing (assuming that students can be "carriers" of culture in way that adults can manipulate, though they can't shape adolescent experiences directly.. uh, no).

How do you move a behavior from a common-but-minority experience to a normative expectation? That's essentially the question we have in a large number of high schools in the country and with regard to baccalaureate degrees for the entire country. At least in my understanding, there are two requirements, involving both the spread of an idea and set of habits (habitus, in Bourdieau's language of cultural capital) and also institutional infrastructure. Attending high school became the normative experience for teenagers when they could no longer enter the full-time labor market with ease, when people began to think of high school as an experience that could be useful, and when there were enough high schools for majority attendance to be physically possible.

I do not think that there are exact parallels for all circumstances, just a combination of population behavior and institutional behavior. They go together. And, yes, there are cases where the extent of cultural experiences can reverse: working-class attendance at Shakespeare in the late 19th century, if you believe Lawrence Levine, or girls' primary education in Afghanistan from 1995 to 2001.

Listen to this article
Posted in History on June 26, 2009 12:29 PM |