Millennial Spearhunting

2_3_atlatl-l

An atlatl is a remarkable thing.

I’ve actually held one of the earliest known examples in my hands (with latex gloves), and while I know I’m probably ascribing otherworldly qualities to it, the thing just exuded confidence. It had been held, and flicked, thousands of times at a very early, distant point in human prehistory. At one point, this device I now held had made all the difference for one hunting family. Using it had changed everything about their spear throws – velocity, accuracy, and, ultimately, killing power. Once the atlatl appeared on the scene in the Combe Sauniere in France, it spread like wildfire, throughout Europe and over the Bering land bridge into North America, for one simple reason. It was a transformational piece of hunting technology, made effective through training and practice. To hunt without it was to go forth at a severe competitive disadvantage in sourcing food: overnight, the playing field for daily nutrition changed, all because of one simple device.

Why do I bring this up? Because my kids are going to have one – the modern version, anyway – and they’re going to learn to use it, right by my side. Your kids might; given that you’re reading our blog, their chances are excellent. Most kids in public school won’t – and the ultimate outcome for them doesn’t look pretty. This fact is driven by two emerging fractures in modern education, which are collectively driving a widening wedge between school and life.

The first fracture is technological. A little backstory: in 1977, my father brought home one of the earliest dedicated word processors, a great big humming machine the size of a filing cabinet, complete with eight-inch floppy disks. It was pretty amazing at the time, and he even let me do a little schoolwork on it – against Caterpillar corporate policy, I’m sure, but whatever. I found it thoroughly fascinating. For the first time, documents could be stored digitally and edited endlessly before committing them to paper. But despite how revolutionary this moment was, just three years later, our family owned its functional equivalent, in the form of an Apple II. Two years after that, Apple IIs showed up in our junior high computer lab. Total elapsed time from my first look at the technology to its public-school adoption: five years.

Cue the starry-eyed optimism of the 1980s. At the time, we really thought that this process would only accelerate over time, to the point where schools would adopt real-world work processes and technologies faster and faster, until they virtually mirrored each other. But, in retrospect, it’s pretty clear that patient zero, in the form of the Apple II, was really as good as it ever got – and then only because Apple was shoving dollars at the educational market as fast as they could be spent. Over time, what was in public-school computer labs fell further and further behind what was being used in business; even Apple abandoned its educational mission, in large part. Today, I walk into our public school, and there are some of the last CRT-based, 1024×768 tube monitors on Earth. You couldn’t go out and buy a CRT monitor today if you wanted to.

The contrast between school and homeschool is pretty stark. We don’t even use flatscreen monitors exclusively in homeschooling any more. The iPad’s become our go-to tech of choice in our house, for everything from Dragonbox to Khan Academy videos to Algebra Touch. For more advanced work that does involve monitor time, we’re aiming for a directly transparent relationship between what we use professionally (Mathematica, SPSS, Google Docs/Word/Excel, Photoshop, Illustrator, SlideRocket) and what they learn to use at home. Because this is what we hunt with. These products are the atlatls of our day. In ten years, our daughters will be out on the veldt of the modern labor market, armed only with what we’ve given them – and it’s our job to make sure they’re ready.

The second fracture is sociological, and I reference it, increasingly, to explain why I’m involved in homeschooling as a father. It’s simple: we’ve become confused about what the ancestral role of a father is, and what the alternative role is.  Ten thousand years ago, the only fathers who didn’t take their sons (and daughters!) hunting were crippled or dead – and even then, their children went forth with uncles and cousins and grandfathers. This was done for one simple reason: there is no way to learn to hunt in the abstract. It’s not something you could read up on (not that hunting techniques were being documented beyond the wishful) or discuss into skilfulness around the campfire. Hunting, like so many things, was learned by doing. Fathers took their children hunting, because to do so was to teach them how to survive in the world1.

And then – rather suddenly on the scale of history – fathers (in particular) grew comfortable with outsourcing those tasks. That began as the Industrial Revolution took hold and showed us a world in which children could learn life skills en masse, just like the products being produced in the factories of the day. It’s no coincidence that the rise of industrial America from 1876 – 1900 overlapped with the beginning of the Progressive Movement in education, spanning from the 1890s to the 1930s. During that time, the United States saw a dramatic expansion in the number of schools and students served, especially in the fast-growing metropolitan cities. Learning became an assembly-line task, and just as the education of any one child became unimportant compared to the need to educate large volumes of children, so too did the need for a family member to teach fall by the wayside. The tasks to be mastered were common to all, and so the process of teaching became one that a third party could take on. At the same time, the ability of parents to involve their children in their work vanished, shattered on the factory floors of the age. For every family, at some point in history, there was a singular moment when work and education split: fathers went off to work one morning, and children to school, the two divided along a fracture between the real world and the educational system’s abstraction of that world.

In the earliest days, that fracture was small, or even – for those children who left school in the afternoon and went directly to work in a factory or on a farm – nonexistent. But over time, it’s widened, exacerbated by the technological divide. With each passing year, school has fallen further and further behind the realities of modern working life; today our kids are learning roughly all the same things they learned in 1980. There’s Palmer-method cursive to be practiced and wedding-cake long division to be waded through and a seemingly never-ending fountain of facts to be memorized – despite the fact that we live in an era of texting and Evernote and ubiquitous calculators and a human knowledge base exploding exponentially year by year2. These kids are heaving spears by hand in the atlatl age.

Worse, we’re not talking just about the fracture between our public-school education and the working world in our own nation: we’re talking about the fracture between our public-school education and the preparation necessary to compete in a global economy. Being from a Cat family, I distinctly remember the arrival of that word processor coinciding with my father’s grim pronouncement that Cat had lost a deal to Komatsu for the first time. It made an impression on me at the time: new thinking and new tech will be necessary now. The good news? We had an atlatl. The bad news? Everyone else had one, too. Yet, in the intervening decades, we haven’t taken the globalized economy seriously in the most important of venues – our educational system – and as a result, we fall further and further behind every year. And we just don’t care. If we did, we’d be doing something about it. 

Once upon a time, the risk of having an obsolete survival skillset was simply too great to take on, and mothers and fathers taught their children. It’s our belief that we are there once again, on the cusp of a great disjunction in how they are to make their way in this rapidly-evolving world, and that parents – fathers and mothers alike – need to face that fact head-on. Public education is providing neither the tools nor the training necessary to hunt effectively – so we’ve taken it upon ourselves to do so. To the extent possible, they see what we use to make a life for ourselves: coding languages and wireless hotspots and knowledge management systems and tablet tech. I let them watch me work up client market pursuit models and brand positioning plans and collateral deployment schedules. They ask questions, and I answer them directly.

If we’d lived ten thousands years ago, those questions would’ve frightened away something large and tasty that we as a family probably needed for the night’s repast. I’d have to caution them, then; questions have their place and time, and crouched in the brush, atlatl in hand, is not the time. Is hunting with my children alongside me as efficient as hunting alone? No, it’s not; anyone who’s ever visited Costco alone, or with kids in tow, knows this difference intimately. But by hunting with them, I show them the skills that they need to learn, and in the end, we all eat – together.

___________________________________________

1 The original ‘quality time.’ 

2Yes, I know that the counterargument is that human knowledge has always exceeded the learning and retention capacity of any one individual. That old saw gets wheeled out every time this datapoint is mentioned. But that argument starts to lose its weight when the exponential nature of ongoing knowledge growth is considered. It’s like saying that there’s no need to worry about a coming hundred-year tsunami based on experience managing a few inches of water in a post-thunderstorm flooded basement.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Marvelous post. You really could (should?) write a whole book on this stuff. Thank you!

    Reply

  2. Fascinating! Am sharing with my husband. Thank you!

    Reply

  3. Thanks – another interesting read. I dont remember how I found your blog, but I am ever grateful that I did. You both add a depth to conversations that I hear ‘glossed over’ far too often. Thank you.

    Reply

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