There is no one way to parenting. Just as there are many cultures, there are so many variations in parenting across the globe. In this thought-provoking episode, Whitney Lauritsen sits down with Dr. Cornelius Grove to take a look at how culture impacts parenting and childhood. A perfect case study on this is the recent story about the Colombian children surviving alone in the jungle. We look at the contrast between traditional and modern societies, especially as they shape children to become contributing, functional members and get a larger sense of life and all the many different ways that people can be human. Dr. Grove also shares the chance encounter that forever changed his life as an anthropologist. We explore the cross-cultural dynamics, anthropology, and intercultural experiences that shape our understanding of parenting, childhood, and culture. From education and belief systems to the number one explanation for intelligence and how other children learn, we question what truly makes society tick. Drawing insights from diverse hunter-gatherer groups across Africa, Latin America, Native Americans, Arabian tribes, and indigenous cultures in India, we challenge the need for traditional schooling and contemplate the differing approaches to child rearing. We also unravel the complexities of nurturing children into functional members of society, cautioning against blindly copying methods from other cultures. Embracing the notion of giving children more freedom, we prompt a reevaluation of the time, money, and energy invested in child care, exploring the profound impact of modernization, instruction, and education. Through this eye-opening exploration, we gain a larger sense of life and the countless ways in which people can be human, urging viewers to adjust their minds and hearts to foster a more inclusive and harmonious future. Tune in for a jam-packed episode with Dr. Cornelius Grove. Let his insights reveal the complexities of parenting and shaping the minds of the future generation.
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The Complex World Of Parenting: How Culture Impacts How We Raise Our Children With Dr. Cornelius Grove
In this episode, I am speaking with Dr. Cornelius Grove. We’re getting into the topic of how culture impacts childhood, parenting, different learning styles, how we raise people, and the nuances in different cultures and their children. I imagine this might have a ripple effect in different stages of life. I’m looking forward to this conversation.
I enjoy learning about culture and psychology, and different ways of approaching life. Even though I’m not a parent, I am very interested in parenting. I know there are many parents that tune in to this show. I am looking forward to what can be revealed from Cornelius. Thank you so much for joining. I would love to start hearing a little bit about your background. What led you to do this work and write multiple books on the subject matter?
I’m very happy to be included in This Might Get Uncomfortable. As I told you earlier, I like the title of your series. There’s not much worth talking about my upbringing. I wasn’t taken out of the country, but I can safely say my parents were internationally minded. We had guests sometimes from other countries. Somewhere along the way, I realized that I was very interested not so much in individuals and how they tick but in groups of individuals. Face-to-face groups, cohesive groups, whether it’s a family or all the way up to a nation, a city, a neighborhood, a block, or an extended family, this is what interested me. I won’t go into some of the experiences that led me to that.
As a young man, before I was married and after I was married around the age of 30, I did spend some time abroad. Soon after we got married, my wife and I spent two years abroad. We’re not working. We had saved up our money. We were in our early 30s, and we went abroad for two years. We lived in different places. My wife is from England, so we spent some time in England and so forth.
Where were you living abroad? What countries were you in?
A year of that two years, we lived in Portugal. We lived for six months in the Algarve, which is the Southernmost region of Portugal. We lived for six months in the Azores, which is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and it’s also Portuguese. We crossed Africa in a Land Rover. I shouldn’t say Africa so much as the Sahara Desert. It’s an interesting place. It’s pretty warm there.
We also went swimming in the Sahara. You can go swimming. What do you call it? Oasis. We stripped off and went swimming. After I graduated from college, long story short, I ended up as a teacher. Both of my parents had been educators. My mother was a classroom teacher, and my father was a superintendent of schools.
I got into teaching, and I liked teaching high school in Downstate New York in White Plains. Some people may be familiar with that place. I decided that’s not what I wanted to do. I very much wanted to write. I had a feeling that I knew how to write well, and I was interested in trying my hand at that. I’ll skip over a lot of details here, but I ended up as an editor in some publishing houses here in New York City.
In the second publishing house, my wife came to work there. We got acquainted, and we decided to get married, then we went abroad. When I came back, I went back to university. I went to Columbia University. My original plan was to become a guidance counselor. Skipping over some stories here, I had a chance encounter that convinced me that I wasn’t enjoying the study I was doing to be a guidance counselor.
I had a chance encounter with a professor, and I changed my major the next day to study Anthropology and International Education. That’s the path that I’ve been on ever since. I did get a doctorate from Columbia, and I ended up teaching there for about a year as an adjunct. It’s maybe a year and a half, then I went to work for American Field Service. Some of your readers may be familiar with AFS International. It’s a student exchange organization.
I went to work there, and I worked there for eleven years. I was their resident scholar. That was never my title, but that’s what it worked out to be. I decided I wanted to open my own business, and so I did. On January 1st, 1990, I founded and began a company called Cornelius Grove and Associates. The purpose of the company was to deliver cross-cultural services to corporations.
A few days before that date, I met somebody who was close to me in age, a woman who is an anthropologist. We decided to go into business together. To skip over about 30 years here, we ran this company as partners for 30 years. It ended on the last day of 2020. It lasted exactly 31 years to the day. As we got into the 2000s, I felt that this was great. I was enjoying that work, and the business was doing well.
It was always a small consultancy, but I wanted to write. I already had written one book with co-authors on China because I got to spend five months in China as a visiting professor at a Chinese university. Out of that, with a Chinese scholar who was also interested in the intercultural field, we wrote a book together. That’s called Encountering the Chinese.
It’s interesting how your life has taken all these turns from chance encounters with different cultures, different types of people, and different lines of work. I’m also curious how being a parent influenced this too. It sounded like you started doing this work before you became a parent or after.
When I was in Columbia, we had our first child, and then later, we had two more who were twins. After the book on China, the first book that I wrote is about one of the characteristics of American education, which has to do with what people believe about how students succeed in school. I don’t want to get off on that because it’s also a fascinating topic.
In case anybody is interested, the name of the book is The Aptitude Myth. Because I’d been in China, I was getting more interested in the fact that there are international tests of intelligence that have been given to students internationally in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades ever since about 1970. On every one of these tests, East Asian students from China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are always at the top of the scores. The American students always are somewhere in the middle. They are rarely very much above the middle. Sometimes, below the middle. This has never been different ever.
Why is that? I believe that the explanation is ultimately cultural. I decided to write a book in which I took a cultural approach to explain the perennial fact that American students do not do well in international competitions. It doesn’t matter what the topic is. It doesn’t matter what the year is. They’re always somewhere in the middle. The East Asians are always on top.
It turned out that I wasn’t the only person who had been interested in this. This has excited the interest of many other scholars and many anthropologists. I started reading about this, and I found that there were two reasons or two explanations. One of the explanations is how these students are raised at home. The other big difference is how they are taught at school. I pretty soon came to believe that the number one explanation was how they are raised at home compared with how American children are raised at home.
I decided to write two books. The first book dealt with what I think is somewhat more important. It’s how they’re raised at home. The name of that book is The Drive to Learn. That was published in 2017. The second book looked at the other side of the story, which is how they’re taught at school. The name of that book is A Mirror for Americans, and that was published in 2020.
I’m going to take a break from looking at what happens to children in societies where school plays a major role in the life of the child and the life of the family. I’m going to see how children learn and how they learn well in school. This is always the early grades, by the way. I always looked at what we would call primary school or elementary school.
The reason is that things get very complicated in the upper grades. They change a lot, so let’s not go into that. We’ll skip that. I’m tired of seeing how children learn in school. I want to see how they learn when they’re not in school. I wrote a book proposal to my publisher. My publisher is Rowman and Littlefield, and they accepted it right away. That brings us to the book that we are mainly going to discuss. That book ended up being called How Other Children Learn: What Five Traditional Societies Tell Us about Parenting and Children’s Learning.
What are these five different societies?
By the way, how do I choose these societies? There’s one thing that I had to have. That is, I had to choose a society that anthropologists of childhood had spent a significant amount of time with and had written a sufficient number of books and many journal articles and so forth. I was not going to visit those societies. I was relying on the work of professional anthropologists and other people who use mainly anthropological methods that is not the same method that psychologists use. Anthropologists go and live there for months. Some of them live there for a year or more. They become a part of the community. They learn the language, get involved, and form relationships. Eventually, they leave and write about it. They try to explain what makes this society tick.
I had to do this with anthropologists who are particularly interested in childhood. The five societies I came up with, each one on a different continent, are these. One is a hunter-gatherer group in Central Africa. They’re known as the AKA. The second group is in Latin America, in Peru. This group raises animals, and they do so in the high Andes. They live out their lives between 12,000 feet and 16,000 feet in the air. They raise sheep and alpaca. The name of that group is Quechua. They’re the heirs of the Inca. The Inca spoke Quechua.
The third group is right here in our country, the Navajo. The Navajo have been studied extensively. There used to be a joke among anthropologists that said that the average Navajo family consisted of a mother, a father, children, and an anthropologist. There was probably some truth to that. The fourth group that I hoped I could study is the better one, the nomads of the Arabian Desert, but there hadn’t been enough anthropological work. I could not study them.
During the last century, many of them left the desert and settled in communities on the edge of the desert Levant, where Israel, Syria, and Lebanon are. That’s the Levant. I wrote about the Arabs families in the Levant region, the heirs of the Bedouins. It’s very interesting. The final group was in India. I wrote about Hindu villagers in India. A lot of anthropological work has been done in India. There’s no shortage.
In the course of doing this, I became familiar with some of the other work by anthropologists who are looking at traditional cultures and what might also be called, in many cases, the indigenous cultures. Thirty years ago, we were all getting used to not calling these people primitive. That’s a term that shouldn’t be used. Traditional is a good way to think about them.
Traditional culture is one in which either there are no schools at all, or education is just beginning to come in so that almost none of the adults have been to school. Maybe the children now, for the very first time, are going to school. That was true, particularly of the Arabs in the Levant and India. Schooling was coming in at the time the anthropological work was done.
That’s fascinating. Through listening to you, I’m noticing how much ignorance I have about different cultures. It also makes me wonder about not being a parent. There are a lot of things that I’m not as up-to-date on now, but I certainly hear a lot of discussion in the United States about school systems. It seems like there are a lot of complaints about the school. As I’m hearing you talk about traditional culture in which you said the school doesn’t seem to be a big part of childhood or perhaps even adulthood. You said almost none of the adults had been to school. I’m curious about your research.
I would say in many communities, it’s 100% that no adult has been to school. They don’t know what school is.
What is the reason?
There weren’t any schools.
They didn’t have a need for them.
That’s a very interesting question. How does that need to develop? The human race lived for many tens of thousands of years without school. How come there’s a need for school? Where did that come from? When you study traditional cultures, you begin to figure it out. Schooling goes hand in hand with modernization. It’s that simple. The thing about it is another feature of traditional culture is that people are engaged every single day with the natural environment.Schooling goes hand in hand with modernization. Click To Tweet
Why is this? It’s because they’re raising their own food. I say raising, but I shouldn’t just say raising. They’re hunting, gathering, fishing, farming, or husbanding. Meaning they are raising domesticated animals. Every day, this is how they get their sustenance. If they don’t do these things, they starve. A child is born, and they begin to grow up. What do they need to learn? Do they need to go to school? They don’t need to go to school.
This is one of the problems in communities where none of the adults have gone to school. Schools begin to arrive, and they don’t understand. Why do we need this? If they see a need for it, it’s because they’ve figured out that if the child does well in school, he could go live in the big city nearby and earn money and send money back home. It’s like an insurance policy for the family’s ability to survive and to have a wage earner. That’s the attraction.
The problem is when a child goes to the city, and it’s usually he, he almost always runs into manners that his parents and extended family are uncomfortable with. He runs into morals that his family is uncomfortable with, and he runs into maidens whom his family is uncomfortable with. There’s this great tug but I’m going off on a tangent now.
I love tangents because all of this is interesting. It’s generating a lot of questions for me. It sounds like it comes down to a matter of survival but what you’re pointing down is how different cultures have different definitions of survival or different means of survival.
Every culture has to eat. We don’t think about it much because we run out to the local supermarket or call up and have somebody deliver it to our door. In traditional cultures, you got to think about where your food is coming from all the time. It’s that simple. How people get their food is something that can be transmitted to children. They don’t even need a classroom to do that.
As a matter of fact, one of the most interesting things about traditional cultures and a big difference from our own culture is that the child doesn’t need to be explicitly taught about the things that the family needs to know in order to survive. The child can watch and learn. This is what they do. One of the most interesting things about traditional families is that until a child is born or until that child is weaned, he gets very close attention from the mother.A child doesn't need to be explicitly taught about the things it needs to survive. Click To Tweet
It’s not just because he needs to suckle her milk but also because this is a time when many children’s health is at risk for a number of reasons. They’re very closely protected. Once a child is weaned and when the child gets to be a toddler, in our society, the assumption is the parents are going to raise this child. It’s not even a question. This is not even a subject for debate. It’s your child. You raise it. You and your husband or you and your wife or whatever raise the child. You’re responsible for the child.
In traditional societies, it’s not the parent’s responsibility. Whose responsibility is it? It’s two things in most of these societies. One or the other or both of two things happen. Either the child is raised by the next oldest sibling, or the child is turned loose into the group of mixed-age and mixed-sex group of children that are roaming around the neighborhood. Their young child, which would be a toddler for us, is either being raised by their next oldest sibling. It’s usually a girl or a part of this children’s group or both.
We’re talking about this in June 2023. There has been a recent case that had a burst of interest from many people. A small plane went down in the Colombian Amazon, not the Brazilian Amazon, and three adults died, including the children’s mother, but four children survived. The oldest was thirteen, a girl. The youngest was eleven months, and they were lost. Once the authorities found the wreckage, they figured that the children had survived. There were clues, and they went looking for them.
The children were lost for 40 days. What do you think would happen to American children, even very bright American children who made A’s in school? They wouldn’t have survived, but these children survived. Why did these children survive? It’s more complicated than this, but the initial explanation is they survived because they’re from traditional culture. They had grown up, whatever ages they were, in two ways.
First of all, they were familiar with the forest. The second is they were being raised by their sister as their regular caretaker. It’s more complicated than this. People know this story in detail, but the older sister who was thirteen years old was the person who had a substantial amount of responsibility for raising these other children, including the eleven-month-old who turned one during the 40 days. This is routine in traditional culture.
How does a story like that resonate with you as a parent when you think about your children were that young? You’re wondering, they probably wouldn’t have survived. Is that what you’re assuming?
Absolutely not. They couldn’t have survived. They wouldn’t survive. These children knew about the forest, and they knew what they could eat and so forth. I know it’s more complicated than this, but they were used to living here. They were used to being guided and raised and looked after by their thirteen-year-old sister, so they were able to survive. I don’t know if we want to get into the complications about this because their indigenous society in Colombia was in the process that will take 2 or 3 generations or maybe even more of transferring from being a traditional society to becoming a modern society.
They were in the middle of that transition. How do I know? Two ways. First of all, when the children got to the hospital, the five-year-old and maybe even the next one up asked for books. They wanted books to read. No thoroughly traditional child would want a book to read. They don’t know about books. These children were going to school. They were learning something at school. They were learning how to read.
The other thing is that they were in an airplane. What were they doing in the airplane? They’re in the position of moving from traditional to modern. Some of the complications were the authorities figured that if they’d been out for another several days, they might have started dying. They could have been in much better shape. What anthropologists have found that looked at these traditional societies, such as the hunter-gatherers in Africa, for example, is that by the time you are ten years old as a hunter-gatherer, you can be left alone in the forest. At ten years old, you’ll know what to do.
This brings up some thoughts about where we’re headed as a society in the United States. The more you talk about this, the more I feel without judgment but a feeling that a ten-year-old in the United States is probably more concerned with hanging out with their friends, playing video games, and using devices. It’s sounding more likely that that’s not creating a lot of resiliency or strength. It’s maybe developing digital skillsets.
Our society is very based on digital skills, but we don’t know how long that will be around. In the past few years, the shifts in the environment and the pandemic have revealed to me my own weaknesses. I started to realize that I don’t have a lot of survival skills, and I’m a full-grown adult. I became more interested in it. I wondered about we’ve had food supply issues, for example, and I don’t know how to grow food. There are concerns about water running out.
You don’t know how to hunt. You don’t know what to gather. You don’t know how to farm. You may have some basic idea of how to fish.
There are conspiracy theories that come up. There are people that are very concerned like, “What if the electricity went out?” The average person knows how to survive for even a few days without electricity.
It’s a problem. These kids didn’t have running water in the forest, but they did find water. They stayed in the vicinity of water once they found it. It’s useful to look at traditional cultures like this for the simple reason you look back at yourself and say, “Look at how they’re raising these children. They turn them loose with the other children.” Parents don’t get involved too much.
An exception is when it comes to manners, things like respecting elders, showing proper respect for grandpa and grandma, and those kinds of things. Families are judged on the basis of how their young ones fit into the moral structure. With the exception of that, all the other things about how to get along with other children and how to contribute to the family’s well-being by helping out in various ways, children in the majority of traditional cultures learn them by watching.
They do things by trial and error. When they think they can do it right, they start trying to fit in with what the adults are doing. They want to fit in. They want to be accepted by this group. These are the people who love them. These are the people they identify with, and they want to be a part of that. This is something that we’re pretty much lacking in this society.
It brings the question, why are we lacking it? Could we benefit more from that? The even bigger question is, we have a lot of mental health issues. You mentioned the word well-being. Researchers are doing studies now and slowly concluding that the digital lives that many of us are living are having a negative impact on our mental health. Everything you’re describing now makes me feel like these traditional cultures sound so much simpler. Maybe that’s oversimplifying all of it. What are the pros and cons of modern versus traditional society?
There are so many questions like this. The ones that I’ve taken an interest in have to do with how children become functioning, responsible, and contributing members of their society. That’s what I am particularly interested in. The situation we find ourselves in now is hugely different in myriad ways from the situation that traditional people in traditional cultures find themselves in.
This is why we can’t copy their methods. There may be one or two things. For example, one of the things that I became very much aware of as I studied these five societies and wrote this book was that in traditional societies, children almost effortlessly take responsibility. They share responsibility with the other family members for the family’s well-being. They learn to do this in part by watching and wanting to be a part of what’s going on.
They do it because their parents begin to expect and encourage them to help out and assist in any way they can, beginning when they can walk. What can a toddler do to support the family? In the morning, they get up, and they have to build a fire to make their breakfast. The toddler can go over there and get some sticks and bring them back for the fire. Grandpa is here. He’s old and decrepit, and the toddler can take him a cup of water. Starting off with these very simple things, from the moment a child can walk, they begin to be expected and encouraged to contribute to what is going on right now in this family to support its well-being.
If they don’t, they may get a little switching on the back of the legs. The parents make sure that they understand that they need to contribute. Everybody, according to their mental abilities and physical abilities, contributes to the welfare of an extended family in traditional cultures. Here’s the thing, Whitney. Think about this. In a traditional culture, the children are needed in a practical sense. Everybody needs to contribute to the acquisition of food and other resources that the family needs. Their labor is needed.In a traditional culture, the children are needed in a practical sense. Click To Tweet
In this culture, we don’t need children. I didn’t say we don’t love children. Traditional people and modern people love children. Only traditional people need children. They need them to work. When the parents get older and begin to not be able to get around anymore and get into their old age, the children are needed to take care of their parents. They don’t have old folk’s homes.
Children are needed in traditional societies, and they’re not needed in our society. As adults, parents, and grandparents in our societies, what do we do? I’m reminded that back in ancient Rome, one of the problems they had was to keep the plebeians from getting riled up and realizing that they didn’t have the things that the patricians had. There came to be an old Roman expression, “Bread and circuses.” Have you ever heard that?
That comes from ancient Rome. What are we doing here with children? Bread and circuses.
Does that mean entertaining and sending them to school?
Yes, school and other things. I say entertaining, but some of it may be quite educational. We’re taking them to museums. We’re sending them to summer camp. I had a wonderful time in summer camp as a kid. I love sleep-away camp. It’s the best thing. I wish I could repeat it all, but my parents sent me and got me out of their hair for three weeks. We are taking responsibility for our children’s lives. In your lifetime, and certainly in my lifetime, this new factor has come in where we’re giving children handheld devices that mesmerize them.
They do capture people. They take them over. They become the master and not the tool, but let’s not get into that discussion. My point here is that children don’t have any real reason in our society to watch adults and learn. They do to some extent, but they have all these other things that we’ve made available to keep them busy, help them get educated in many ways, entertain them, make sure that they have friends, play sports, and all these things.
None of this happens in traditional societies. The kids take care of themselves. They roam around. They figure out what to do. What are they doing? The anthropologists finally figured out that the kids were watching the adults. Not always. It’s not 100%, but they’re watching the adults. They’re trying to be like the adults. They’re anthropologically intense. You see kids practicing what adults do.
Given that they’re spending so much time adding value and contributing, do children in traditional societies have much of a relationship with play, leisure, or rest? What does that look like?
In the traditional society, the distinction between work and play is weak. They don’t think this way. They may understand that this is playing and that’s work, but the line between them isn’t clear the way it is here because we have jobs. We go away. People are staying home now, but there are times when they work and times when they play.In traditional societies, the distinction between work and play is weak. Click To Tweet
In traditional societies, that distinction is muddy and weak. The kids have a childhood, but in most of the traditional societies, they’re being much more responsible. They’re taking responsibility at an early age, not just for bringing twigs but for raising their younger siblings. In Quechua land, children around 7 and 8 begin to be the ones taking the herd, the flock of sheep or alpacas or whatever, to take them to pasture and bring them back at the end of the day. I think this is true with Navajos as well.
Think about this. Those animals are the wealth of the family. That’s their wealth, and you give that to the seven-year-old and say, “Take them to the pasture. We’ll see you this evening.” There are wolves, thunderstorms, and lightning. I’m telling you. One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate as a result of doing this book is that children are far more able, mentally and physically, in terms of capabilities to do practical things. It’s not academic things but practical things. They are far more able than we in this society tend to give them the opportunity to do. They take responsibility.Children are far more able and capable to do practical things than we tend to give them. Click To Tweet
I’m curious about that realization. Would you have raised your children any differently? How would that have impacted you? Your children are grown up now. It sounds like you’ve learned and studied so much since then. As a parent, do you have different perspectives now? Do you give advice or resources to parents in this modern world where they could benefit from this somehow?
There is a school of thought. There is a movement. We can use the word movement in the United States. It’s not a big movement like the political movements that we are hearing so much about. There are a group of thoughtful adults who, in one way or another, are devoting their professional lives and their abilities to say to American parents, “You don’t have to ride so closely on your children. You can give them more freedom.”
How far can you carry this? This gets complicated, but traditional children learn to take care of themselves. Their parents aren’t keeping watch over them. Their parents are doing adult things. The children are doing their children things. What are the children things? Some of those children things are trying to be like adults because they’re expected to contribute, even to the point of taking full charge of their younger siblings.
In the Colombian jungle, the grandmother said about the oldest girl, “When the mother goes away to work, the oldest girl has charge of these children.” I said that they’re on the cusp of going from traditional to modern. In a real traditional society, the oldest girl would be taking care of the children. That’s it, except for morals and manners, where the parents get very involved there. That’s important. The family is judged on that. In terms of the kids’ behavior and learning to do this or that, the parents are less involved.
We cannot just copy these things and paste them into this society. We can look at them and say, “We spend so much time, energy, and money looking after our children. Maybe we could rethink that. What if these children are more capable than we have been assuming they are?” I don’t know what question you come up with. Here’s something I almost forgot, but I don’t want to miss this. In our own society, we do have still one segment of our society that comes close to living in a traditional fashion. These are family farms that raise animals.
This is the best upbringing that a child can have because if you’re three years old, you still can go get the eggs. You gradually become a part. You help to take care of the animals. You can help to feed them and bring in the food from the fields or whatever this family’s doing. A family farm that raises animals is the closest we come in this society to a situation that is similar to that of a real traditional group such as the Aka hunter-gatherers or the Quechua highland herders, or the Navajo, for example.
That makes me want to give more gratitude to my upbringing because we didn’t raise animals for food. I grew up on a horse farm and learned a lot of responsibility. I feel like it’s good for my parents. My mother’s passion for animals had a massive impact on my life, but I’ve never thought about it that way. I certainly had to learn a lot of responsibility, but I didn’t like it. That’s interesting. Maybe that’s why we ended up where we’re at.
Who wants to get up super early and clean out the horse stalls and feed them? I always associated that with grueling work. It almost feels like a way that I can relate to kids now, where we’ve created so much in our modern society to make life feel easy and convenient. With all the mental health issues we have, is that the cost we pay for all that convenience? The fact that most people don’t have to wake up, take care of the animals, be out in the thunderstorms, and shield themselves from wolves, as you described. That sounds nice and safe, but is that in our best interest?
One of the things I came across as I was researching this book is that sociologists and anthropologists figure that there was a golden age of American childhood, and it came after child labor was outlawed though. That would be like the ‘20s. There was a time in probably the mid-‘50s or somewhere around there. For some reason, and I can’t explain this reason, parents took more control of their children.
They began to look after them more closely to monitor their behavior. Maybe this is because schools got harder. I don’t want to speculate about that, but there was this golden age where kids had a lot of freedom. Most of them didn’t go to work, and they weren’t overburdened with school and with parental oversight. I’m happy to say that I am old enough so that I caught the tail end of that.
I was born before Pearl Harbor in 1941. I can say that in my early years, I had quite a lot of freedom to go out, cross streets, go into the nearby woods, be with my friends, and be out from under constant parental care. I also got sent to a farm in the summer. My aunt and uncle had a working farm with animals. That was great. I loved that.
It sounds out of the ordinary. It also made me curious about you growing up near Amish country or in Amish country.
We moved away.
Would you say the Amish are considered a traditional culture based on how they live?
In some ways, they would be. They’re maybe like that group in Colombia. They’re in between. They’re still plowing. They’re still using animals. They even plow with the animals. They don’t want to use cars and other modern devices. Inevitably, they are immersed in the larger society, which is very modern. They have to work their way through that. In many ways, they’re a traditional culture.
It’s fascinating. There are some documentaries and such that you can watch about they have that opportunity at a certain age for the kids. I forget what it’s called. They can go out into modern society and decide for themselves.
At seventeen. That’s brilliant, and some of them don’t come back.
What is it that causes someone to shift from traditional to modern? Is it the pull of pleasure? Is it the desire to be free from certain forms of labor? What is it that drives someone toward that?
We go through human history starting way back. There came to be a time when some humans had good ideas about how to do things in a better way. Increasingly, these ways were what we would call technical. They had details, and it would be virtually impossible for a child to learn to do it just by watching.
To have some children who knew how to do certain things, they had to bring them together and make a deliberate effort to teach them. Those technological things are the beginning of modern life. We’ve become now highly technological, but let’s not use the word education. Let’s use the word instruction. To do these more complex technological things, people need to be instructed. That means we need to bring them together and formally sit them down, and put them through a course or whatever you want to call it.
At the end of that course, they need to be proficient. We say, “You took the course, but you can’t do it.” In other words, they failed. As things got more technological, ideas came in about how we could do better ways of farming and fishing and how we are going to write. People came up with the idea of writing. This needed to be taught. We started having cities and began to think about infrastructure. These are all technological things, and they had to be taught.
People had to be instructed. Modernization and instruction, or what we usually call education, are hand-in-hand. This is one reason why one thing about modern children or American children, no matter what else might be true, is that they must go to school. They cannot survive in this society without basic numeracy and literacy.
There isn’t any if, and, or but about this. This is it. You’re a child in this society. You must go to school. Your life depends on it because we are so incredibly technological now. When you look at traditional societies, as I have, you begin to see all these huge differences that come with modern industrialization, and the massive changes that require instruction.
It’s so fascinating to hear all of this because it’s expanded my awareness and shown how much of a bubble I’ve lived in. You only know what you know, what you’ve experienced, what you’ve lived, and what you’ve learned. Conversations like this are so interesting because it feels so expansive. There’s a way of living well beyond what I’ve ever known. That doesn’t mean that my way of living is right or wrong or good or bad or better. Aside from where we began this conversation, in America and similar societies, we pride ourselves on skillsets and intelligence. When we started this conversation, you were talking about the intelligence of other countries being so much higher. I’d love to circle back to that.
I stop saying intelligence. It’s not right to say that they have been instructed. They have done a better job of learning that instruction and being able to apply it to actual practical problems. I don’t say intelligence because that means native intelligence. Every attempt that’s been made to show that Whites are more intelligent than Blacks or Westerners are more intelligent than Orientals, all those attempts have failed.
I understand individual differences, but on the societal level, no group of people is more intelligent than another group of people. Given that intelligence, some people work harder to learn it and master it and gain those skills, whatever the skill might be. When we compare them through international testing, we find that East Asian children always are better at demonstrating those skills than American children. It’s 100% of the time. It’s embarrassing.
It’s interesting why it is embarrassing. After this conversation, how much does standardized testing matter? Are we trying to survive? Are we trying to make more money? Are we trying to prove our value or our intellect? What is important to us? At the conclusion of this, what matters to us?
These are big questions. The thing about it is you said you feel you’ve been living in a bubble. I would say to you and your audience, if you want to begin to get a broad feeling for how varied life can be, you got to start reading anthropology. I’m sorry, but get away from the psychology. Psychology looks at individuals. We’re very oriented toward individuals in this society. It’s maybe part of our problems, but let’s not get into that discussion. If your objective is to get a larger sense of life, then anthropology is fascinating to read.If you want to begin to get a broad feeling for how varied life can be, you have to start reading anthropology. Click To Tweet
You see many different ways that people can be human. They can be humans in the forest as hunter-gatherers. They can be human in Los Angeles and New York City as people having a virtual conversation. We’re being human, and they can be human in the high Andes. There are so many ways. Anthropology is the ticket to get there because anthropologists go out and they live there. They’ve watched and learned, had conversations, and built relationships. They come back and tell us all about it.
You have certainly sparked my interest in that. Even the way you phrase that is showing me in so many ways. It’s like there are all these different worlds out there within the same world. I have been so focused on psychology. Yet, my aim is not to be focused on the individual. My aim is to understand how different people live. I haven’t spent that much time studying anthropology. You’ve done such a beautiful job in inspiring that and sparking that interest for me. Hopefully, the audience feels the same.
It’s not just now you’re interested in it, but you will also find it fascinating. It’s interesting.
I agree. It’s very fascinating. I’m curious for you before we wrap up the conversation, what’s the next book that you want to write? You’ve written 3 or 4 now.
Mainly five. One was about China. There was one called The Aptitude Myth, which has to do with how we think about learning in this culture. There were two that looked at how East Asian children learn. One book looked at how they’re raised at home, and one looked at how they’re taught in school. All of this is at the lower grades. My most recent book is How Other Children Learn, which looked at societies in which there aren’t any schools or schools play a very minor role. Now I’m under contract to write a book for classroom teachers.
In this society, lately, there’s been a lot of ferment, especially since George Floyd was killed. Among educators, there’s a huge push to get people to adjust their mind and their heart so that children who are from different backgrounds, look different, sound different, and are from different backgrounds that are coming into schools can be made to feel welcome there. That’s good. There’s one book after another about this. It’s amazing.
A huge flood of books are trying to help educators be more open, more welcoming and not ever think that some kid doesn’t have the same amount of intelligence because he looks different. This is why I jumped when you said intelligence. It’s not about native intelligence. You may have heard of the three-way division between the head, hands, and heart. Are you familiar with that?
These books are coming out by the dozens now. They are addressing multicultural education issues from the head and heart perspective. Almost nobody is writing about the hands. That is to say, now the kid is in your room. You are supposed to teach them Math, English, Science, History, or whatever academic subject it is. They don’t think about education and instruction the way you do. They disagree about how this classroom should operate. What about that? Nobody is writing about that. I am. That’s my next book.
That also sounds fascinating. Your passion for this is contagious. It’s so needed to expand how we relate to one another. I love the term adjusting or expanding the mind, heart, and hands, which is something that I’m not very familiar with. I’m looking forward to that. I’m very grateful for the work that you’re doing, the research behind it, and also the deep enthusiasm you have for supporting people and thinking through things differently. Hopefully, operating differently and, at the very least, being mindful that others live differently, and that’s okay.
Also, looking at them and asking, “Maybe I should revisit some of the things I’m doing.” Re-evaluate. I’m not necessarily saying to people, “You must change.” I’m saying, “You have to think about this. Get a perspective. Look at yourself from the outside.”
That’s why you’re such a wonderful guest on this show because I want to do that.
It’s like the anthropologist from Mars. You’ve come from Mars. You don’t understand human beings at all. You come down here like, “What’s going on here? What are these people doing? Why are all these young people sitting around doing this?”
We can live in that bubble and think everyone is doing it, but what I’ve learned today is there’s so much happening around the world that can be vastly different from our local experiences.
Not just vastly different but vastly different activities in vastly different circumstances, environmental circumstances, political circumstances, weather, climate, traditional people living in a forest, or an extremely different environment than we are. What about that? That has to be taken into account. We can’t copy what they’re doing, but we see another way of being human.
That’s what it all comes down to seeing another way to be human. Thank you so much for taking the time. Thanks for the work that you do. It’s wonderful and important work. I’m very grateful to connect with you but also grateful that someone like you is doing this work and pouring their heart into it like you are. Thank you so much for tuning in. Thank you, Dr. Cornelius, for being here with me.
Thank you for including me. It has been fun.
- Dr. Cornelius Grove
- Encountering the Chinese
- The Aptitude Myth
- The Drive to Learn
- A Mirror for Americans
- How Other Children Learn: What Five Traditional Societies Tell Us about Parenting and Children’s Learning
About Dr. Cornelius Grove
After attaining a Master of Arts in Teaching at Johns Hopkins University, Cornelius Grove taught high school history, worked in educational publishing, traveled extensively in Europe and Africa, and completed a doctorate in education (Ed.D.) at Columbia University. He then served for 11 years as director of research for AFS, the student exchange organization, simultaneously holding adjunct teaching posts at Columbia and New School Universities. In 1986, he taught at Beijing Foreign Studies University, after which he co-authored Encountering the Chinese: A Modern Country, An Ancient Culture (3rd Ed., 2010).
During the 2000s, Dr. Grove became curious about the belief of many Americans that inborn ability is the main determinant of a child’s academic performance. This led to The Aptitude Myth: How an Ancient Belief Came to Undermine Children’s Learning Today (2013). He then figured out why East Asian students always outperform U.S. students on international comparative tests and wrote two books on his findings. The first addresses differences in parenting: The Drive to Learn: What the East Asian Experience Tells Us about RAISING Students Who Excel (2017). The second explores contrasting approaches to teaching in pre- and primary schools: A Mirror for Americans: What the East Asian Experience Tells Us about TEACHING Students Who Excel (2020).
A charter fellow of the International Academy of Intercultural Research, Dr. Grove wrote lengthy entries on “pedagogy across cultures” for two encyclopedias. He retired in 2020 after 31 years as managing partner of Grovewell LLC, a global business consultancy. He and his wife have three sons.
For more details, visit www.howotherchildrenlearn.info or connect with the author at www.LinkedIn.com/in/cngrove-author/.
Amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/Other-Children-Learn-Cornelius-Grove/dp/147587118X
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