Friday, February 06, 2009

Never ending childhood...

Alison Gopnik suggests that our new scientific understanding of neural plasticity and gene regulation, along with the global spread of schooling, will let us remain children forever — or at least for much longer.
Across species, a long childhood is correlated with an evolutionary strategy that depends on flexibility, intelligence and learning. There is a developmental division of labor. Children get to learn freely about their particular environment without worrying about their own survival — caregivers look after that...We grown-ups are production and marketing. We start out as brilliantly flexible but helpless and dependent babies, great at learning everything but terrible at doing just about anything. We end up as much less flexible but much more efficient and effective adults, not so good at learning but terrific at planning and acting.

For most of human history babies and toddlers used their spectacular, freewheeling, unconstrained learning abilities to understand fundamental facts about the objects, people and language around them — the human core curriculum. At about 6 children also began to be apprentices. Through a gradual process of imitation, guidance and practice they began to master the particular adult skills of their particular culture...School, a very recent human invention, completely alters this program. Schooling replaces apprenticeship. School lets us all continue to be brilliant but helpless is also an extension of the period of infant dependence — since we don't actually do anything useful in school, other people need to take care of us — all the way up to a Ph.D. School doesn't include the gradual control and mastery of specific adult skills that we once experienced in apprenticeship. Universal and extended schooling means that the period of flexible learning and dependence can continue until we are in our thirties, while independent active mastery is increasingly delayed.

...there may be an intrinsic trade-off between flexibility and effectiveness, between the openness that we require for learning and the focus that we need to act. Child-like brains are great for learning, but not so good for effective decision-making or productive action. There is some evidence that adolescents even now have increasing difficulty making decisions and acting independently, and pathologies of adolescent action like impulsivity and anxiety are at all-time historical highs. Fundamental grown-up human skills we once mastered through apprenticeship, like cooking and caregiving itself, just can't be acquired through schooling. (Think of all those neurotic new parents who have never taken care of a child and try to make up for it with parenting books). When we are all babies for ever, who will be the parents? When we're all children who will be the grown-ups?

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