Learning as a kind of plagiarism

I take the text below from an article in today’s NYTimes by Alison Gopnik.

“What Babies Know About Physics and Foreign Languages.

Parents and policy makers have become obsessed with getting young children to learn more, faster. But the picture of early learning that drives them is exactly the opposite of the one that emerges from developmental science.
In the last 30 years, the United States has completed its transformation to an information economy. Knowledge is as important in the 21st century as capital was in the 19th, or land in the 18th. In the same 30 years, scientists have discovered that even very young children learn more than we once thought possible. Put those together and our preoccupation with making children learn is no surprise.
The trouble is that most people think learning is the sort of thing we do in school, and that parents should act like teachers — they should direct special lessons at children to produce particular kinds of knowledge or skill, with the help of how-to books and “parenting” apps….
But in fact, schools are a very recent invention. Young children were learning thousands of years before we had ever even thought of schools. Children in foraging cultures learned by watching what the people around them did every day, and by playing with the tools they used…. Young children today continue to learn best by watching the everyday things that grown-ups do, from cleaning the house to fixing a car.

In other words, children are from the day they are born plagiarists, copying the “work” of others and most often without giving credit to the source. It’s really not enough at the graduation exercises to say, “Thanks Mom, Thanks Dad.” We really ought to say something like; “we really are to a very large extent what we have taken (stolen, plagiarized) from you, please excuse us for that.”

Well I know parents hold nothing of the kind against their children. They’re usually happy to see what has been copied and repeated in their children. But isn’t it a fact that learning is most of all copying what we see going on around us, while usually not attributing what we’ve taken to the source, but going on living and working as if what we had was original with us? And this is not really any different from walking on the shoulders of those who have come before. Have to do it if we would see ahead. And is it really any different from our morality, at least for a good number of us, having been lifted whole without our asking from Jesus Christ? Although we didn’t have to do that.

But my subject is learning, not plagiarism. My subject is the realization that the source of our knowledge is much more the adults (or children) in our lives and whose ideas, opinions, and actions we learn from, much more than from what the teachers and their textbooks and now computers tell us. You know the expression, this one from Ben Franklin, or was it Confucius, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, show me, involve me and I learn.”

It is a great tragedy that our schools go on thinking and acting as if education came from them, from their manipulations of their children’s time in the schools. A great tragedy because learning doesn’t happen that way, whereas it might have if things had been done differently at the start. As Gopnik says schools are a recent invention and they have really never succeeded, as they intended, to produce learned and responsible citizens of the land. Perhaps it’s because the kids in school are almost never exposed to adults themselves being, or just acting like, learned and responsible citizens of the land.


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