In some of my recent articles here on the site I’ve made the case that our educational system doesn’t live up to its reputation. I’ve said that there are many big black holes in the curricula of study programs in nutrition, medicine, and many other health-related subjects and that kids don’t get to learn about everything they should learn about in school. I know these statements probably seem foreign and abstract to some people, so what I thought I’d do in today’s article is to be more specific as to what I feel is missing from our kids’ education.
I’m not going to get into the set-up and overall composition of our educational system or discuss the teaching methods that modern teachers use to infuse knowledge into their pupils’ brains. Rather, what I thought I’d do is to talk about 8 things that I think kids should learn more about in school. I don’t claim to be an expert in education; however, I do feel I have some insight as to what we can do to make the leaders of tomorrow more sensible, intelligent, and knowledgeable.
I think pretty much every student, regardless of age, could benefit from learning about the things I’ll talk about in today’s article. The list is by no means exhaustive (there are undoubtedly many more things that kids could benefit from learning more about); however, it should give a general overview of the lessons that I feel deserve a more prominent spot in the classrooms of the modern school.
1. Why we do what we do
In school, children learn a lot about human history. They read and hear about the French revolution, the Second World War, and other major events in human history. In other words, they get to learn a lot about what we humans have done. What they don’t get to learn much about though is why we do the things we do. This is unfortunate, because I would argue that this latter point is probably more important than the former one in educational contexts.
The current approach seems to be to bombard kids with facts about wars, modern revolutions, terrorism, and so on. While it’s certainly useful to know something about these things, possessing knowledge about what has happened throughout recent human history is not going to get you very far unless you also understand why it happened. The question as to why we humans do the things we do doesn’t have an easy answer; however, it is not unanswerable. There does exist a system that can help us make sense of why we behave and think the way we do. The system I’m talking about is called evolution.
2. The organizing principles of various processes and disciplines
This section is a natural continuation of the previous one. It may be the most important section of today’s article.
Instead of teaching kids the fundamental principles that shape the workings and processes of the world, we tend to have them focus on the end-products and systems that these processes have generated. This is problematic for a number of reasons, one of which is that it hinders children’s ability to think creatively, come up with novel ideas, and make new discoveries. Instead of giving them the tools they need to make sense of the world on their own, we serve them a dish composed of conventional notions about how the world is put together and works.
I know this may seem abstract, so let me illustrate with an example. Natural selection is a fundamental organizing principle in biology and is one of the main forces responsible for shaping our world, including us humans. A lot of kids do get to hear about natural selection in school; however, it’s not a topic that’s given much attention. My impression is that the present teachings in this area are fairly superficial. Children learn a lot about religion, but they don’t get to hear much about the scientific explanation for why Earth is home to a great variety of organisms. They never get to delve into the pool that holds Darwin’s most prominent theory.
This is problematic, seeing as it’s impossible to understand why animals look and behave the way they do, what type of environment different organisms are adapted to live in, and why nature is so varied and complex if one doesn’t possess knowledge about natural selection. Instead of teaching kids about the fundamental, natural processes (e.g., natural selection) that shape the world, we bombard them with information about systems, guidelines, and words that we humans have created via our (often flawed) interpretation of how the world, in its present form, is put together and functions.
3. Human-microbe relations
Much of what goes on inside the human body is not shaped solely by the human genome, but rather by a combination of both eukaryotic and prokaryotic organisms and their genes. This is not something most kids know, which is not surprising, seeing as it’s not something that the authorities who decide what children get to learn about in school have paid much attention to.
This is unfortunate, because it’s impossible to fully understand how the human body functions and why we behave the way we do if one doesn’t possess knowledge about the tiny organisms that have accompanied us on our evolutionary journey through time. Not only that, but a person who doesn’t consider his microbial houseguests when he plans his life and makes decisions can quickly end up sick and tired, given that our modern environment is saturated with various microbiota disruptors.
I think many kids would find it fascinating to learn about the tiny organisms that colonize their bodies.
Throughout more than 99% of the evolutionary history of our genus Homo, all humans on this planet lived as hunter-gatherers. A lot of people, including most kids, don’t know this, which is unfortunate, as it’s a very important and powerful piece of information. Only by acknowledging that we all carry a hunter-gatherer legacy within us can we fully make sense of the human condition.
We can learn a lot about health, medicine, fitness, psychology, and many, many other things by studying how hunter-gatherers and other traditional people, both contemporary and ancient, live/lived their lives.
Seeing as I’m a nutritionist, I’m somewhat biased with respects to this point. With that said, I do wholeheartedly believe that kids should learn more about nutrition in school. I’m not saying this because I want to promote my field, but rather because I know for a fact that the food we eat has a very powerful effect on our health, cognitive function, and well-being. If kids knew more about how different foods affect their health, they would probably be more inclined to eat a prudent diet, and if so, likely become happier, healthier, and more productive.
6. Sustainability and ecosystem restoration and protection
Homo sapiens is a very destructive species. Over the most recent millennia, we’ve caused a lot of harm to nature and the ecosystems that make up our world (1, 2, 3). We haven’t taken good care of Mother Nature or fully considered how our behaviors affect the deep processes that shape the world. As a result, we now find ourselves in the midst of a climate crisis. Moreover, our actions have caused untold damage to us, as well as many of the life forms we share this planet with.
If all kids had a better understanding of the science underlying these things, they would perhaps pay more attention to how the actions of the human species affect the world, as well as potentially come up with new strategies and tools that can help us halt, or perhaps even reverse, the destructive processes that we humans have set in motion.
7. The Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions
The Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions are among the most important events in the evolution of not just our species, but may other species as well. Both of these events had a dramatic impact on the workings of the world and “altered” the course of evolution. A lot of people would probably say that these revolutions made our lives better. They certainly didn’t come without costs though. Many of the social problems and public health issues that plague contemporary human societies can be traced back to the Agricultural and/or Industrial Revolution.
Many kids hear about these evolutionary events in school; however, they don’t get to fully appreciate the massive impact that agriculture and modern industry has had on our world.
8. Evolutionary health principles
This point ties in with some of the earlier ones on the list. The main reason I think it’s extremely important for kids, as well as adults, to know a thing or two about evolutionary health is that evolutionary mismatches are at the root of many of the health problems that plague the modern man (4, 5, 6). Only by acknowledging that our genomes are a product of evolution can we make some headway towards understanding what it takes to build a robust, intelligent human.
At present, medicine – and even less so Darwinian medicine – is not a prioritized part of the curricula of primary or secondary schools. I think that’s very unfortunate, especially seeing as we’re in the midst of a chronic disease pandemic.
Where should we draw the line?
I definitely think kids should get to learn more about the adaptations, evolutionary processes, instincts, and microscopic organisms that shape our health and behavior. With that said, I do have one concern, and that is that it may not be healthy to possess a deep knowledge of the processes that sculpt the workings of the human body and mind, seeing as it can make one perceive life in a very analytical way. It may lead one to think a lot about what goes on inside one’s body, look at everything as being “evolutionarily programmed”, and analyze why people do what they do. A person who’s very knowledgeable about human evolution and evolutionary psychology doesn’t just go with the flow sort to say.
From an evolutionary perspective, it’s not normal for a human being to possess intimate knowledge about the workings of the human mind. Our ancestors lived in the moment and let their desires and instincts guide their behavior. They probably didn’t stop and think about the evolutionary reasons for their behavior.
Hence, it’s an open question where the line should be drawn with respects to how much kids (and people in general) should learn about evolutionary psychology, human-microbe relations, etc. We should let kids be kids. We probably shouldn’t overwhelm them with information about how the human mind works, but instead let them figure some things out on their own.
With that said, I do think kids should get to learn a thing or two (or perhaps three?) about the evolutionary basis of human behavior and health. I certainly wish I had when I went to school. I think it could have made a big difference in my life.
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