Training of the Young in Tribal Societies

Training of the Young in Tribal Societies

Schools that we all know, with classrooms and lectures, are peculiar to the Industrial Civilization. Earlier civilizations had other ways of imparting training to their children. In India people lived in small towns and self-reliant villages. Each of them had volunteer teachers who taught in their own homes. Children went to them to learn the 3R’s when they felt motivated. There was no prescribed age for this. After this elementary training they started learning their family’s trade in their homes from the elders. Young adults with special aptitude were sent to master craftsmen as apprentices for further training. In the tribal societies all members had to learn the basic survival skills at home from their elders or group members. 

One of the important skills that everyone learned was a keen observation power to note peculiarities in objects that surrounded them. For instance they learned the flora and fauna in the forest and also peculiar features of individual trees or animals. Another thing they were taught was to read what was drawn on the ground by the activity of various beings and natural phenomena. To note and know these things was an important survival skill for they were road signs of the forest. Without them one could get lost and suffer immensely.

Among the American Indians the tribal elders taught these skills to children and grandchildren. For instance, a grandfather would ask his 12 or 13-year old grandchild to walk to a lake some distance away and on return report in detail what he saw.

The child would already have learned much spontaneously by watching others but his list would be utterly inadequate because to find ones way in the forest one needs to remember a great deal more than in a casual manner. The grandfather would praise the child’s list of the child’s observations and then point out some peculiar colors or shapes of trees that he had failed to note. He would send him out again to return with more knowledge. After two or three such expeditions under the guidance of the elder the youth learned a great deal more and got the idea of walking watchfully.

Such instructions were continued till the performance of the child was to the satisfaction of the trainer. 

Similarly, young boys and girls were taught other useful skills for living where they did. The list is very long but here is a small sample: cooking, cleaning, making and repairing of tipi, washing, stitching, fishing, hunting, making stone tools and snares. Necessary social and political skills too were taught. As a result, by age 15, a normal child had almost 100 percent survival value.

In the 1920’s Anthropologist A.L. Kroeber rescued an American Indian man named Ishi who was the sole survivor of his tribe. He was settled on the Berkeley campus of the University of California and his behavior was closely watched and recorder. This man of the wild was found not only a perfect gentleman but also a man possessing an extraordinary range of skills and knowledge. He was in many ways better trained to deal with the myriad aspects of life than men and women who walked out of the university with the doctorate. 

This is not just an anecdote but also a pointer to what we too need to do at this time. Many of our young men and women are taught just one major skill such as using the computer or managing an office. They find lucrative jobs but they have no idea how to live intelligently. They know little or nothing about healthy food and how to cook. They have no knowledge of housekeeping and little of hygiene. Their social and political skills are appallingly inadequate. Their knowledge and ability of dealing with villagers and the poor is often wanting. The only thing they have in big measure is a salary but they do not have much sense of how to spend it judiciously.

They work long hours in the office and spend disorderly lives at home. Power to lead the country is inevitably going into the hands of these people. We need urgently to reform our education by making it more comprehensive so that the future generations are able to look at life as a whole and not in fragments. 

By teaching them a few basic survival skills at a younger age we can widen their horizons and immensely improve their adult lives. In this we can learn a lot from the aboriginal people of the forest.

Partap Aggarwal
August 25, 2008