Learning in Place

Learning in Place

In the 1970’s, before the civil war in Rhodesia escalated, I devoted occasional weekends to taking small groups of high schools students to a Tribal Trust Land (not unlike an American reservation) where, by arrangement with the District Commissioner,  we would meet the tribal elders, especially the tribal historian, and record as best we could their oral traditions before they were lost.  Later, we were able to check some of those traditions against the archival record in Salisbury (now Harare)  and were invariably impressed by their accuracy. 


At one of those meetings a young lad sat with his back to a tree and wrote down  the answers given by his uncles to the questions we asked (indeed, just as we were doing.)  His initiative was admirable; the downside was that once we learn to write our oral memories fade as do the traditional stories that connect us with the natural world.  This was reinforced three decades later on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya.  An impressive flock of colorful birds was present every morning in the local experimental apiary, and when I asked a Kenyan college student what they were, she smiled and shrugged.  I was at fault for assuming that she would be familiar with the native wild life -  I would not have made that assumption about an American student on the outskirts of an American city - and she might have realized how her ‘education’ had separated her from her immediate natural environment. 


In retrospect I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to have experienced a small part of rural and traditional Africa at the time I did.  I have  written before about the distinguished game guide who was frightened by the flashing lights on my car, or the villagers who took me in when it rained, or the elderly man on his bicycle who was deeply concerned when my sister and I were involved in a minor vehicle incident  


The oral and archaeological records suggest that  the ancestors of these Shona-speaking, Bantu people arrived from the north perhaps as long as one thousand years ago, which suggests there is a continuity to their history that we in the US lack.  The questions, for me, are what does a culture learn from living in a place for that length time without written records, and (of course) does this relate in any way to beekeeping?


Stephen Muecke,  professor of creative writing at Flinders University, Adelaide, has spent many years walking with the indigenous people of Australia, and it was his book, Reading the Country (1984) that provoked these recollections. 


The oral stories that we heard in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe,) handed down from the ancestors,  not only tied human and nonhuman worlds together but also animated those connections. They had been learned by deep listening and by applying them to an environment with which each person was intimately familiar.  As with the Native Australians and the Native Americans, children learned experientially; rather than ask a lot of questions - respect for elders entails not bothering them too much  - they learned to pay attention and acquire practical knowledge-based skills, rather than the ‘pure’ knowledge we often teach in our schools. 


When Mary and I  walked behind our Zulu game scout in Mkhuze Game Reserve on the trail of black rhino and he casually identified tracks in the sand made by various  antelope,  his skill was not sharp eyesight or a special psychological attribute so much as something embedded in generations of practices involving animals and the land. 


Here’s a bit of handy know-how for you. Should you run out of food in the southern African bush, and wonder what fruits and berries are safe to eat, check the ground for  evidence that the baboons and monkeys consume them. 


We regard knowledge as acquired cognitively, immortalized by Rene Descartes - cogito ergo sum - whereas indigenous people remind us that knowledge is environmentally embedded, that learning happens best after students have their curiosity aroused.  (Sherry Turkel, writing in her Empathy Diaries, suggests that, considering Facebook et al., the modern equivalent of Descartes, is “I share, therefore I am”!)


So how do we create an environment that provokes interest, and then cultivate the relationships essential to good learning?   Sometimes it is easy : a beekeeping class or workshop, for example, normally consists of people who are already interested; when they  meet in an apiary and work on a hive as a group, they are further intrigued and can explore their feelings and their discoveries with class mates. 


Teaching Western Civilization II at 8:00 am to college students who simply needed the credits was a very different challenge.  The difference was relevance, something which has to be nurtured and demonstrated.   The norms of western civilization were seen by these college students as barely germane to their professional schedule, yet I would argue that, in the light of recent events, they are more important than ever. 


Good learning happens slowly,  not in 45 minute segments, and goes both ways; it is not a one-way transfer so much as shared excitement.   I wince every time I read that bees are responsible for three out of every four mouthfuls of food we eat, an assertion  that focuses on what we eat rather than the way the food the bees eat is poisoned because of the way we grow ours.   It is this self-interest which is so destructive, penurious and  hurtful.  


Stephen Muecke calls this ‘living in one place, while living off another’ and offers the following example.   “When multinational corporations arrive in Australia’s North-West to drill for gas and oil, they claim what they are doing is ‘good for the country’. But they don’t mean the local territory, they mean something more abstract, such as Australia and its GDP – or, more specifically, their shareholders, whose lives might be marginally improved as they live in cities or on yachts in the Caribbean. That is the difference between living in one place while living off another.”


Beekeeping is one of those activities.  To do it successfully, one has to slow down, listen to what the bees are saying and observe what they  need to survive. Like all living beings they have their own nature, and if we pay close attention we realize that that we are part of it: we breathe the same air, drink the same water and share the same nutrients. There is no escape; there is no better world. 


David Papke shared with me an extract from Mark Winston’s Bee Time. “Initiating a dialogue requires the same attention as entering an apiary.  Both stimulate a state of deep listening, engage all the senses, hearing without judging … Understandings emerge, issues clarify and become connected … Those too rare moments of presence and awareness, when deep human interactions are realized : they too, are bee-time.”  


Whether under a tree in  a Zimbabwe kraal, on a walk-about in Australia, on the outskirts of Nairobi, or looking for rhinos in Kwa-Zulu, that’s not a bad definition of good education, and we find it all with the bees. 


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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

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