Bear Grylls, a 5th Grader, and Friday? What is Robinson Crusue

robinson crusoe

I sent the following to my local paper today–bear in mind there is a 200-word-limit.

To the Editor:

We like to believe that people who want to be elected for particular offices of government have some kind of ability or experience or intelligence that will prove efficacious for the duties of said office.  To that end I would ask a very simple question: How do we credit our current school board as regards these particular facets of understanding?

The world is always “changing” and we face ever-new challenges.  What is it that our school board members offer as trustees of not only our future, but of our present lives that can be evidence of their particular qualifications for this task?

I must ask that we discount “experience” as a board member as a qualification.

Two things I would like to know of each:

1) What is the most important book you’ve read that informs your view of your role as a board member but also the role of the school in the community.

2) What is the most important work of art you’ve ever experienced and why?  We can define this broadly, but it should be any publicly available example of music, painting, poem, and so on that might intimate a philosophy of mind and being.


Is this a viable interrogatory approach?  Are the answers to these questions useful?  Is it useful to even think about what the answers to these might be?

A friend posted on the newspaper website that her daughter is given “Disney movies” to watch for “down-time” and that this was defended by the principal as a viable activity for high-achieving students–they need to relax.

As the school is a defined institution of cultural acceptance and norms do Disney movies then receive the imprimatur of “approved” content?

I argued that if we believe a school is an institution with a primary purpose of education (culturally, socially approved) then we must assume that any “content” is a “taught” item.

My questions above would hopefully not be answered with any “Disney” content but one never knows.  Perhaps a more interesting third question would be: Would you be able to teach with/through these items and if so, what do you think would be learned?

My own responses would likely change every other day as regards the particulars but I imagine they would remain somewhat consistent generally.

Two popular entertainments come to mind as a way to focus this a little more (or confound it): The television shows “Are you smarter than a 5th grader” (always answered “no”) and “Man vs. Wild” (a survivalist show) both offer examples of a type of pedagogy-in-action.

Regarding the first, quiz shows display memorization skills using specific subject content for the most part–not a terrible thing in itself as the practice of memorization strengthens the mind–but not necessarily indicative of active intelligence.  Perhaps something akin to teaching a dog a trick.  The dog can display the new behavior but cannot then take that behavior and apply it to other appropriate situations.  This is a very limited way to educate a mind, but one might surmise it is simply one wrung on the ladder to greater intelligence

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As for the second, the expert at survival is dropped, usually literally dropped and usually from a precarious height, into a “wilderness” where he must survive on what turns out to be a kind of encyclopedic knowledge of his surroundings (he would likely be “smarter than a 5th grader”)–he always knows what is and isn’t poisonous for one thing–as well as his earned experiences as an ingenious maker of tools, from rope to shelters to bridges and so on.  He does have a knife as a basic necessity.  I would like to see him work without one, though.  The program does not teach us much except that we would die quite quickly in similar circumstances and that one needs very serious and disciplined training in these kinds of skills.

As a culture of television viewers seems to have approved and applauded these two shows perhaps they reveal what we believe the human is or can be (should be?)–are these ideals?  Do we want our content memorization to be foundational for the life of a survivor in a world where we can only rely on our little ol’ selves?

If this is the case, maybe the most useful literary fiction for us in the classroom is Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.  (There’s a good podcast about the book and author here.)  This is a survivalist book of many stripes–individual and cultural.  Defoe’s novel-that-isn’t-a-novel runs the gamut of styles, from Christian confessional and political pamphlet, to ripping sea yarn and philosophical treatise.  Defoe, not having written the book until he was sixty and he had lived a full, vigorous and varied life that included rebellion, imprisonment, spying, being an opinion “former”–i.e. propagandist, etc., was certainly more than full of life experience with which to enliven a protagonist and his actions.  Questions are asked and answered regarding slave trade (being an enslaver and being enslaved); cultural relativism (cannibals and Christians); religion “in action” re: Catholic Spain as a genocidal force in Latin America; Hobbesian “nature”–“red in tooth and claw”; Lockean property rights vs. individual rights and wealth accumulation and so on.  Marx himself analyzes Robinson Crusoe in Capital.

What’s more Defoe’s narrator is, like Bear Grylls of Man vs. Wild, a man who knows what everything is and how to do nearly everything.  In fact he basically recreates his culture’s artifacts on the island, from tables and chairs to protected fort, not to mention the class hierarchy of master and servant.  I am not arguing that Defoe offers correct interpretations, only that the interpretations are worth investigating as a mode of critical thinking.

Of course, no one is Robinson Crusoe just as no one, really, is Bear Grylls.  Perhaps one may become “like” Robinson Crusoe and maybe Bear Grylls is on his way.

As a man sure that our current drive towards becoming cyborgs will backfire, I think that Robinson Crusoe might be a book of primary importance for our school children to know and discuss both as a practical application of “know-how” and as a philosophical treatise on rights, identity and community that will serve them well in the darkness to come.

That and a large knife.

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1 Comment

  1. S.S. December 30, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader always seemed too smarmy for me. But, I hadn’t really considered that fact that we should consider a major strike against our educational system that none of us can remember anything we’re taught in the 5th grade beyond 5th grade! Like you said, we just teach tricks and then once we stop performing we have no use for the information. Even Bear Grylls has a gimicky quality that has exceeded my patience lately. While I have no doubt he has an expansive store of survival knowledge, he goes for the most extreme and ridiculous tactics to get the sensationalized 30 second show teaser.

    So, yes…Robinson Crusoe; survival beyond a day or two on camera. Mental and physical stamina that we just don’t encourage these days. Unlike Bear, Robinson/Defoe’s knowledge is based on life experience. One imagines Bear has never REALLY had to survive on a raft at sea?


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