One of the things that interested me in the study of culture by use of evolutionary models, was the concept of “niche construction”. I still think this concept offers possibilities to imagine how education should be done.
After having read both Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett on meme theory, I wasn’t convinced that memes could fully explain the complex relation between culture and the human species. In their view, culture parasitizes on the human brain, much like fungus parasitizes on an ant brain. In short, culture determines how humans behave, how they think, what they value.
For anyone involved in education, this seems a rather strange way to conceive of culture. After all, teaching children and young adults about language, mathematics, history, physics, and so on, is not about pouring knowledge into empty brains. It’s about enabling young human beings to develop themselves, as a person.
One of the hallmarks of a good education is when those youngsters show critical, creative thinking. When a child can mimic a teacher to produce a drawing of a flower, that teacher will be satisfied with the progress the child has made. But a teacher who doesn’t want to see a child developing its own style, its own approach to drawing, a teacher who doesn’t hope to see the child climbing the ladder of mimicking, just to kick it away, isn’t a real teacher.
Memetic theory can not grasp this. As far as I understand it, memetic theory states a one-way relationship between humans and culture, with culture being the dominant partner.
Niche construction posits a feed-back relation between organisms and their environment, with the organisms having as much influence on their environment as vice versa. When we assume that culture actually is the human environment, this theory suggests a feed-back relation between humans and culture.
That would allow for humans having an influence on culture. The choices humans make, the new combinations of existing elements humans make, the creative ideas they have: they all influence the way culture evolves.
I like the idea of a classroom as a “cultural niche”, where children and young adults learn to live in a cultural environment, but, foremost, where they learn to change that environment in ways their teachers couldn’t imagine.