Wednesday, 6 May 2009

70 years on and still relevant: The Sabre-Toothed Future

This first post is a long one. I certainly expect my regular jottings to be more succinct. But I thought it a good starting point for a new blog about performance, learning and productivity.

In early 1939 McGraw-Hill published a profound little book that should be on the reading list of everyone involved in learning and training today. Copies can still be found in dusty bookstores and even on Amazon at times.

Selling at $1, this book was a light satire on education and educators that carried a heavy, and still very relevant, message. It’s called ‘The Saber-Toothed Curriculum’. ‘Saber’ rather than ‘Sabre’ because it was published in the USA and written by one Harold Raymond Wayne Benjamin PhD. Benjamin was described in a contemporary report about the publication by no less than Time Magazine as “the tousle-haired director of the College of Education of University of Colorado, onetime cowboy, fisherman, soldier, who can roll two cigarettes at once”.

So Benjamin was a man of some skills that I aspire to.

Benjamin initially only admitted to writing the foreword to the book, as it was allegedly the text of a series of lectures on the history of Palaeolithic education delivered by a fictitious Professor J. Abner Peddiwell while he drank tequila daisies in a Tijuana bar. Professor Peddiwell described the three fundamentals taught to youngsters in the Palaeolithic curriculum. These were: 1) fish-grabbing-with-the-bare-hands; 2) horse-clubbing; and 3) saber-tooth-tiger-scaring-with-fire.

Below I’ve recounted (and adapted) some of Professor Peddiwell’s lecture because I think we can learn from it when we reflect what’s happening in the training and development world. It tells us about the need for the  world of education, L&D and training to adapt, to leave ineffective practices behind, and to always look to innovation and stay in front of the curve.

Underlying the story is the message that a lot of things that are done in the name of ‘learning’ are of little if any use – and are sometimes even counter-productive.

The story also tells us that some of the views held by the wise old men that Peddiwell was poking fun at have merit – even if they held the views for the wrong reasons. They thought that formal education/training should stick to teaching high-level principles, as the details are likely to change and become irrelevant. Of course they are right.

However, sometimes even the principles also change. In our current times it’s almost a certainty they will do so, and probably sooner than most of us think …


Professor Peddiwell described the first great educational theorist and practitioner, a man named New-Fist-Hammer-Maker. New-Fist was a man of thoughtful action in spite of the fact that there was very little to think deeply about in his environment. He made a name for himself by producing a very fine version of the pear-shaped chipped-stone tool anthropologists call the coup-de-poing, or fist-hammer. New-Fist was pretty handy with other weapon production as well and his fire-using techniques were patterns of precision and simplicity. (I’m sure he would have been recruited by Steve Jobs to work at Apple had he been around today).

Anyway, New-Fist knew how to do things his community needed to get done and he had the energy and the drive to go ahead and do them. By virtue of these characteristics Hammer-Fist was what was called ‘an educated man’.

However, he was also a thinker (education and thinking, then as now, were not necessarily bedfellows). When the others in his community gorged themselves on the proceeds of a successful hunt and vegetated in a dull stupor for days after (not unlike recent behaviours seen in financial centres around the world following successful short-selling or credit swap coups), New-Fist ate a little less heartedly, slept a little less stupidly, and got up a little earlier than his tribe. He woke early to sit and think.

This thinking led New-Fist to catch glimpses of the way in which life could be made a little better for his community. By virtue of this thinking, he became a not only an educated man, but a dangerous man as well.

His thinking led New-Fist to hit upon the concept of a conscious, systematic education. He’d been watching the (Gen Y) children play at the entrance of the cave.  New-Fist noted that they seemed to have no purpose other than the immediate pleasure in the activity itself. He compared the children’s’ activity with that of the adults in the community. The children played for fun. The adults worked for the security and enrichment of their lives. The children protected themselves from boredom; the adults protected themselves from danger.

New-Fist thought “if only I could get these children to do the things that will give more and better food, shelter, clothing and security I would be helping the tribe have a better life”. The children, when they grow up, will have more meat to eat, more skins to keep them warm, better caves to sleep in, and less danger from the striped death with curving white teeth that prowls at night ...

Having set his educational goals, New-Fist proceeded to construct a curriculum for teaching them.

His first curriculum subject was fish-grabbing-with-the-bare-hands. The tribe had always caught fish in the big pool around the river bend in this way.

The tribe also caught little woolly horses by clubbing them. Woolly horse meat was one of the staples in their diet. So woolly-horse-clubbing became the second curriculum subject.

Finally, old New-Fist introduced his coup-de-grace, sabre-toothed-tiger-scaring-with-fire. The tribe had always scared away the ‘striped death’ with fire sticks.

New-Fist then put his curriculum into action.

However, he ran into some opposition. Some of the more conservative tribal elders took exception to the contents of New-Fist’s curriculum. Some maintained that New-Fist was going against the natural order of things. However, New-Fist won out and fish-grabbing-with-the-bare-hands, woolly-horse-clubbing and sabre-toothed-tiger-scaring-with-fire led them into the brave new world.


However a new Ice Age approached (and it was going to have nearly as great an impact as the invention of the Internet several millennia later). As the glacier came down from the north, the river silted up and it was impossible to see into the muddy water to catch fish with bare hands. Moreover for some years the fish had been getting more timid, agile and intelligent. The stupid, clumsy, brave fish had all been caught years ago. Only the fish with superior intelligence and agility were left. These smart fish hid under the boulders and in the depths of the muddy stream. No matter how good a man’s fish-grabbing-with-the-bare-hands education had been, he couldn’t grab fish when he couldn’t find fish to grab.

The water from the approaching glacier also made the ground damper. The Woolly Horses went east to the dry ground. Their place was taken by little antelope who were far too speedy for the tribe to catch to club to death. Even the best educated Horse-Clubbers, with the best clubbing techniques, returned empty-handed. You can’t club horses when there are no horses to club.

Finally to complete the disruption of their Palaeolithic life and education a new dampness in the air gave the Sabre-Toothed tigers pneumonia, and they died. In their place New-Fist’s tribe had to face a new, more ferocious danger in the glacial bears that took their place. And glacial bears weren’t afraid of fire…..

So tiger-scaring, horse-clubbing and fish-catching simply became academic exercises for the tribe.... things had moved on.

Some of the younger men of the New-Fist breed forgot what they had been taught in their formal training, began to think in a radical and practical manner and developed new ways to catch fish (one even developed a NET - a NETWORK wouldn’t be far away, I’m sure). Others developed new ways to catch horses by bending young trees over and hanging noose vines on them. Another young man forgot what he had been taught and dug a big pit to catch the bears in.

They practices these new approaches, refined them, and were always ready to try a newer, more efficient or effective approach.

And they shared their new learning with their colleagues through their conversations, so the new practices became widespread. “These new activities of net-making, snare-setting, and pit-digging are indispensable to modern existence”, they said. "Why can't they be taught formally?"

However, the wise elders replied:

“What have practical activities got to do with school and training? Anyway, the curriculum is too full to add any more….”

“Moreover, the things we teach our people are not for any direct practical purposes. We don’t teach fish-grabbing to catch fish. We teach it to develop a generalised agility which can never be developed by mere training. Education is timeless. It is something that endures through changing conditions like a solid rock, standing firmly in the middle of a raging torrent.”

The young men persisted a little in their questioning. "Fish-net-making and using, antelope-snare construction and operation, and bear-catching and killing”, they pointed out "require intelligence and skills - things we claim to develop in our training. They are also activities we need to know about. Why can't we teach them?"

But most of the tribe, and particularly the wise old men who controlled the education system, smiled indulgently at this suggestion. "That wouldn't be education" they said. "It would be mere training".

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