Rebuilding Society: Education and the Transfer of Skills

In my series of rebuilding articles, I examine what is necessary to rebuild society after a major disaster after basic survival needs are met. In a large enough disaster there will be a tendency to ignore information that is useless to the immediate survival concerns. In all my reading on the subject I rarely hear people mention that proximity to libraries is ideal. Now a library won’t be necessary when you are starving and cold. But after you have been fed, you are warm and secure; this is the time when improvements can be made. Better farming techniques, better construction methods, better healthcare, this list doesn’t have an end. Everything can be improved, and unless there is someone there to teach you a better way, that leaves self directed learning in the form of reading. I will point out, that learning is easier today then it will be after society collapses. Take advantage now.

To paraphrase John Wyndham; author of Day of The Triffids, We have something that no other group tasked with rebuilding civilisation has ever had. We have to collected written knowledge of the previous civilisation. Think about the implications of that statement, everything mankind has learned so far is written down. All we have to do as individuals and as a society is make a point to save the information. Starting from scratch is something we can avoid. We wont have to relearn everything, just focus on the dissemination of that knowledge to new minds. This is formally referred to as education if you are young and re education if you are older.

I am not an advocate of any particular format of education, as long as the knowledge is passed successfully and accurately. Whether it is more efficient to have formal schools with dedicated teachers or a dispersed network of mentors/apprentices depends largely on specifics. The size of the group, the nature of the skill being taught and the situation all play significant roles. I do see increased emphasis on self directed learning in extended periods of hardship as the negative stimulus from life will create a strong drive to improve the situation. As they say necessity is the mother of invention. Difficult situations inspire ingenious solutions.

I have some thoughts as to what education could look like after a collapse of society. Initially groups will be small, everyone will need to be able to do everything. Everyone will need contribute to the group’s survival, everyone will be busy. Education will out of necessity be the “on the job” training variety. Here let me show you how to start a fire/disinfect water/gather food/build a fence, ok, you got it, now you go do it. In small groups and solo the only other option is self directed learning through trial and error, experimentation and as always reading.

As the group grows in size, there will increasing pressure and opportunity for specialization. Is it better to teach a doctor how to garden? Or let him/her focus on medicine and become a better doctor? Does the group benefit more from having their best hunters hunting? Or having the hunters learn how to do something else? It takes less time and resources if everyone does what they are best at, but becoming too dependent on someone else to do their job can be disastrous in it’s own right. In reality I see a mix of education formats and a mix of specialization with widespread cross training. Ideally, people will specialize in one or two areas and become competent in many others. This will maximize the number of people to do any particular job, and also create strong knowledge base for educating other people and advancing the field. I see a decrease in the emphasis on self directed learning, Mostly because of the way things are today, but I have a feeling it is tied to the fact that if the mother of all invention is necessity the contentment must be the executioner and contentment grows as the basic needs are met.

It is worth pointing out that it is way easier to learn something that other people have previously discovered than to discover or re-discover it for yourself. Take the time before civilization collapses to learn everything you can. It will make any transition easier on you and the people around you. It will also help you today, because knowledge is power and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

In H.G. Wells’ book, The Time Machine, the main character builds a time machine and travels into the future. He finds that the civilization he knows has been destroyed and he finds a preindustrial society has taken its place. Without ruining the book, he returns home and takes three books to the future. He has to decide what knowledge to save and what knowledge he will need. THey never tell what three bookshelf chooses. I have often wondered myself what three books would I take? I cannot however, settle on the top three. This inability to choose led me to conclude that it would be worth saving as many sources of knowledge as is humanly possible. A conclusion reiterated by the remake of The Time Machine (the movie) made in 2000. Instead of three books, an artificial intelligence interface to a compendium of all human knowledge is brought to the future. Now THAT is something you want when trying to rebuild a society. Since that doesn’t exist yet, and I don’t have the ability to bring to Internet with me, that leaves books. I will leave you with the same question indirectly posed by The Time Machine, which three book would you take?


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