Getting over a haggis

Guest post by Graham McTavish Watt

Apropos of nothing other than a getting over a haggis munch yesterday at the Robbie Burn’s Evening, let me run this by your keen eyes.

The Inuit people have been teaching and learning for at least a thousand years. And their learning is important because frequently the lack of it can be fatal. Not fatal to the learning, fatal to the learner. They have done all this learning through the oral tradition. They are acknowledged technological experts and tremendous innovators: The geodesic dome, the kayak, the bone-spring-in-frozen-meat Polar Bear killer with built-in blood trail feature, and so much more. Much of today’s technological detritus is in a way oral, even text messaging. But much of it is frittered (sorry) rather than substantial.

How would we equate the essential oral aspects of Inuit learning efficacy with your industry’s seemingly ever-changing technological learning approaches (I might add, often delivered with scorn for the already existing)? Why do we not go back to survey and explore the aboriginal learning perspectives rather than pushing forward with this or next week’s latest technological thematic? Or would Inuit learning just become next week’s technology thematic? Perhaps you do go back, I’m sure you do, and I acknowledge there are oral aspects to technology, but the oral tradition among aboriginals means the learner and teacher both learn, and it is the synergy which keeps the learning momentum going. There is humility to it, rather than a wisp or two of contempt

Two interesting books you may have read but which I am presently reading:

UQALURAIT: An Oral History of Nunavut Compiled and edited by John Bennett and Susan Rowley. And John Ralston Saul’s A FAIR COUNTRY Telling Truths About Canada.

The former has incredible detail on clothing, skin preparation, fashion, astronomy, medicine, external relations, food sharing, navigation, kayak building, trading, hunting, fishing, social activity, house building, leadership and many other orally learned techniques. Is it any wonder they valued their elders? Why do we tend to denigrate ours? Saul’s book is, in my view, a wonderful continuation to the work of Harold Adams Innis on the oral tradition, and draws upon the aboriginal example as a main component of many aspects of Canada’s rather well-known use of negotiation rather than violence and threat. Ironicly, caucus is an Algonquian oral word which meant meeting, talking and listening. Now we use it to plot to defeat others. It was used by aboriginals to find ways to reach agreements that sustain each other’s cultures and prevent war.

Graham Watt

5 Responses to “Getting over a haggis”

  1. Harold Jarche

    We seem to overlook the past in our excitement about the future. Yesterday was spent listening to many people discussing the merits of all these social media tools for the Web, but there was little discussion about what has led us to this point. On the way back, I noted that early community building using the new technology, radio, was a uniquely Canadian accomplishment. Educational broadcasts to engage local communities began with farm radio in the 1930’s and later Farm Radio Forum (1942).

    More here:

  2. Virginia Yonkers

    Last week I went to hear about “an innovative high school for the 21st Century.” My daughter is applying to it. How does it relate to your post? It was like walking into my high school. At the time I went to the school it was “an innovative high school”. I went there because it mirrored my mother’s teacher training 20 years earlier, “an innovative educational training program.”

    Now each program was slightly different, but this school, my own high school, and my mother’s training was all based on experiential, cooperative/collaborative, and project based learning. The technology was different and that was what changed some of the elements within the style of teaching.

    What is even more interesting is that when we looked at my alma mater for my daughter to go to school, the years I went to school were considered the “failed experiement.” When I asked what data they had collected on the long term effects of that educational system (i.e. higher ed statistics, jobs/career data for my year, surveys on perception of education to prepare for life long learning), they didn’t have any. Instead, it was failed because our SAT scores were lower for the years of the “failed experiment.” In other words, to really examine the Inuit system of (oral) education, a study would have to get at a deep level of understanding the system and a new way of measuring success (surviving, despite extreme conditions, for thousands of years is a good measure, but many educators might want to “test” the inuits. Could they pass the tests?).

  3. Harold Jarche

    Plus ça change, Virginia … we’re focused on the bouncing ball and not the patterns in the landscape. I think that de-politicizing education could be a start, though I’m not sure exactly how we could do it.

  4. graham watt

    Yes, Virginia, in a weird proxy way, the Inuits were tested, hardly in a quantitative, more a qualitative perhaps “quasititative” way would express it better. In Roland Huntford’s book, SCOTT AND AMUNDSEN, a full account is given of Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott’s epic competition to reach the South Pole first. Both parties relied on technologies. However, with the arrogance of so-called civilized societies of the time, Scott believed the Inuit to be savages with nothing to teach, and relied on current technologies as well as the British sentimentality towards animals. They wore Burberry cloth clothing, used gasoline tractors as well as ponies, and forsook dog teams for manly man-hauling of sleds. Amundsen, on the other hand, was a lifelong student of Inuit technologies. His sleds were lighter, he and his team dressed in various phases of Inuit clothing. Amundsen used dogs, a proven source of power in the Arctic, able to curl up and snooze at 50 below, and readily edible. A harsh
    use of them, but no worse than ponies freezing to death in their own sweat.
    In the end, the Inuit-based technologies won, and the Amundsen team
    returned so comfortably they actually gained weight, and at one point, re-climbed a 1000 foot descent from the glacier in order to have another ski run. Meanwhile, Scott and his party, with admittedly bad weather, perished, Scott’s remaining moments spent penning poignant notes to his and his team’s loved ones. Scott emerged as the perceived romantic hero of the whole affair, instead of signaling the death of imperial arrogance. Ironically, Amundsen, the unbiased user of available technologies suited to the task, was dismissed in British circles as perhaps lacking in feeling.
    Thus did glory and icy death trump Aquavit and a thousand years of winter experience.

  5. Mara

    Hi–because you enjoy reading about Inuit oral history, I believe you might enjoy my recently published novel called “Rankin Inlet.” It is part love story, part family saga, part historical novel–but mostly based on true facts and things that actually happened. It chronicles much of the social, economic, cultural and political change that occurred in the twentieth century in the area west of Hudson Bay, culminating in the creation of the new Nunavut territory. (I studied Anthropology then worked in the Canadian Arctic for some years and so either learned about or witnessed many of these changes). More information at: Cheers!


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