Covert Benefits & Advantages

Common sense has its short-comings. The main short-coming is that common sense tends to be embedded in a culture. One of the great delights for me as an anthropology student was discovering that the methods and customs of non-literate or pre-literate people, often described by Westerners as barbaric, bizarre or incompetent, turned out to have real benefits the Westerners were blind to.

Beyond the control of man is the sickle-cell trait. Its benefit is that it confers immunity to malaria; its disadvantage is that it causes anemia so great the bearer can die from it. If we could stamp out the sickle-cell trait, where would that leave us with the malaria?

The image that struck me most as I was growing up was that of the Chinese fire-drill. Whenever a group of people were trying to do something that required coordinated movement and it didn’t go well, they were told they “look like a Chinese fire-drill?. The image was one of a bunch of small men in queues, caps and quilted jackets carrying long ladders, running around and bumping into each other like Keystone cops.

Being appreciative of Chinese culture, I wondered how it was that a civilization of such accomplishment could not put a fire-drill together. To this day, I wonder if the Europeans training the fire brigades shouted their commands in languages unknown to the firemen or if the firemen had no intention of putting out fires in the European quarters. I have a suspicion that the Chinese simply had their own way of dealing with fires and that they had no way of conveying this to the Europeans and so tried their best to obey the incomprehensible directions of their occupiers.

The image of fire leads me to an exceptionally apt example of this: the chimneys of slave cabins in the Old South. It came quite naturally to the Whites of the South to attribute every kind of stupidity and laziness to the slaves, even in the face of their innovations and hard work. Even those who asked for specific types of slaves on account of their demonstrated ability to work hard and teach the slave holders how to grow rice and manage livestock could still recount anecdotes about the docility and imbecility of the Africans.

So it was easy to look at the chimneys of the slave cabins, crooked and propped up with sticks, and deride the slaves for their sloppy, slipshod construction techniques. The restrictions on what slaves could build were tight and so they had primitive fire places in wooden shacks. The chimneys became sooty and often caught fire, burning the cabin down and leaving only the chimney, pictures of which are common in period photos of Whites? burned out homes after Sherman’s march.

For the slaves, however, it just seemed simpler to knock the chimney down immediately, done by kicking the prop sticks out and letting the chimney bricks fall harmlessly to the ground, scattering the burning soot. The cabin was saved and the chimney was quickly rebuilt, in the traditional crooked, slipshod manner, giving rise to more stories among the Whites about the slovenliness of the Blacks.

So, the moral of the story is: be careful about correcting teachers? techniques and students? approach to the material. Correction may be very helpful or it may interfere with something worked out through trial and error…. and common sense.

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