BY MATTHEW HERBERT
As they used to say in the 1960s, dig this:
A Homo sapiens pops out of its mother. Its cognitive endowment is the same as its ancestors’ was 500,000 years ago. It is neurologically wired and muscularly evolved for a hard, short life of hunting, foraging, and animal procreation. It will eat grubs and like them.
If, through chance and luck, it lives long, it may achieve the pinnacle of abstract thought–contemplating the terrors of its environment and forming superstitions to account for them. If it is a genius, it might daub muddy ochre and limonite on cave walls to record its terrors, joys and superstitions.
This is still us. Every child born on this day in 2019 will emerge with the same mental inheritance as the grub eater and cave painter.
But our cultural endowment is almost too vast to circumscribe–the things our caveman brains have discovered and invented. We’ve gone to the moon, split the atom, and read, and wept over, Middlemarch.
What distinguishes us, miracles that we are, from our ancient forebears? When we pop out of our mothers today, we are expected, with our caveman brains, to learn to read and write a language by the age of six, and within a few years after that, to use that language to catch ourselves up on all the artifacts that humans have come up with since the stone age–from the wheel to the International Monetary Fund.
Here is an interesting thought experiment. Neuroscientists say that if you magically transported a new human from 500,000 years ago to today, that human would, without a hitch, become just like us. Grown up and invited to dinner, they would not root around your backyard looking for grubs. They would be just like your other guests, scrolling through their phones, talking aimlessly about craft beer and their jobs as cyber-security specialists. They might be slightly harrier. That’s all.
If you know anything of the life sciences, you may not be impressed by this vignette. Of course we’re still the same as we’ve always been. Our physiology hasn’t changed, and physiology is everything.
But you have to admit: the learning curve required to bring the caveman brain up to the capacity of today’s digital native is almost unimaginably steep. The cultural endowment with which our teachers must acquaint us is of mind-boggling size and dynamism. A full set of Encylopedia Brittanica offers a mere peek into the whole thing.
So here is another thought experiment, which I came up with myself. I didn’t need neuroscience. Imagine you gave the rough outline of human history as I’ve indicated it to a curious Martian. You manage to get it across to him that over the years our tribes have organized themselves to have professions, and it is actually the responsibility of one of these professions to teach all the caveman babies how to anticipate everything they will do in life, and to understand everything that will be done to them. Furthermore, this job must be accomplished in as little as five years.
The Martian stops you at this point. I don’t know if Martians are effusive by nature, but this one effuses that these miracle workers who teach the caveman babies must be, by a wide margin, the most valued people on Earth. You’ve told the Martian enough about medicine, agriculture the internet and so forth that he grasps clearly that none of it would be possible without the caveman baby teachers. They literally enable everything good that happens in the world outside basic biological functions. They are humanity’s saviors and guardians of its highest wisdom.
“Meh,” you must respond. This thought experiment is true-to-life, and you must do your best to depict life on Earth as it really is. (For simplicity’s sake, we’ll stick to America, the corner of Earth you know best.)
“Meh,” as you were saying. “They’re about average.”
In the United States, the median salary of an elementary school teacher is $57,160. In Missouri, where I come from, it is $53,390. You work your way up from a median starting salary of roughly $32,000.
Garbage collectors, we learn, make about $43,000 a year; forklift operators about the same. Workers in car factories earn $37,000 on average. Attorneys make approximately $119,000, cartographers almost $62,000. If you join a circus, you can expect to make as much as $70,000, as little as $40,000. I guess it depends on what you do.
I do not mean to imply that any of these jobs are more or less noble than the others, but if you are looking for a monetary sign that we value teachers on anything like the surprised Martian scale, you will not find it. A teacher is valued about as much as the next guy.
How does this happen?
I think teachers do their jobs for the pay they get for the same reason soldiers do their jobs for the pay they get. Because it is intrinsically heroic. They take on romantic, deadly serious mission that is fundamental to humanity’s struggle for worth, meaning and progress. As generals know, you can’t pay people enough to go get themselves killed in battle, but you can easily get them to go on appealing adventures that happen to include the risk of violent death. If the adventure is good enough, people will do it.
I wish this were not true of the soldier’s profession, because I despise war. But it is true nonetheless. I know too many reflective, intelligent soldiers to believe they are just violent people who want to go off to battle and kill others. They are doing an unimaginably hard job which, tragically, humanity requires of them.
Delete the word tragically from that sentence, and it applies without qualification to teachers. Teachers also do an unimaginably hard job that humanity requires of them. And because they try to make us humans the best we can be, their profession is a thing of exquisite beauty.
The Bible (Phil. 4:8) exhorts us, “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” One can truly say of teachers–unlike soldiers, their counterparts in heroism–that the things they do merit the unabashed, Whitmanesque homily of this verse. Without teachers, especially our first ones, none of us would have the slightest chance of discovering the true, the honest, the just, the pure, or the things that are lovely or of good report.
It is shameful how little we pay teachers. We should pay them twice as much as they get, and this still would not be enough. A federal fund should be established to match the salaries their states pay them. Let’s put a monetary value on the size of the information gap teachers helps us close in three or four years. We go from cave man to digital native in that time.
I need not make this scheme any more practicable than this rough outline indicates, because it will never happen. The “perfect” forces of our labor market will keep the pay of a teacher just north of a forklift operator’s and just south of a map maker’s. Plus teachers know that theirs is the best adventure on Earth. They will keep doing it because it is like digging a well that brings water to the thirsty. Can you offer pay for such miracles? You can, but the miracle itself is its own reward.