A Parable

Once, an explorer came across an island tribe, whose religion centered around the Sun. Every morning, the shaman and his acolytes arose before dawn, knelt facing east, and said prayers and performed ritual actions until sunrise. The explorer asked: what is the meaning of this ritual? The shaman replied: We must pray to the Sun God to awaken him, so that he may rise and the day begin.

The explorer explained that, back where he came from, nobody prayed for the sunrise, and it happened anyway. He suggested that maybe, one day, the shaman try sleeping in, and see if the sun didn’t come up anyway.

The shaman was aghast. “You are suggesting that I fail to appease the Sun God, and risk visiting ruin upon my people! Since the creation of the world, our shamans have prayed the morning prayers. Each of us trained for years as an acolyte before we are entrusted with the sacred duties, and each of us in turn trains acolytes, who will some day carry on in their turn. The people make offerings for our sustenance and hold us in esteem for the important service we do. You are insane!”

The explorer replied: “Yet I have been all over the world, and seen many peoples, and witnessed many rituals. Few peoples pray as you do – yet the sun comes up on all of them anyway. We also believe that your people only got here a few centuries ago, and so your rituals are not from the time of creation. In short, we believe you are mistaken, that your rituals have no effect on the sun, and, that if you stopped, the sun would still rise here as it does everywhere else.

But the shaman would not believe him, and the people, when they heard about what the explorer had said, were likewise convinced that he spoke madness.

The chief of the tribe, the wisest man on the island, met with his councilors to discuss what was to be done. The explorer was brought before them, and explained what he had said, and was dismissed. Many spoke, and the chief listened, until, finally, he spoke. “It may well be that the explorer speaks the truth. But we shall never say this to the people, and, should anyone say they believe the explorer, we shall ridicule them and shame them into silence. What is at stake here is not the shaman’s ritual alone. Each of us here, the leaders of our tribe, are held in esteem by the people because we honor and in turn are honored by the shaman. If the shaman were disgraced, how long before we ourselves lose the honor of the people? How long after the shaman stops receiving offerings before we are no longer sustained by the people we rule?”

The council was silent. The chief spoke again: “This is what we shall do. The explorer and his people will be made to leave the island, and a great feast celebrating the Sun God and honoring the shaman will be proclaimed. People will soon forget about this explorer and his ideas, and all will be well.”

And so, the explorer was expelled from the island, the feast was held, and the people returned to their lives. The shaman and his acolytes said the morning prayers, and the sun continued to rise.


But the chief was truly a wise man, and, yearning to know what was really true, put his son in charge of the tribe and left with the explorer to see other lands and peoples.

After years of exploring and much learning, the chief and the explorer arrived in America. One day, the chief asked the explorer to explain a curious ritual he had noticed. Every morning, outside his window, a passel of young children got on a yellow school bus, and were whisked away for the day, returning in the late afternoon.  “Oh, that!” exclaimed the explorer. “In our tribe, we send our children every day to learn from our shamans, so that they may be prepared to do their part when they grow up.” So the chief and the explorer went to a school and watched. “All day, your young are made to sit and listen,” the chief observed, “Yet very few of your men and women do anything like that during their days.” “Yes,” answered the explorer, “but we believe that, unless the young spend their lives sitting and listening, they will not be able to do the tasks required of them as adults.”

The chief opined that this made no sense at all. “In our tribe, and, indeed, in most of the tribes we visited while we explored, the young share in the work of their parents and other adults – that is how they learn to do what will be required of them. But your people not only do not do this, but instead make sure your children will not learn is this way by putting them in a special place isolated from the rest of the adults, except for the shamans into whose care they are put.”

The explorer laughed. “Well, we want our children to learn to read, write and do some basic math – they must all learn this before they can join the adults.”

“So,” the chief asked, “Once a child knows how to read, write and do a little math, she can join the adults? This does not seem to be so, for I have met many of your children, some as young as 7 or 8, who can read, write and do a little math, yet they, too, are sent to school. Further, I have met many adults in your tribe who do not read, write or do any math, yet they are not sent to school.”

“Well, yes,” said the explorer, “but there are other things a child must learn as well – our history, our laws and customs, as well as science and reasoning. We send them to school for this as well. And, yes, sadly, many adults do not learn what the schools teach – but once they reach 18, we can no longer keep them in school.”

“Soooo,” said the chief, after a moment of reflection,”your schools often fail to teach what it is that you say they are for teaching. Even when they succeed, you do not let the children join their families until they are old, and even when they fail, you still expect the failures to join the tribe as adults. And, further, even though we have seen all around the world in our exploring peoples passing on their culture, laws and history to their young without the benefit of schools, your people use schools for this? Even though they fail in the other things you expect them to teach? As for the science and reasoning, I have met many of your people – I see little evidence that many have learned any of this.”

“Well, yes, I suppose, if you put it that way…”

The chief brightened. “You are an explorer, and wise in the ways of many people. You see how other tribes have passed on to their children what they need to know, without benefit of school. What if you didn’t send your children to school? Do you not suppose that they, like children in every other tribe, will learn what they need to know?”

The explorer was aghast. “Oh, no! We’re a highly industrialized country. We need adults who can read, write an do math, or else our culture will collapse!”

“Do you not suppose,” opined the chief, “that, were you to allow the children to be with their families, that they would, as children all over the world do, learn what they need from seeing what the adults do? Our children learn to fish, hunt, build a house, make tools, negotiate agreements, work as teams, marry, raise children, rule the tribe – all this, from their family and tribe. What we require of adults in our tribe is much more complicated than what you require of adults in yours. Yet we learn it all without schools.”

“Look, you just don’t understand,” said the explorer. “This is the way we’ve always done it. If we didn’t sent our kids to school, they’d all fail as adults. Our culture would not survive.”

“And if our shaman does not say the morning prayers, the sun will not rise?”

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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