How People Learn: The Problem with Cultural Determinism

There is a long history of discussion about the role of learning in evolution. A broad survey of this discussion would reveal a fundamental distinction between two different ways in which humans and other animals can possibly learn. One or the other is usually taken for granted, reflecting the different understandings of learning emphasized within differing academic contexts. In an attempt to bring these under a common and simple taxonomy, I refer to the two sorts of learning as “vertical” and “horizontal”.

Vertical refers to the passing of ideas across generations. My father taught me to use a hammer. I taught my son to use a hammer. And so forth. More generally, it means learning by inheritance of ideas. Not necessarily across generations per se, but across people. The source of ideas here can be anything from an opinion at the pub to a fashion trend on the street, or an advertisement. Horizontal learning, by contrast, cannot occur across generations, because it pertains strictly to an individual learning from his environment. I smacked my thumb with the hammer. I thereby learned not to use a hammer. Of course, the environment itself includes humans, but what matters now is how we experience people. We develop ideas about their behavior that aren’t the same as the ideas they hold themselves.

To demonstrate the difference, suppose I have a prejudice against albinos. A social critic would naturally want to explain this in terms of some anti-albino sentiment in the social atmosphere. But if, for some reason, every albino I saw came up and punched me in the face, I would probably develop some sort of prejudice regardless of my initial position on albinos, if I even have one, and regardless of what pre-existing ideas about them I have come across. It is in this sense that learning in society does not merely consist of the individual inheriting the ideas that pre-exist in that society.

As I write this, I am not aware of an obvious precedent to this basic distinction, because people tend to assume that learning means one thing or the other, especially in a disciplinary context. Horizontal learning is the sort one learns about in psychology. The obvious example is Skinner’s concept of ‘operant conditioning’. Vertical learning, in contrast, is the sort that is generally assumed in the humanities and social sciences. The history of modern academia is closely tied to that of the New Left, and so shares its interest in the social construction of values and beliefs. This and the post-modern heritage have resulted in the refined cultural-relativist mentality that sometimes lurks behind the cliché that “nobody is born in a vacuum”.

The problem is that the corollary of this emphasis is a systematic suspicion of the notion of ‘individual’, due to its association with individualism. As in, boo, go back to the nineteenth century. In the culture of the humanities, you can end up being straw-manned as a Ralph Waldo Emerson, a naive individualist unconscious of the social construction of his own ideas. So the necessarily individual process of horizontal learning is in danger of marginalization, in favor of the vertical. And if one throws the baby out with the bathwater completely, then the working assumption is that a given individual’s ideas should always be explained in terms of the ideas held by others.

What this amounts to is a one-dimensional theory of how people’s ideas develop. A model of human behavior and judgment based simply on learning via inheritance. This allows our analyses of society to be focused on a population level, reducing people’s experiences to collective forces of social influence, through which ideas accumulate, rise and fall, and pass from one generation to another. It is ultimately a single factor view, reducing human civilization to a Darwinian tree of ideas descending from one branching node to another. (In fact, it bears an uncanny resemblance to Dawkins’ ‘meme’ theory.) It is this sort of model of learning that merits the label ‘cultural determinism’.

Learning, in the full sense that encompasses horizontal and vertical, is the model that allows us to take the experiences of real people seriously. The shift of emphasis to real people is the antidote to the cardboard cut-outs we make of them when we pigeonhole them into ‘traditions’. And real people and individuality are inseparable, which is what makes the association with individualism so noxious. It is the individual that experiences the world, and experience is the essential factor represented in horizontal learning. A factor that cultural determinism lacks.

The disregard for horizontal learning, and therefore the role of individual experience, is inherently dismissive. Dismissive of alternative points of view, and potentially even dismissive of suffering. It explains a person’s ideas and behavior by pigeon-holing them into social and cultural categories. Responsible social criticism must acknowledge that learning is an individual phenomena, and that even the dumbest of us are not beyond learning more than what they are simply “taught” by culture. Humans are dynamic beings, not just receptacles of cultural memes, because their environments, social and otherwise, bear an immediate influence on their ideas, if not a culturally independent one. We don’t merely learn from other people, we learn from our entire environment. We don’t merely learn by acquiring the heritage of our culture from the web of values and ideas around us. We learn by forming associations between ideas, observations and experiences, and inferring connections, patterns and consequences. It is because of the dynamic nature of our experiences and how they shape our perspectives that we cannot seriously attempt to understand people without engaging their situation on an individual level.

The social critic must respect the full learning potential of any individual, not just that particular sort of learning that she prefers to think about. This is not to say that horizontal learning is entirely absent in social criticism. Feminists, for example, take women’s experiences very seriously, and so would explain women’s ideas about men in generously horizontal terms. It is interesting to note that, more often than not, they simultaneously explain men’s ideas about women in strictly vertical ones.

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