The story told by Pinker is interesting in its own right. But what does it have to do with the way we learn, or how we think about place and scale?
Here are some ideas about the link to place. Later I will come back to its implications for learning.
It was one of my doctoral students Amelia Kohm who got me into the Pinker book. She was studying bullying.
Most studies of bullying focus on the individual, on the person who bullies or the person who is bullied. A lot of good science has been applied to questions about the cause of bullying behaviour by individuals, and into interventions to address those causes. This work takes us forward, but only so far.
Amelia looked at this from another angle. Her thesis was entitled Why good people do bad things, and why bad people do good things. Her premise was that variation in bullying behaviour in any place was influenced by the context, and how the context influenced what she called the bystanders, the people who sit between the bully and bullied. In the right context they intervene, in the wrong context they don’t.
Another example. Tony Earls and Rob Sampson studies of the criminal behaviour of Chicago youth. They looked at individual trajectories of young people, finding as had others a series of factors that elevated the risk of individual young people getting into trouble, having a criminal father for example.
They also studied variation between communities in which the young people lived. The variable that stood out was collective efficacy, the extent to which citizens in a community trusted each other and felt able to intervene on behalf of fellow citizens when they saw something going wrong.
When collective efficacy is high, crime is low, even when the incidence of young people at risk of anti-social behaviour is high.
One more example. The holocaust. Other atrocities. The people that ushered fellow human beings into the gas chambers were not psychopaths. They were people like me and you. In the wrong context, we are capable of horror.