Monday, December 1, 2008

Daniel Everett's "Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes"

Daniel L. Everett is the Chair of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Illinois State University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, and reported the following:
Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes is a book about living among the Piraha people of the Brazilian Amazon and the discoveries, scientific and personal, I made during the thirty years of regular contact with them. My family and I lived among the Pirahas for nearly eight years.

On page 99 I am talking about an incident that taught me a great deal about Piraha culture and my own views of parenting. Here is part of what I say on that page:

Piraha parenting involves no violence, at least in principle. But my model of parenting did. It is worth contrasting the two here because ultimately I have come to believe that the Pirahas have a healthier attitude in many ways than I did at the time. I was a young father - Shannon was born when I was nineteen. And because of my immaturity and Christian parenting framework, I thought that corporeal punishment was appropriate and useful, following the biblical injunction that to spare the rod was to spoil the child. Shannon, as my oldest child, often suffered the worst of this phase of my life. In the village one day, she said something to me that I thought entitled her to a spanking. I got a switch and told her to meet me in the bedroom. She started yelling that she didn't need a spanking. The Pirahas came quickly, as they always did when we sounded angry.

'What are you doing, Dan?' a couple of women asked.

'I'm, uh, well ...' Hmm. I didn't have an answer. What the hell *was* I doing?

Anyway, I felt the weight of the Bible and so I told Shannon, 'OK, no spanking here. Meet me at the end of the airstrip and pick another switch along the way. I will meet you there in five minutes!'

As Shannon started out of the house, Pirahas asked her where she was going.

'My dad is going to hit me on the airstrip,' she replied with a mix of irritation and glee, knowing what the effects of her words would be.

Piraha children and adults came running behind me when I left. I was defeated. No more spankings..."

What I go on to discuss on that page is how I learned from the Pirahas corporeal punishment was a strange and ineffective way to teach children about life. Since I had believed so strongly in this and its biblical foundation prior to my confrontation with the Pirahas it was a direct challenge to my philosophies of child-rearing and indeed my philosophy of life to think that there were other ways of helping children develop into responsible adults.

The Pirahas don't coerce children, just as they don't, by and large, coerce anyone in their society. There are always exceptions, of course, but children are not 'beaten into submission' by their parents. So how do Piraha children learn responsibility? They are given tasks relating to the well-being of the family, such as gathering fruits and nuts, fishing, collecting firewood, and so on. If they fail, everyone suffers, including them. They can be scolded, as any other member, but the main lesson they learn is by doing without something crucial because of their own irresponsibility. They mature quickly.

My daughter, Shannon, tells me that I did not learn this lesson as quickly as I imply in the book, however. I suppose that this is the way that many of us create our reality - we learn a lesson and then perhaps remember that lesson being in our lives longer than it actually has been.

One question that has occurred to me and to generations of philosophers is whether or not people are really capable of changing their minds, at least about things that are truly significant to them. Another way of putting this is whether people are capable of recognizing errors in their thinking so egregious that the only way to change course is to make an epistemological 180 degree turn. I think that being in a closed environment that is radically different from the environment that we were raised in is a possible situation in which such change might occur.

From the simple lesson on p99 of my book about spanking/smacking my child other, equally profound models of being a human being on this planet were brought into focus.

The Pirahas have taught me, as so many other groups have taught foreigners out of their element over the years, about parenthood and life, among many other things. Encounters with 'the Other' in literature and life are vital components of our growth in life and thought.
Read more about Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes at the Knopf website.

--Marshal Zeringue