The Conqueror Mindset

I now have a contract, for teaching secondary mathematics in Tuluksak, AK:


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Tuluksak is populated almost entirely by native Yup’ik. Anyone can guess that the culture will be different. But how different can two human cultures really be? This videogot me thinking that the answer could be “very different”. The relevant quote:

And performance is the bottom line in the culture of the lower 48. Here [in rural Alaska] it’s not performance; it’s family and community. So there’s a real conflict there, between the two ways of life. I had to give up the performance approach to the community/family approach.

–Richard Stasenko

Why the drive to perform? Almost every major culture on earth is descended from a conquering society. My ancestors were bumming around western Europe until they were conquered by either the Romans or the Vikings. Latin America was conquered by the people conquered by the Romans. What started as a small nucleus of kingdoms in China eventually made most of East Asia into vassal states. India, North Africa and the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the pre-Columbian Americas have similar stories.

The majority of human cultures, including the native cultures of your ancestors, have been displaced by a small handful of empire-building cultures. Each of these few cultures ascended because they cared about performance; if they hadn’t cared about performance they would have been absorbed by some other, more effective culture. We are the cultural descendents of performers. They have passed to us the conqueror mindset: a desire to perform beyond the needs of survival and comfort.

Ran Prieur likes to point out that there are cultures which have no concept of freeloading. If we enjoy our labor and we’re able to survive comfortably, why should we care whether others benefit enough from our work that they themselves don’t have to work? Ran suggests that it’s because we don’t actually enjoy our work. I’ll also blame the conqueror mindset. The conqueror mindset says that there is always work to be done towards the advancement of society, that we must continually progress in our capabilities, and that everyone can and should contribute to that progress.

The conqueror mindset is the engine of science and industry which continually asks, “How can this be done better?” The conqueror mindset pursues “better”, “improvement”, and “more”. Those are constantly rising bars, standards which can never be reached. A culture without the conqueror mindset, though, might pursue “enough”, or “comfort”. These are goals that can be reached, goals that you can reach and then stop working towards for awhile.

Consider that it took us ten-thousand years to go from pottery to metalworking. And the atlatl may have been the height of technology developed in the thirty-thousand years of fully-modern humans preceding pottery. These transitions would not have taken millenia if “better”, “improvement”, and “more” were fundamental human drives.

Until the mid-20th century, the Alaskan interior didn’t seem to have many resources worth conquering. Like with many native populations, there was continuous and low-level inter-tribal warfare until western intervention. But the region never produced or attracted the serious attention of a real empire-building culture until America found the whole region well placed for a defense against the Japanese, and saturated in oil besides.

When Richard Stasenko says that the Yup’ik he taught are not focused on performance, it says to me that their culture was not produced by conquest. And it has some really difficult implications for my role as a teacher. Western education does not teach you how to survive comfortably, to enjoy life in your community among your family, to know when you’ve done enough. Western education prepares for the jobs of tomorrow, prepares for excellence, prepares you to extend human knowledge, to be a contributing citizen. These are the goals that were given to us by our conquerors. What do I teach to a person who has no interest in the jobs of tomorrow?

It’s not a hopeless question, just my own prompt for thought.