Education is a process involving two sets of participants who supposedly play different roles: teachers who impact knowledge to students, and students who absorb knowledge from teachers. In fact, as every open-minded teacher discovers, education is also about students imparting knowledge to their teachers, by challenging the teachers’ assumptions and by asking questions that the teachers hadn’t previously thought of.
In the class discussion after I had finished my presentation <on the collapse of Easter Island society>, the apparently simple question that most puzzled my students was one whose actual complexity hadn’t sunk into me before: how on earth could a society make such an obviously disastrous decision as to cut down all the trees on which it depended? One of the students asked what I thought the islander who cut down the last palm tree said as he was doing it. For every other society that I treated in subsequent lectures, my students raised essentially the same question. They also asked the related question: how often did people wreak ecological damage intentionally, or at least while aware of the likely consequences? How often did people instead do it without meaning to, or out of ignorance? My students wondered whether — if there are still people left alive a hundred years from now — those people of the next century will be as astonished about our blindness today as we are about the blindness of the Easter Islanders.