TOADTalk: On Human Nature

Ms. Grant on how our automatic human impulses arent always the best way forward.
Monday morning’s All-School Assembly launches with whatever the Teacher On Active Duty (TOAD) wishes to share—a reflection, a story or song, a demonstration of some sort, or a simple poem. In this way, every week of the school year, the community gets to know one of our own a little better. Heather Grant, whose TOADTalk is featured below, teaches chemistry and biology in the Science Department, advises senior girls, and has coached both soccer and lacrosse. Ms. Grant has worked at the School since 2006.

Now that you’re all settled into a new year, I want you to think about an important topic. I want you to think about your favorite Dining Hall baked good. Now, I want you to think deeply about why it’s your favorite. What about it makes it so good?

My favorite is definitely Robin Riley’s chocolate chip cookies. It almost makes me hungry just thinking about them, but that would be a normal human response—did you know that just the thought of food can cause the same neurological response as the actual sight or smell of food? No matter the stimuli, the sensory receptors activate the same region of the brain and the end result—activation of the salivary glands—is the same. Because of this response, some would argue that it is normal human nature to run into the Dining Hall and snatch up as many cookies as possible and eat them all before they run out. Some would also explain this behavior away by saying, “Well, humans are evolutionarily driven to...blah, blah, blah.”

But one of my favorite things about humans is our ability to recognize our natural instincts, to step back, think critically about them, and then decide how to act.

I bring up these cookies not to torture you before lunch, but to highlight the idea that following human nature as the only guiding principle in life doesn’t always lead to the most positive outcomes, especially in small communities like this one. I was reminded of this a few times before classes began.

While many students return to campus for preseason sports (or work with the horse program or astronomy program), what you might not realize is that the faculty and staff attend our own preseason training. We prepare our classrooms and course materials, complete CPR and first aid training, and participate in professional development workshops. During a number of these unrelated meetings, the concept of human nature came up.

David Wolowitz spoke to the faculty and staff about his idea of the “developmental pathway,” where there are lots of guideposts and forks in the road that can lead to mastery or disaster. I won’t dwell on the details of this concept, but one part of his talk addressed the idea of how human nature contributes to this pathway. Roughly, he suggested that human nature is self-serving. It represents the easy thing to do, the path of least resistance. You can live your life guided by your natural instincts alone and that can feel good or right in the moment. But to really achieve “mastery” of some aspect of your life requires active, intentional action.

Let’s apply this to life in the Dining Hall, again. Bringing food to your table, eating, socializing with friends, and then leaving all of your dishes and waste behind might feel like the natural thing to do, but you can do better!  

Later, Mr. Bill Barkeley suggested, during his pre-camping talk, that we cultivate a culture of encounter rather than one of exclusion—recognize that it’s human nature to be drawn to others like you, but go beyond that natural instinct and reach out to others, especially those who might otherwise feel excluded. Talk to students who aren’t in your class year or reach out to those who look like they could use a friend in the Dining Hall, dorm, or at Open House; say hello to visitors on campus.  

Later in our week of faculty preseason, Mr. Balano spoke to the faculty and staff about his role as the director of diversity and inclusion. Again, I won’t (and couldn’t fully) describe everything he said, but he did share an idea from Dr. Beverly Tatum that connects to the idea of human nature. And suggests that it’s necessary to be an active, self-aware member of the world at large in order to combat systemic racism—but I think this idea works whether you’re talking about racism or the exclusion of “the other,” or fighting against your natural urge to eat all of the cookies in sight. Here is a direct quotation from Dr. Tatum’s work:

“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behaviour has identified with the ideology of White supremacy and is moving with it. Passive racist behaviour is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go to the same destination as the White supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt—unless they are actively anti-racist—they will find themselves carried along with the others.”
In closing, whether it’s the unconscious drift of society towards racist tendencies or the animal need for chocolate chip cookies, I challenge you to think critically about what motivates your behavior this year and stop and think if there’s a better way to respond, for your own personal development or for the good of the community.

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