Being Human

This week I did something which I have rarely done in my many years of teaching; I asked students to spend a whole lesson watching a video. Each student was given a laptop and they were asked to put on their earphones (they always seem to have the latter available at the drop of a hat). They were told to go to Youtube and look for the film “Human” by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, and watch at least any five of the fifteen themes spread across this three-part documentary. They were told explicitly not to make any notes, just to look and listen. The documentary (lasting in total four and a half hours) is a thematically organised collection of interviews with around two thousand women, men and children from sixty different countries. Most students continued watching after school, with a small minority then watching the entire film.

Each interviewee was asked a series of questions on among other things, love, corruption, family, work, happiness, war, relationships…  The result of which is an incredibly intimate and powerful encounter with people none of us are ever likely to meet but, having listened to their stories are unlikely to forget. Here are some of the lessons my TOK students shared in the follow-up lesson, some are relatively trivial, some mundane and expected, but clearly for many of them this was a transformative experience and seems to have brought about a fresh appreciation of what it means to be human.

  1. Despite being surrounded by people all day long most days, they found these open and honest encounters with others to have been a deeply fresh and enriching experience.
  2. The range of culturally shaped and determined human traits is enormous, and there is always something new to learn about another culture.
  3. They were able to appreciate the value of other cultures and of their own in a new way.
  4. People are more themselves in their own language.
  5. People connect more deeply when they communicate in the same language.
  6. Each individual has a unique perspective the integrity of which suffers when we attempt to pigeon-hole or categorise it.
  7. Upbringing is without a doubt the determining factor when it comes to many of our own personality, followed by life experiences.
  8. The methods used by the team of film-makers maximised the intimacy of the experience, but also created an environment in which individuals felt free to share deeply personal stories.
  9. Most of them were surprised to realise how little they were affected by people’s physical appearance when in the normal course of affairs it seems to be unavoidable.
  10. Most of them felt no sense of moral superiority in relation to the interviewees, they were able to listen to them in an empathic and entirely non-judgemental way.
  11. It seems that besides death, there are very few things which human beings cannot survive.
  12. They felt they learnt something about what it means to be human but also felt they had learnt things about themselves.
  13. The most consistent and striking lesson for them was the sense that a deep and mysterious connection exists between all human beings, and it reminded them not to take it and other people for granted.

There are many ways in which the Human Sciences have tried to identify the defining characteristics of human nature (if one accepts such a thing exists), what shapes and determines it, what the roots of different types of human behaviour are and the degree to which they can be controlled, directed and programmed. Each Human Science, whether it be Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology or Economics, is of course interested in its own remit and scope of inquiry, it has its own methodology, its own assumptions, biases and prejudices; each has made significant and at times ground-breaking discoveries about our species, but the atomization of learning has meant that it is often difficult to appreciate their contributions as a whole. Watching “Human” is a deeply affecting experience, it is not meant as an academic exercise and it may not yield for you ground-breaking insights, though I wager that it is unlikely to leave you unmoved by the horror and wonder of what it means to be human.

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