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Letter to Educators: We Need Histories of Teams, Not Biographies of Individuals

05/04/2016 12:20 | Updated 05 April 2016

No man is an island, and this is true not only as a life quote but also at the workplace. Therefore we must adopt a teamwork-based curriculum for schools to prepare students adequately for the real world, and this curriculum begins with emphasising histories of teams, rather than biographies of individuals.

Of course, typical historical books are very much about teams -- social teams, political teams, academic teams. The problem is that we prize Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk over the smart people they work or have worked with, and therefore contributed to their "successes". We need to shelve biographies and bring out histories of discoveries, ideas and conflicts with all the supporting characters in view.

Just as lamps find no use in rooms full of light, the "greatness" of people stem not from their wow factor but from being in such company that they become indispensable.

Let's address a few objections to the proposal of histories over biographies:

Objection #1: Emphasising teams in studying history encourages a herd mentality.

Refutation #1: Accounts of history provide a wider perspective than personal biographies on how people make meaning out of their ideas, how some ideas get chosen and how others fall by the wayside because the originator defied certain boundaries. There is room for consensus and sometimes compromise is necessary. By respecting social norms as far as possible, much of the expected conflict would vanish.

On the other hand, prizing independence opens doors to anti-social behaviour -- biographies of eccentric men and women plant seeds in impressionable minds that risk-taking behaviour could lead to success, when it only leads to psychiatric drugs and loss of free time over medication sessions. Negotiation, persuasion, the thick skin needed to weather rejection and criticism and sensitivity to invisible boundaries are key to personal development. These skills are not traits of a victim or herd mentality; they are hallmarks of strength and professionalism.

Objection #2: Ideas are valuable on their own merit.

Refutation #2: Ideas only have value when they can be put into context. They have to solve a problem, address a need, highlight a deficiency or expose the clandestine in order to have value, and history is riddled with examples of such. Some ideas throughout history were deemed ahead of their time, such as Dr John Snow deducing that water carried cholera bacteria -- back then the prevailing medical establishment disbelieved him. If Soho did not cooperate with him and remove the contaminated water pump, his idea would not have saved more lives and made history.

Many ideas were not fully developed until technology and thinking paradigms caught up with them. People have dreamt of flying for millennia, yet the Wright brothers made that dream come true. Roald Dahl wrote in Danny the Champion of the World that the boy Danny wanted to write a book that people would get engrossed in while walking, driving and going about their lives. He wrote it before the smartphone existed, but he never lived to see the funny reality.

Objection #3: It is unfair to an individual if we do not recognise that individual's efforts.

Refutation #3: We are not denying individual effort. We are putting it into context to show that such effort mattered through collaboration and communication. Only then did ideas spread and make a difference. No one knows an idea's impact on future generations, so it is best not to jump to conclusions. As Michael Faraday or Benjamin Franklin once said, "What's the use of a newborn baby?"

Just because the culture upholds individuals -- as if they "made it" by themselves -- doesn't mean that we should condone that line of thinking. (That'd put us in the herd instead.) Celebrities often have coaches, make-up and costume artists, and other supporting personnel with them. Entrepreneurs get funding, do marketing, and form new connections readily. Even academics become recognised thanks to other academics and industry partners who value their work. How is it that Albert Einstein was known for relativity? It was because of journal editors who trusted his papers' legitimacy and fellow mathematicians such as David Hilbert, Hermann Minkowski, Felix Klein and Emmy Noether, who assisted the fellow who said, "Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater."

A team-based world needs team-based attitudes, and our education ought to start with chipping in as a team. To chip in as a team, it makes sense to acknowledge our humanity from the perspective of teams rather than merely putting individuals on a pedestal. To quote Rudyard Kipling,

For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.

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