Jane Goodall, the unschooled scientist

“Jane,” The new documentary about Jane Goodall, is a beautiful film. The making of the movie was catalyzed by hours of gorgeous, compelling footage heretofore buried in the archives of National Geographic.

In it, we see Goodall exploring the wilds of Gombe with instincts as razor sharp as those of a child allowed to roam freely and exercise the natural human tendency to observe, contemplate, and learn. Goodall makes her way through the landscape of Gombe as though she’s been there forever. She had, in fact, always wanted to be there, which perhaps had something to do with how comfortable and at ease she felt once she arrived. That comfort no doubt played a large role in the eventual trust granted to her by her beloved chimpanzees.

To my eyes, the footage of Goodall in Gombe bore similarities to the images of her growing up in England. She loved nature and explored it freely. She credits her Mum with providing support for her passions and ambitions, which first and foremost included studying animals in Africa. The dreaming, imagining, and playing she did as a child seem inextricably linked to her ultimate inspirational achievements.

In Gombe, she watched and waited, looked for signs and clues, evaluated and observed, and took delight in her surroundings and the chimpanzees. She wrote about and recorded what she learned in her own way, astutely, meticulously, and with great joy and excitement. The work she did in Gombe was the natural extension of the child’s work of living in the moment, playing, observing, and learning.

When she first went to Gombe, Goodall was not trained or educated as a scientist. She had no university degree at all. She landed a job as secretary to anthropologist Louis Leakey as a way of following her passion. She knew what she wanted, and connected herself to someone she thought could get her closer to what she loved. As it turned out, Leakey had the brilliant idea of sending Goodall to Africa. He recognized her intelligence, passion, commitment, and patience, qualities that he believed could result in new discoveries about chimpanzees. As we now know, he was absolutely right.

Many at the time were skeptical of Leakey’s decision to send a young, uneducated woman into the field. Goodall believed that her lack of education was an asset. She was unfazed by the criticism. Her desire to study the chimpanzees came from within, and one of the many benefits of intrinsic motivation is the relative immunity it grants from outside influences, whether negative or positive. As a young scientist, Goodall was a true autodidact, joining history’s long list of other self-taught scientists including Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Charles Darwin. Later, Goodall did choose to enter university and was able to enroll in a Ph.D. program without ever having earned a college degree.

This intrinsic motivation of Goodall’s, her appetite for learning, her self-assurance, her pursuit of her passions, and her high level of intellectual creativity are core components of unschooling. Parents seeking to nurture those qualities in their own children can provide plenty of love and support, unlimited time for free play, exposure to a variety of experiences, and time in nature. Giving kids the freedom to play and explore helps them discover what they love and delve into it deeply. That’s a path they can stay on for life, learning all the time.


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