Title

How ‘First Steps’ Makes the Best Possible Case for a Liberal Arts Education

Untangling the mystery of upright walking.

April 21, 2021
 
 

First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human by Jeremy DeSilva

Published in April 2021

Should a liberal arts education be accessible to only the privileged and the lucky?

That was the question I kept returning to after spending nine hours and 17 minutes with Jeremy DeSilva, listening to his new book, First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human.

Why these liberal arts thoughts while reading a book on the evolutionary origins of upright walking?

To understand my reaction to First Steps, you first have to know that I know the book’s author. Jeremy DeSilva (we call him Jerry) is a professor at the same college where I work. (And like many of us in higher ed, Jerry is one half of a dual-academic couple, with that other half being a wicked smart colleague of mine.)

I listened to the audiobook version of First Steps. Every professor should be lucky enough to have their writing read with the drama and passion that audiobook performer Kaleo Griffith brings to his projects.

Not only did I listen to First Steps, but I also did so mostly by riding my e-bike around Norwich, Vt., the town where Jerry and his family live. It is an incredibly meta experience to listen to a powerfully moving and thoroughly mind-blowing book by an author you know while riding your bike by his house.

The other thoroughly meta experience in reading First Steps is that an open online course, Bipedalism: The Science of Upright Walking -- a course that Jerry created (with a fantastic team of nonfaculty educators) on the edX platform -- preceded the book. Having watched Jerry’s scholarship leap from open online learning to a fabulous book aimed at a nonspecialist audience is a process that has helped restore my enthusiasm for MOOCs.

The big question that Jerry builds First Steps around is why do humans walk on two legs? Why have we evolved a form of mobility that is comparatively slow, unsteady and prone to injury when stacked up against four-legged locomotion?

From that fundamental question, Jerry takes us on a journey of evolutionary history and how knowledge creation unfolds.

In learning how upright walking has influenced every element of our biology and our cultures, we also learn how scientists go about the process of discovery.

The debates and disagreements (often heated) about the origins of bipedalism provide DeSilva with an opportunity to build in the reader a deeper understanding how the workings of evolution and how human evolution has shaped cultural and social life.

Along the way, we follow Jerry in his journey of becoming a paleoanthropologist -- a process that illuminates how scientists work and think.

There is a mystery at the heart of First Steps -- why do we walk on two legs? The reader is hugely rewarded for the time spent with Jerry DeSilva in untangling the answers to that big and challenging question.

For me, the most valuable elements of First Steps came from the opportunity to deepen my understanding of the scientific method. Of how scientists think, how they work and how they work with one another.

For this reason, I hope that First Steps finds a much broader audience than those of us obsessed (and there are many of us) with human evolution. First Steps should be read by (and Jerry DeSilva should be asked to speak to) any audience interested in science, discovery and the process of evidence-based critical thinking.

Reading First Steps may be the best argument possible for the liberal arts.

For one thing, it is hard not to notice the number of times that Jerry’s students (especially undergraduates) participate with the card-carrying paleoanthropologist during fossil-hunting adventures. In First Steps, students are presented as not passive recipients of information but co-creators of knowledge.

My strong suspicion is that any student fortunate enough to learn from a professor like Jerry DeSilva will gain a set of analytical, collaborative, communication and critical skills that will serve them extraordinarily well throughout their lives as workers and citizens.

I’m grateful to Jerry for writing a book about the evolutionary origins and cultural outcomes of upright walking that is accessible to the general reader and highly enjoyable.

And after reading First Steps, I’m newly worried about all the students that will not have the opportunity to take a course (or major) in a discipline like anthropology, as they stack up skills-based courses and majors in the new higher education.

How might we celebrate fine books like First Steps to bolster the case for the liberal arts?

Why is it so rare for our most accomplished academics to write for an audience of nonspecialists?

Should the process of tenure and promotion encourage academics from all disciplines to create scholarship that is accessible (and enjoyable) to those outside their academic discipline?

What is the best book that you read that helped you understand the process of knowledge creation and the application of the scientific method?

What are you reading?

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