Monday, February 18, 2008

Private Reason and the Slow Learner

I have a head, and in this head I am relatively certain there is a brain. And in this brain I am relatively certain there is something going on. What is it that goes on in there? Is it thinking or is it the whispering of the wind? Are those ideas scattered about, or hanging cobwebs made of neurons?

Can I decide for myself which it is?

Can I be said to "think for myself" if what constitutes thinking and what does not is decided by someone other than myself?

Can I be said to be daring to use my own reason if I cannot dare to say what is and is not reasonable? Dare to see what is reason, what madness?

I have some power to formulate my own thought, to attend to it, to develop or test those areas of it which seem important to me. But can I really know whether what I am doing in these instances is thinking, or rather elaborating upon my own idiosyncracy, eccentricity, weirdness, oddness, madness, perniciousness, perversion?

I often experience the consequences of my own stubbornness, persistence in stupid error, unwillingness to take good advice, unwillingness to be prudent, to avoid "unwarranted risk." But, I think, "I did it my way." Is there really any reward in that, at all? Should there be?

Are there people who learn quickly, or are there people who obey easily, without resisting? Are there smarter people, or are there people who are more compliant, submissive? Is the smartest thing to know which side one's bread is buttered on? If not, why not?

Educators often insist not only that we commit facts to memory, but that we "think" about them. At least, this is often heard in the classroom. Are the smart people the ones who take this seriously, or the ones who never take it to heart, who know it is bunk? Are people taught to think, or are they taught to obey without even realizing that's what they are doing? What master does a good student serve? Does a good student serve any master at all? The master of reason? But what master is that, exactly?

"Here is a quotation from Carl B. Boyer, who is more or less the Gibbon of math history:'But what, after all, are the integers? Everyone thinks that he or she knows, for example, what the number three is--until he or she tries to define or explain it.' W/r/t which it is instructive to talk to 1st and 2nd-grade math teachers and find out how children are actually taught about integers. About what, for example, the number five is. First they are given,say, five oranges. Something they can touch or hold. Are asked to count them. Then they are given a picture of five oranges. Then a picture that combines the five oranges with the numeral '5' so they associate the two. Then a picture of just the numeral '5' with the oranges removed. The children are then engaged in verbal exercises in which they start talking about the integer 5 per se, as an object in itself, apart from five oranges. In other words they are systematically fooled, or awakened, into treating numbers as things instead of as symbols for things. Then they can be taught arithmetic, which comprises elementary relations between numbers.(You will note how this parallels the ways we are taught to use language. We learn early on that the noun 'five' means, symbolizes, the integer 5. And so on.)

Sometimes a kid will have trouble, the teachers say. Some children understand that the word 'five' stands for 5, but they keep wanting to know 5 what? 5 oranges, 5 pennies, 5 points? These children, who have no problem adding or subtracting oranges or coins, will nevertheless perform poorly on arithmetic tests. They cannot treat 5 as an object per se. They are often remanded to Special Ed Math, where everything is taught in terms of groups or sets of actual objects rather than as numbers 'withdrawn from particular examples.'"--from David Foster Wallace, Everything and More: a Compact History of Infinity, pages 8 and 9.

Fooled or awakened? Taught or ordered? Slow learner, or intelligent enough to be critical of teachers' sleight-of-hand? Stupid, or simply someone whose thought processes are different and perhaps more profound? Someone incapable of abstract thought, or someone boldly and heroically true to their own sensuous apperception?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where did you get that picture, and is it authentic?

8:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I got it from google image, after googling on dunce. I don't know if it was posed or not. It seems to be maybe fifty years old, and used quite often. It didn't seem to be copy righted.

8:05 PM  

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