Open Minded?

In a review of  The Kinsey Report that Lionel Trilling published in 1948 he notes that the Social Sciences were already suggesting ways folks ought to behave instead of simply telling us how they do in fact behave. They were already becoming prescriptive when they should have restricted themselves to description. This greatly affected the way we raised and taught our children. That went well!

He also makes a fascinating point about our democratic way of thinking, what he calls our “generosity of mind.” He regards this as peculiarly American and he insists that it is “often associated with an almost intentional intellectual weakness.” What he is speaking about is our refusal to make distinctions because of our fear that such distinctions will point the way toward discrimination.  Indeed, given the date of this review, one must conclude that Trilling was prescient, because we are now handicapped by our fear of “being judgmental,” by our inability to even allow for the possibility that anyone is different from anyone else lest this suggest that the one is somehow inferior to the other.  To quote Trilling at some length:

“[This intellectual weakness] goes with a nearly conscious aversion to making intellectual distinctions, almost out of the belief that an intellectual distinction must inevitably lead to a social discrimination or exclusion. We might say that those who most explicitly assert and wish to practice the democratic virtues have taken it as their assumption that all social facts — with the exception of exclusion and economic hardship — must be accepted, not merely in the scientific sense but also in the social sense, that is, that no judgment must be passed on them, that any conclusion drawn from them which perceives values and consequences will turn out to be ‘undemocratic.'”

This is a powerful statement and is worthy of serious reflection. What Trilling is saying is that our refusal to make distinctions has led us to the point where we are now intellectually disabled. Our fear that we might be “judgmental” renders us unable to make important distinctions between those who can and those who cannot. In our effort to “leave no student behind,” for example, we have dumbed down the curriculum in our schools to the point where those who graduate have learned very little, if anything — and the very bright are the ones who are left behind. On a broader canvas the liberal arts, as has been said many times, are elitist (“undemocratic”) and cater only to the very few. On the contrary. They can make it possible for all who come into contact with them to gain possession of their own minds and become autonomous persons who can resist the temptation to follow the herd and swallow the latest political pill that will eventually make them very sick.

The notion that certain thoughts are “undemocratic” is a brilliant way to point out that our determination to think alike has made it impossible for most of us to gain any sort of real intellectual freedom. Liberals must think in a certain way which (God Forbid!) must be nothing like the way conservatives think. And vice versa. True intellectual independence would allow us to make the important distinctions, to point out major differences, say, between women and men, between social classes, between the gifted and the obtuse. It would allow us to make distinctions between such things as the use and the mention of the “N” word, for example. Additionally it would allow us to distinguish between a protest against racial injustice and disrespect for the flag of this country, a distinction so many, including our President, seem unable or unwilling to make. To add to our intellectual burden is the current proscription against using certain words — despite the fact that words form sentences and sentences form thoughts. Without words, all words available, our thinking becomes crimped and begins to resemble, oh I don’t know, say, tweet-speak??

Trilling is on to something here and the fact that he was aware of this tendency in the late 1940s is truly remarkable. The tendencies he points out, as I have suggested, have only become worse and we are, as a society, even more “intellectually weak” than we were in 1948. The only way out is through education properly conceived, a course of study that takes the young on a challenging journey with the greatest minds that ever lived and, while being sensitive to the feelings of the disadvantaged, it allows for the open discussion of even the most controversial of topics with those who agree with us and, more especially, those who do not.



Computers and Kids

I have blogged about this before, but a recent post by a dear friend congratulating a former teacher for taking time out of her retirement to fit out a bus with computers and take this “fully equipped mobile tech center” to the kids to help them get a leg up on education disturbed me a bit and made me recall what I had read some time ago about computers and the kids. It’s not at all clear that getting young children on computers — or any sort off electronic device — will help them develop their minds. The jury is still out on the question, but there is growing clinical evidence that those devices develop the right side of the human brain and leave the left side almost totally undeveloped. In addition, there are “windows” when certain types of brain development must take place in young children or it will never happen.

The problem here is the left hemisphere of the human brain is the side that controls language and thought. The right side is the “affective” side, the side of imagination and emotion. There’s nothing wrong with developing the right side of the child’s brain — unless the left hemisphere is left undeveloped as a result. And that seems to be the case when we rely on computers to teach. In addition, it has been shown that there is a direct correlation between increased computer usage and attention deficit disorder.

Ironically, the schools are on the bandwagon, buying computers for the kids — or accepting them from all-too-willing corporations that are delighted to get the kids hooked as soon as possible. And the parents applaud these efforts, which often include providing the child with his or her very own computer, because they are convinced that this will put their kids squarely on the information highway and on their way to a successful life. They may not support increased salaries for the teachers, but they will gladly see their tax money spent on computers.

Nothing provides us with information as quickly or as efficiently as computers. That much is clear. Moreover, we all know that information is a key to understanding.  It is a sine qua non of all knowing. But it is not alone sufficient. Humans must also know how to process information, separate the wheat from the chaff and determine what is true and what is fiction —  recognize “false facts.” Thought requires the development of the left hemisphere of the human brain and as Jane M. Healy has told us in her book Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think, recent clinical studies of human brain development involving brain scans and MRIs  have shown that electronic devices do not help that portion of the brain to develop. To quote Dr. Healy directly:

“The experiences of children today [involving television and the use of electronic devices such as computers] may be predisposing them to deficits both in effective coordination between hemispheres and in higher-level linguistic and organizational skills of the left hemisphere [of the brain]. They may particularly lack practice in the use of left-hemisphere systems of auditory analysis and in the skills of logical, sequential reasoning.”

Moreover, as Marie Winn points out regarding television in the book referred to above,

“.. a carefully controlled study designed to explore the relationship between television viewing and the language spoken by preschool children discovered an inverse relationship between viewing time and performance on tests of language development; the children in the study who viewed more television at home demonstrated lower language levels.”

Computers, like television, are essentially passive devices — even when “interactive.” They cannot substitute for a human being sitting down with another human being, or several other human beings, and having a discussion. Human interaction, especially at a young age, the telling of stories, reading stories, making stories up, or simply visiting and chatting about the sort of day the child is having are certain ways to help the child’s mind to grow and develop fully — not just on one side. I hasten to point out that we are talking about young children here, kindergarten through eighth grade. There is plenty of time to teach students basic computer skills to help them get a leg up in the job-hunting arena when they reach high school, after the critical windows have closed in early brain development. These skills could at that time be taught along with civics, history, literature, mathematics, and science, subjects that will deepen the young students’ minds and broaden their horizons well.

My wife and I gave a book of brain-teasers to a precocious young child we love dearly thinking it would help her develop her mind and that she would enjoy the challenge. After a very few minutes she was looking up the answers in the back of the book! This is learned behavior. One wonders how often this happens with computers as attention spans shrink. In any event, it is something that would not happen with another human being. There would be give and take, exchanges back and forth, encouragement, hints, and the kind of coaching that goes into good teaching. That’s what should have been happening on the “mobile tech center.” Computers are not the answer to helping young kids learn how to use their minds. Good teaching and good parenting are the answers.