Friday, June 09, 2006

Learning and Understanding

Here is a quote I've read several times. Partly for the encouragement, and partly to remember.

The book is "My Teacher Fried My Brains" by Bruce Coville. It's the second in a series of books he did about teachers, aliens, and life. The main character in this installment is a bully who changes his ways. Essentially, it's the story of "Flowers for Algernon": the dim-witted gets a chance to become brilliant, more intelligent than anyone else alive--but it doesn't last. This book seems to talk a lot about the effect of learning on our behavior and attitude. The dim-witted becomes well-witted by use of a "brain-fryer."

"Between the third session with the brain fryer and the fact that I was reading hundreds of pages a day, I could feel myself getting smarter faster and faster. Something I hadn't expected was that the more I learned, the more things made sense. Sometimes learning one thing made three other things suddenly come into focus. I was starting to find the connections that made learning fun."

What does that mean?
That quote comes on the heel of several debates I've had with myself and other people who find themselves on the higher side of average about "What is smart?" Since we public-schooled are children of the institution, most of us are inclined to believe that the Intelligence Quotient (I.Q.) is a valid measurement. What if that is wrong? I've taken my share of IQ tests. While some of the questions do test whether a mind is able to make connections and at what speed, often they are trivia tests. "What rhymes with the color orange?" "How far away is the sun?" "Define 'argillaceous'." The most revered genius may not know what those things are. We could ask Einstein several questions about X-Men comic lore. If he gets them wrong, what then? Is he not as smart? The famous trivia fact about Einstein is that he failed high school math. Is he dumb? I passed high school math; am I smart?
At this point, intelligence and "smart" become more effervescent abstractions than they were to begin with. Read the quote again, to ground yourselves in what we experienced with the bully as "being smart."

"One thing leads to another." That is a phrase that pops into my head. All of what we know interconnects--if for no other reason than that we encountered it in our life. Ask old doctor Gestault about drawing connections between seemingly unrelated data. (For the most interested of readers, look up gestaultism and tell me if the following letters are an example of it.)

Smart people know a lot. This is a fact we have to start from. Smart people know a significant amount more than others. But what more? Are art-history students less intelligent than automechanics? I venture to say not, but that they are intelligent in different directions. To have an art-history student and a mechanic switch places shows how relative smart is. But--and here is the grain in my craw that I hope will turn into a pearl--what about the mechanic who can comprehend art history? Or visa versa. At that point, we have a person being smart in two or more directions. Refer to the quote: the more directions we are intelligent in, the more connections we can draw to other things, the more things make sense!
I've always been excellent with words. English was a class I rarely needed to worry about. But the sciences--I have a propensity and an interest in them. Engineering, architecture, crafts, and philosophy--these are all subjects that I consider myself an eager amateur at. Were I to excel further at them, perhaps I would become smarter.

And there's a controversial subject for you: how to become smarter. This isn't a subject about self-improvement. It's about education. How you teach relates to how you believe intelligence grows. I propose reading helps us learn. The characteristic train of an intelligent mind is the one that reads. Milton believed that schools introduced writing essays and the like too early. "The mind must have a resource from which to deliver," I paraphrase from Milton's "On Education." The value of reading, and encouraging reading, lies in a book's ability to dump information into a mind. The brain fryer from the book opened up the boy's capacity (a subject I mean to touch on later--L needs the garbage taken out), but books fill up that capacity. Books make us smarter by introducing knowledge, either facts or understanding. Writing, therefore, is either the overflow of thoughts or the exercise of that knowledge.

About capacity, before I take out the garbage...
I sometimes imagine I was fed a lie when people told me about how potentially smart I could be. Where did that concept come from? To be haunted by one's potential is like being haunted by your own ghost before you're dead. How do you know when you have reached your "full potential"? Really. Is there some little meter I don't know about?

It's time for me to leave. Write comments so that I have further "resources from which to deliver.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

No post since June 9???
And you claim to be a writer!!!
(I know someone worse.)