“It isn’t important what you do, it is the attitude with which you proceed through the world that matters.”
Jenny Diski, Stranger on a Train.
We are living through bewildering times where the conduct of education is concerned. There are deep problems that stem from many origins – principally from a changing society whose future shape we cannot foresee and for which it is difficult to prepare a new generation. My topic, the language of education, may seem remote from the bewildering problems that rapid and turbulent change in our society have produced. But I shall try to show before I am done that it is not really so, that it is not so much scholarly fiddling while Rome burns to try to find a key to this crisis in the language of education. For at the heart of any social change one often finds fundamental changes in regard to our conceptions of knowledge and thought and learning, changes whose fulfillment is impeded and distorted by the way in which we talk about the world and think about it in the coin of that talk. My hope is that we may uncover some vexing issues of immediate and practical concern.
I shall begin with a premise that is already familiar: that the medium of exchange in which education is conducted – language – can never be neutral, that it imposes a point of view not only about the world to which it refers but toward the use of mind in respect of this world. Language necessarily imposes a perspective in which things are viewed and a stance toward what we view. It is not just, in the shopworn phrase, that the medium is the message. The message itself may create the reality that the message embodies and predispose those who hear it to think about it in a particular mode. If I had to choose a motto for what I have to say, it would be that one from Francis Bacon, used by Vygotsky, proclaiming that neither mind alone nor hand alone can accomplish much without the aids and tools that perfect them. And principal among those aids and tools are language and the canons of its use.
Most of our encounters with the world are not, as we have seen, direct encounters. Even our direct experiences, so called, are assigned for interpretation to ideas about cause and consequence, and the world that emerges for us is a conceptual world. When we are puzzled about what we encounter, we renegotiate its meaning in a manner that is concordant with what those around us believe.
If this is the basis for our understanding of the physical and biological worlds, how milch truer it is of the social world in which we live. For, to sound another familiar theme, the “realities” of the society and of social life are themselves most often products of linguistic use as represented in such speech acts as promising, abjuring, legitimizing, christening, and so on. Once one takes the view that a culture itself comprises an ambiguous text that is constantly in need of interpretation by those who participate in it, then the constitutive role of language in creating social reality becomes a topic of practical concern.
So if one asks the question, where is the meaning of social concepts – in the world, in the meaner’s head, or in interpersonal negotiation – one is compelled to answer that it is the last of these. Meaning is what we can agree upon or at least accept as a working basis for seeking agreement about the concept at hand. If one is arguing about social “realities” like democracy or equity or even gross national product, the reality is not the thing, not in the head, but in the act of arguing and negotiating about the meaning of such concepts. Social realities are not bricks that we trip over or bruise ourselves on when we kick at them, but the meanings that we achieve by the sharing of human cognitions.
Jerome Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds.
So, broadly speaking, we can never be sure of anything, because no one can be sure that he is using words in exactly the same sense as the person he is talking to (even when they are speaking the same language). Conversation is essentially a game of tennis played with a ball of playdough that changes shape each time it crosses the net.
Laurent Binet, The 7th Function of Language.
As our readers read, as they begin to construct a virtual text of their own, it is as if they were embarking on a journey without maps — and yet, they possess a stock of maps that might give hints, and besides, they know a lot about journeys and about mapmaking. First impressions of the new terrain are, of course, based on older journeys already taken. In time, the new journey becomes a thing in itself, however much its initial shape was borrowed from the past. The virtual text becomes a story of its own, its very strangeness only a contrast with the reader’s sense of the ordinary. The fictional landscape, finally, must be given a “reality” of its own — the ontological step. It is then that the reader asks that crucial interpretive question, “What’s it all about?” But what “it” is, of course, is not the actual text — however great its literary power — but the text that the reader has constructed under its sway. And that is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his own. I believe that the writer’s greatest gift to a reader is to help him become a writer. If I have, then, made much of the contingent and subjunctive not so much in storytelling as in story comprehending, it is because the narrative mode leads to conclusions not about certainties in an aboriginal world, but about the varying perspectives that can be constructed to make experience comprehensible.
Jerome Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds.
I have recently been reading a most enjoyable novel called The Dream Illuminati by Wayne Saalman (Falcon Press, Santa Monica, 1988). Mr. Saalman has found an epic theme – dreams of flight, and the achievement of flight.
Historically, dreams of flying appeared in the collective unconscious before the reality of flight existed in technology, and it seems plausible that if we understood our dreams better we would use our technology more wisely. Our machines manifest our dreams in matter crafted to coherence, and a psychoanalysis of our culture could easily derive from an examination of how we use science to materialize our fantasies and nightmares.
Mr. Saalman’s science-fantasy made me wonder: Why have we always dreamed of flying, and why have we built flying machines? This question seems “eminently” worth pondering in a world where 200,000,000 people pass through Kennedy International Airport every year, flying the Atlantic in one direction or the other.
To understand the profound, it often appears helpful to begin with clues that seem trivial. I suggest that we contemplate what our children look at every Saturday morning on TV. One of the most popular jokes in animated cartoons shows the protagonist walking off a cliff, without noticing what he has done. Sublimely ignorant, he continues to walk-on air-until he notices that he has been doing the “impossible,” and then he falls. I doubt very much that there will be any reader of Magical Blend who has not seen that routine at least onec; most of us have seen it a few hundred times.
It might seem pretentious to see a Jungian archetype adumbrated in crude form in this Hollywood cliché, but follow me for a moment.
When Hollywood wishes to offer us the overtly mythic, it presents Superman, who can “leap over tall buildings in a single bound,” and a more recent hero named Luke Skywalker. Continue reading
I would judge the sanest man to be him who most firmly realizes the tragic isolation of humanity and pursues his essential purposes calmly. I suppose I feel about it in this way because I have a delusion of grandeur. I believe myself to be Joe Gould.
We don’t normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated. We became cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers, and the consequences of that were profound.
Before a culture adopts the use of writing, when its knowledge is transmitted exclusively through oral means, it can very easily revise its history. It’s not intentional, but it is inevitable; throughout the world, bards and griots have adapted their material to their audiences, and thus gradually adjusted the past to suit the needs of the present. The idea that accounts of the past shouldn’t change is a product of literate cultures’ reverence for the written word. Anthropologists will tell you that oral cultures understand the past differently; for them, their histories don’t need to be accurate so much as they need to validate the community’s understanding of itself. So it wouldn’t be correct to say that their histories are unreliable; their histories do what they need to do.
Right now each of us is a private oral culture. We rewrite our pasts to suit our needs and support the story we tell about ourselves. With our memories we are all guilty of a Whig interpretation of our personal histories, seeing our former selves as steps toward our glorious present selves.
[But] all of us have been wrong on various occasions, engaged in cruelty and hypocrisy, and we’ve forgotten most of those occasions. And that means we don’t really know ourselves. How much personal insight can I claim if I can’t trust my memory? How much can you?
Digital memory will not stop us from telling stories about ourselves. As I said earlier, we are made of stories, and nothing can change that. What digital memory will do is change those stories from fabulations that emphasize our best acts and elide our worst, into ones that—I hope—acknowledge our fallibility and make us less judgmental about the fallibility of others.
Ted Chiang, The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling.