In posing these questions I used the word "should" and before trying to answer these questions it is probably worthwhile to pose another. What criteria are to be applied in determining what makes for good mental exercise? To get at that let's first consider what it is we hope to get out of such exercise.
I am slowly (re)reading Bolman and Deal's book Reframing Organizations. This time it's the fifth edition. Previously, I read the fourth edition. It serves as a second textbook in my course on the economics of organizations and is there to give the students recognition that other than an economics approach can have value too. The first couple of chapters give lots of examples where things don't go so well in organizations. The question is why. Part of the answer, inevitably, is that the world is complex and that we need to understand how people react to complexity and make decisions with an imperfect understanding of what is going on.
When I attended the Frye Leadership Institute (now Leading Change Institute) back in 2003, in our very first session Rick Detweiler, one of the institute deans, put us through our paces on "Chip Up Leadership." He showed us a graphic very much like the one below. There's a lot of stuff going on at our respective campuses and in Higher Education as a whole. It doesn't come from just one direction. It comes from everywhere. This graphic might be a good first visualization of complexity for somebody, especially for a person who previously thought all the arrows tend to point in the same direction.
As my friend Lisa likes to point out, we tend to embrace information that reinforces our previously held world view and ignore information that challenges our own uni-directional perspective. One clear goal of the sort of mental exercise I'm talking about here is to have the experience of identifying a few arrows that don't line up.
While so far I have mentioned complexity in the workplace, it should be clear that it also matters a great deal as a citizen and in in our politics. Below is one of my favorite lines from George Orwell that hits the nail on the head.
To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
This is the first sentence of the closing paragraph in an essay about people's intellectual schizophrenia, particularly in regard to political life. By this Orwell is talking about maintaining truth in a proposition that we should know is false simply by reviewing other things we already know to be true. This essay is a very good read and serves as a rather frightening warning about all the stupidity the collective mind seemingly can lock onto.
Onto this image of complexity let's layer on a related idea - that what we see of the world is mainly the projection of our own minds. I am not making this up. I subscribe to a variety of services that give recommendations about what to read. There is way too much for me to track down all of it. But I do sift through the recommendations and occasionally sample some of the suggested writing. One source of these is The New Yorker. Last week there was a message from Henry Finder with recommendations about articles by Atul Gawande. As I have been favorably disposed to Gawande's writing in the past I've now read several of these suggestions, though some I had already read previously. One of the new ones for me is called The Itch.
It's a good read so I don't want to give away the story ahead of time. Here suffice it to say that some of the story is about the neuroscience of mental projection - the itch is all in our head, if you will. An interesting aspect of this is that sometimes the mind can be fooled and the mental projection thereby changed. This type of fooling the mind can be the basis of treating a patient who has a disorder that stems from a mental projection. Beyond treating such disorders, the neuroscience suggests a question that I can't answer (I'm not a neuroscientist) but where I presume the answer is yes nonetheless. Through trying to make our own mental projections as explicit as we possibly can, and then via experience and coaching about potential alternative views, can we modify our own mental projections to make them less rigid and more accommodating of complexity? If we can, the mental exercise I have in mind should be partly aimed toward this end.
There is then that the exercise should vary depending on where we are in our development; it should move us along from our current position in a way that makes us better off. I think it is helpful to imagine a continuum where at one end is the free thinker who comes up with all ideas via independent thought and at the other end is a member of the Borg, part of the hive mind and incapable of thinking or acting on one's own. I'm comfortable in arguing that neither extreme is an ideal point for any of us. Even Thoreau, after living at Walden pond, did not remain a hermit thereafter.
I also suspect there is not one right ideal point for all of us, but just the same that most of us feel we are currently not at our own ideal point. As a teacher of college students, I dare say that most students don't come to their own ideas independently enough. Outside of how students go about their studies, which itself tends to make students followers (of what the instructor spits out, social media encourages group think. The like button itself encourages a "ditto" response. In the classroom students are afraid of looking stupid. Outside the classroom are also frightened by the prospect of loneliness. Independent thought might very well be a turnoff to others. So the bias, I suspect, encourages conformity. Consequently, most of us will drift toward the Borg end of the spectrum unless we consciously try to counter that effect.
In trying to come up with examples of people who are excessively independent minded, my list is far shorter and the well known examples are of people who suffered a huge amount of personal torment and possibly had mental illness. Vincent Van Gogh, for example, ended up committing suicide. So rather than try to come up with examples of people I actually know in this category, at the risk of embarrassing them and me, let me mention a movie that is watchable called Mozart and the Whale, about two people with Asperger's Syndrome who fall in love. Life is too hard for them. A bit more conformity would have made things much easier. Some things we should just do with no questions asked. Every little decision we make is not worthy of social commentary and critique.
Let me close this section on a somewhat different note, about the balance of play and work that should be in any type of exercise. The real payoff to exercise doesn't result unless it becomes a routine activity done out of habit. Making new habits, more healthful ones than the prior habits they are aimed at replacing, surely is not easy. The fun part is there to encourage sticking to it. But if it is all fun, can it be healthful too? With mental exercise, in particular, the test of it working is whether there is learning. It is possible to fool ourselves that we are learning something new when we really are not. As I'm writing this piece I'm asking myself whether I'm just spitting up the same story I've already told many times before or if there is something new here. It's not easy to come to a determination because we're making a mosaic, with the basic ingredients things we already do know. So, as Jonathan Lethem wrote so eloquently, each of our creations is a plagiarism. What I have come to realize is to give it some time and try to see the larger pattern. Glaciers move, if however slowly. If you want evidence of that movement, however, you'll have to wait.
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So there is no mystery as to the right sort of exercise, at least at the broad strokes level, we make sense of complexity by coming up with stories to explain what's going on. Everyone makes sense of complexity that same way. Good stories line up with many of the arrows and seem to explain things pretty well. Bad stories don't fit the facts very well. There is a different way stories can be good or bad. Story telling is an art. A good telling engages the listener, a bad one not so much.
Much of the exercise then is simply to experience the stories told by others and do this a lot. This will give a sense of what makes for a good story, in both meanings. The other part of the exercise is to imitate the story tellers, trying one's hand at similar stories that have a bit of the person's own experience in it as well. This imitation story telling can happen in many different guises, with some of the common forms having a conversation with friends, daydreaming, and writing. For those who get enough practice of this sort, they may then venture further from their inspiration and try their hand at stories that feature more of their own inventions. Everyone needs a lot of practice of this sort.
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Issues do emerge however when you get down to brass tacks, as the title of my post suggests. It matters how the practitioner gets the stories. Reading the book is a different sort of experience from watching the movie. Many people have commented on this and I will do this as well in what follows.
But first let me comment on the authors I've mentioned above. While with Orwell you might be able to get at some his work through the movies (I watched the film version of 1984 not that long ago), you don't really get to know him that way. It is not surprising to me now that we read both 1984 and Animal Farm when I was in high school. Sometime later I also read Homage to Catalonia on my own. You can't get at that book via the movies.
Likewise with Thoreau, you can get at him indirectly through the movies. By doing some searches at IMDB, I learned there is a film called, New Walden. And you can get at some of Thoreau's ideas via more popular movies, such as Gandhi, an Academy Award winner, or even Bound for Glory. I found both of these movies compelling, but the viewing experience was entirely unlike reading Civil Disobedience, which I would recommend as a summer read, if you have some time to spare.
For the more contemporary writers I mentioned, Gawande and Lethem, perhaps you might learn a bit about them via popular media. I believe Gawande appeared on The Colbert Report and I heard Lethem give an interview with Terry Gross on the NPR program Fresh Air. But there is no counterpart for the particular essays I linked to in other media. You either read those or you miss out. Those are the only alternatives. This much of the argument is that reading is still necessary as a way to stay informed.
Of course, you can't read everything that is out there. Nobody can, not even the most bookish of people. Given that and given that each of us will read different things, by happenstance and in accord with our own interests, who is to say that a student doesn't read enough?
Yet if we are to think of the triad in how kids allocate their recreation time: (1) playing computer or video games, (2) watching TV, and (3) reading, who is to say that most kids get a good and appropriate balance here? There are some obvious reasons why reading might get short changed. It can't be done with friends, the entry requirements are higher to make good progress with it, and the lags are longer to get some satisfaction from the activity.
Some may respond, so what? So reading suffers in competition with alternative forms of recreation. What of it? Indeed, 10 years ago the NY Times Magazine featured a piece called Watching TV Makes You Smarter. If the argument in that piece is right, why read any more than you absolutely have to?
I don't dispute that there is some puzzle solving in any form of media consumption. But with reading, there is the issue of making good meaning from what is being read as an ongoing challenge for the reader. This is quite apart from any puzzles posed by the narrative. In contrast, entry into the narrative of a TV show is more or less immediate. A viewer can do this with autonomous mental processes only. That leaves the conscious mind to focus on the narrative, or perhaps to mull over what happened at work that day, with the chatter on the TV serving more as background noise to enable this sort of reflection.
My sense is that too many students, including students we think of as quite able, aren't sufficiently skilled at making good meaning from what they read. Here I'm talking about pieces meant for a general audience. If you take that as a starting point and then ask whether students are aware that they aren't fully understanding, what conclusion will you draw if the answer to that question is yes? How could reading possibly be enjoyable for you if you didn't get it? There are the elements of a vicious cycle in these questions.
What might be done to break this cycle? I definitely don't have a fully formed program to address this question, but I wonder about the following. Do college courses actually contribute to the vicious cycle, by having the readings so arcane and the textbooks so dry that nobody would consider reading them for pleasure? If so, could one construct a set of courses based solely on readings that touch the students in some way? And if one did this, might the students learn more about the subject matter because they actually did an liked the reading?
More broadly, my view is a reading program based on the reader's intrinsic motivation should be tried. This would require finding readings that fit in terms of the reader's current capacity to make meaning, the reader's interest in subject matter, and the quality of the writing to evoke a strong response. There are reading coaches for some select students at the grade school level (those with a proven learning disability). If we had reading coaches much more broadly deployed might we change the trajectory we currently seem to be one where each successive generations reads less and less for pleasure?
My hope is that it would.