Monday, November 07, 2005


This week’s Magazine in the Sunday New York Times has some interesting pieces. The featured article, A Doctor for the Future, is excellent as a read, though I couldn’t make a connection from it to learning technology. It is the story, primarily, of genetic diseases among children of the Amish (and Mennonites) of Pennsylvania who are more prone to these problems because of inbreeding, how modern medicine – post the mapping of the human genome – can and cannot help them, and about a particular doctor, Holmes Morton, who has been tending to these people and in this practice building a case for tying diagnosis of genetic deficiency to the treatment of patients, though struggling to disseminate these ideas because treating patients competes for Morton’s time with publishing journal articles about the approach. It is truly a moving story and fascinating because of the various juxtapositions as well as the power and determination of Morton to provide decent medical care to these deserving but uneasy to serve people.

There is another piece in that same Magazine, this one called The Literary Darwinists, that I am going to try to tie to learning technology, even if that is a stretch. The article is about an emerging school of literary criticism, school may be too strong a term but I’m not sure what else to call it, that as a tonic to the more standard deconstructionist approach (that is standard from within English departments, not for the rest of us who read the occasional fiction for fun and personal expansion), which looks at literature from the point of view of a species preserving activity, more or less in the same way that school socials might be considered species promoting, in that they encourage dating and hence mating.

While most of us who are not English professors (myself included) may shy away from current literary criticism because we don’t have enough background to participate in the discussion, we nonetheless do have some feeling for Darwin’s precepts, especially as they are practiced through the lens of evolutionary psychology. Within the scope of their work the literary Darwinists get to opine about what species preserving function reading has, especially reading of what would be considered great literature. Clearly, the direct effect is to take the reader away from more obviously productive and consequently species preserving activities – providing food or shelter, making the environment otherwise safer, or engaging in or encouraging procreation. But such reading, when it is effective, tends to reach us deeply touching our inner being. This may provide hope, inspiration, and a spirit of accomplishment that may help us in deeds that more obviously fit into the Darwinian mold.

Having recently completed Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat, I’m struck by how his entire vision can readily be cast in Darwinian terms and his concluding chapter focused on the need for imagination, not the imagination of Osama Bin Laden, but rather the imagination of those who brought down the Berlin Wall. If this sort of creativity is critical for species survival and literature and the reading of such acts as a spur for such creativity, perhaps the evolutionary interpretation is not such a stretch.

Then, to bring this back down to learning technology, the question/concern is whether there is something unique about language in its written form as a means of communication to spur the imagination or if other forms, those that are more graphical and otherwise engage the visual and auditory senses, can also promote the imagination and thereby supplant this role that literature has played for the last several hundred years.

Let me get back to that. Although the discussion was about evolutionary psychology, I could not help but think of Abraham Maslow and his notion of self-actualization. Maslow may have been too descriptive in his methods for studying self-actualization and his theory may itself be self contradictory as a prediction of behavior to get him mentioned in the Times article (the theory asserts that if more basic needs are not satisfied the individual can’t go on to satisfy higher needs, although perhaps Maslow’s most impressive self-actualizer, Lincoln, endured all sorts of hardships while simultaneously self-actualizing) yet Maslow’s view of self actualization is uplifting and should be considered by educators in its own right.

With a very simple Google search I found this delightful Web site on Maslow that gives a brief biography and some of basics of his theory. The bulleted list of needs that the self-actualizer feels seems to me a good set of aspirations that we should want for our students when they graduate. It seems to me a fair question to ask whether our curricula help the students become self-actualizers and if so to be explicit on how that is accomplished. According to the article, Maslow himself thought only a limited elite comprising no more than 2% of the population engaged in self-actualization on a regular basis. The piece does not say whether in Maslow’s view this represents inherited differences among the population, or if it was because most of the others are somehow engaged in more basic life struggle. If the latter, one might imagine that as real income rises that fraction of the population that self-actualizes would also rise. And one might think that education, particularly higher education, would be uniquely suited to encourage this behavior.

I want to bring in one more observation that is relevant and then wrap this up. Over the weekend I saw an interview with Ron Howard the director (and former star of Happy Days and Andy of Mayberry). He was talking about lessons he learned from John Ford, the great director as, in particular, applied to The Missing, where the characters lived a very hard life and had to go through some excruciating circumstances. Ford’s advice was to show only part of what the characters were going through on film and to let the audience’s imagination fill in the other parts for themselves. This seems to me to be correct and explains why Hitchcock films, while dated in their sets and other environs, nonetheless still come off as interesting stories to watch, and why more modern “special effects movies” lack the ability to offer other than mindless entertainment.

So I for one don’t think it is the medium, written text on the one hand versus highly visual content on the other, that is fundamental to inspiring creativity in others. It is that the artistry with which these works are created that matters and that artistry can happen across media. But with writing or painting or photography, there is the self-actualization of the artist at play and that is primary in determining the work which is produced. With motion pictures and video games, there clearly is team production and managing that would seem to me possibly in conflict with artistic creation – certainly the management of the team is itself a complex activity and therefore could be a distraction.

It does seem to me that emerging technologies have this potential to inspire potentially self-actualizing students if coupled with the creative use of the instructor and that early adopter faculty, in particular, have an intuitive sense of that possibility. Perhaps we need to shift the framework of the conversation from good instruction to inspirational teaching. I for one would like to see Maslow discussed more frequently in learning technology circles.

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