Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Did Groucho Meet Einstein?

"Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week."
       -- George Bernard Shaw

As amusing as a short story might be with the premise of what would go on in such a meeting as posed in the title to this post, I'll leave that story to be crafted by somebody else.  Here I want to consider them iconically.  Groucho is the quintessential symbol of the wisecrack, the type that emerges spontaneously and a propos in context.  Groucho also embodied a compulsive need to make humor.  It was part of his personality, not the "work" he did at the office and that he stopped doing upon returning home.  (I have no idea how Groucho behaved when he returned home.  I haven't read a biography of him nor do I recall stories by others about him in a social setting, though Dick Cavett, in particular, has written a lot about Groucho recently.  I'm simply guessing at how it must have been to be him and to have lived with him.)  Einstein represents a quite different sort of human behavior - deep and deliberate thought, highly abstract, creativity in the design of the particular abstraction.  And with that, I believe there was an equally compulsive need in him to engage in that sort of behavior, though if I understand his biography enough in later years he wasn't nearly as good at it as he was when he was younger.

Without concerning myself in regard to my proficiency in these dimensions, I find both compulsions in me and wonder why they are there.  In my peer group professionally - the members of the CIC Learning Technology group when I was a member as exemplar - this conjunction was unique.  I know enough about statistics to not be very impressed with outliers in small samples.  (In the statistics part of Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman has a chapter on this topic and makes a compelling case that outliers will actually be fairly common in small samples - thus the use of the term outlier is a misnomer - because they aren't all that unlikely.)  But I do think that the observation might be indicative of a difference in views about education as I will elaborate below.  Also, to the extent there is a substantive difference, I want to look exclusively at nurture and ignore nature entirely as a possible explanation.  Presumably the modes of nurture and our approach to them can change and if some modes are better than other then perhaps we might move to embrace those better modes.  My sense is that too many in the nurturing business, mainly parents, but also educators and other mentors, have largely let inferior methods predominate.

Let me articulate this as simply as possible.  There are two possible theories of learning and how nurture impacts learning.  One I call the joie theory, the approach I advocate.  Learning is essentially play and in play there is learning.  For young children, this is an entirely ordinary idea that most people subscribe to.  For older children and adults too, many might find it a novel idea.  I've written about it earlier in my post PLAs Please, where there is an informal but highly important form of education in some parts of the leisure a person takes.  Families that cultivate the PLA in their children are the ones where Groucho meets Einstein, or so is my conjecture.  But there is a bit more to the conjecture than that.  Some play, a game of chess or a game of bridge, especially when played at an intermediate to high level for example, entails a substantial amount of reflection to it and in that sense may be closer to Einstein than to Groucho.  Wisecracks happen in the present tense and are part of the flow of the moment, near instinctual in their generation.  They are not rehearsed ahead of time.  A reflective wisecrack isn't.  The type of nurture I'm thinking of cherishes both the wedding of the PLA to formal learning and the marriage of invention that comes out of spontaneity with the sort of creativity that needs much reflection.  In so doing the nurture also helps balance the social life of the child with introspection.

As I said there are two theories.  The other I'll call the pain theory.  For its advocates learning is hard work.  To the extent that the child's instinct is to shirk, nurture under the pain theory requires pushing the child to do what is good for him or her.  Amy Chua may be the best known practitioner of the pain theory at present.  The singular activity that best represents the pain theory is making the child learn to play the violin, particularly at a very young age, and then forcing the child to practice diligently.  (This is not to say there can't be joie in playing the violin. Itzhak Perlman used to be a regular on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and after performing a piece would banter with the host with evident pleasure in doing so.  The pain comes not from mastering the instrument but rather from being forced into doing so.)   The role of recreation is different under the pain theory.  To the extent they allow themselves time for it or allow their children time for it, recreation is an escape from the pain.  So recreation is not a time for personal growth.  It is a time to veg out. 

The system, I fear, is skewed in favor of the pain theory.  The system seems to be breaking.  In looking for alternatives let me offer up joie. And in measuring student learning, something we now seem obsessed with, let me suggest that we pay at least some attention to what kids do during recreation, presumably when they have control of their own activities.  To my knowledge very few people are asking this sort of question.  This piece is meant as encouragement that more should consider the possibilities.

How as a parent or teacher does one embrace the joie theory, to make little Grouchos or little Einsteins or, if not that, children who end up with similar habits of mind, quite irrespective of what they produce as a consequence of those habits?  I wish I had a full model, but all I can suggest are a few sketches of ideas.  The first is to pose imperatives, but within them give a range of choice.  The kid needs a musical education, for example, but maybe singing instead of playing an instrument and maybe for a good while letting the parental example do the suggestion rather than saying its time to start lessons, now chose which instruments you want to learn.  My friend Shelli talks about "agency" so much in her work because, as I understand it, many people actually don't have a sense of it.  In the joie theory, agency is an indirect byproduct, one that is acquired at a young age to some degree because through his or her choices the child produces personal growth and joie and can see that to be the case. 

Then there is the sense of Bruner's "spiral curriculum," which in my mind should hold for learning in leisure as much as it does in the formal setting.  It is important to recognize that Groucho's wisecracks and Einstein's theories each represent highly developed forms of mental activity.  (I was going to say "mature" where I ended up writing "developed" but Grouchos humor probably is not best described with that descriptor.)  So we should be asking ourselves, what do earlier forms of this sort of behavior look like?  I know that in my household where I've otherwise been deliberately inattentive to the education of my own children, lest they buckle under the weight of having an academic as a parent, I have emphasized the making of the pun on the fly and the pure pleasure that results when they've come up with a "good one."  Both boys got the message and the making of puns is now part of their arsenal, though the quality of their product is variable at best.  My wife would have no compunction in saying the same about mine and my friends and colleagues, who likely would be more reserved out of politeness, probably think similarly in regard to the various rhymes I produce.  So, on the one hand, living in the glass house I shouldn't throw stones on the quality front.  And, on the other hand, my point is that the doing is more important because the activity encourages finding links between seemingly disparate ideas and making that sort of association is useful well outside the punning arena.

Wisecracks may be puns plus irreverence, with the latter emerging later as a natural response to authority that has gone awry or abused entirely.   I don't think irreverence can emerge directly from nurture.  But I do think it is a healthier response than what is likely to result under the pain theory - anger, possibly followed by revolution.  So it is my view that wisecracks of the sort that Groucho was so good at are a sort of intellectual buffer that enables moderation and accommodation.  The pain theory, in contrast, is more likely to produce an extreme response, utter disillusionment or rage.  This is another way of thinking about how we nurture and its consequences.  It seems unreasonable to expect authority to always respect its limits.  Some of the solution then is not with governing authority but with ourselves and our reaction when those limits have been surpassed.

On the predecessor of deep reflective thought, that has got to be reading in a way of getting lost in the story.  Nurture of this sort must cultivate that.  Many others have ideas on how to do this and perhaps better than what I can muster.  So here I will note my first memory of this happening myself was reading Charlotte's Web and sitting in a particular overstuffed chair in our basement while doing so.  Inferring backwards from that, the nurture required having the book in our house, either through purchase or borrowed from the Library, located in a place where I'd have access to it when I wanted, and a comfortable place to be able to read in isolation from others.  Of course, you can set the table and yet the guests don't show up for dinner, or they do come but it is a miserable experience because the food is overcooked or the guests are rude or something else bad happens. For me there remains much mystery on the encouraging reading front, turning it into a likelihood rather than just a possibility.  But it seems clear that is the goal and that it be part of recreation entirely outside of school is critical, in my view.

Without making a big stink out of it, in retrospect I think that there was something pernicious about the Harry Potter series, even if those books did encourage the kids to read for pleasure.   First, they really weren't starter books, as Charlotte's Web was.  Second, each book was kind of long, so wouldn't be finished in a sitting or two, allowing the child to move onto something else.  Third, they created a kind of addiction for a genre at too early an age, so the kids didn't read a broad spectrum of stuff for pleasure.  This leads to the next point.

The move from immersion in pleasure reading to a desire for reflection and one's own intellectual creativity is not an obvious one and maybe some children who are serious readers never make the leap.  I know for me it was doing math as much as reading that encouraged the Einstein-like habit.   But math for me came out of school and given how many kids get alienated about math in school, some quite early on, it seems foolhardy to advocate for it as the way most will come to embrace the joie theory.  I'm afraid to say, but I think it true, that math becomes the focus of the pain theory.  (Then later, for pre-meds especially, organic chemistry plays the role while for business majors its intermediate microeconomics that becomes the object of mental torture.)   So I think it has to be reading but reading across a broad spectrum, everything engaging - science, history, politics, fiction.  If this is true the kid needs something of a personal librarian, who understand where the kid is in what the kid has already read but also understands this need to try other things.  I'm not sure who the personal librarian should be - parent or somebody else.  But it is that type of nurture, I believe, that will let the kid make a good path.

Let me wrap up with a note of gratitude to my dad, who'd be 100 this April.  He understood the joie theory, intuitively if not explicitly, and his ideas about education were remarkably effective in my development, much more so on the informal front than in school.  He was no Groucho.  But he used to smile a few seconds before he'd tell us a joke.  The smile is what we should be after. 

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