Sunday, August 15, 2010

Education as Sociability Versus Education as Regurgitating Information: An Asperger Dilemma




James Pate ran with my post on Asperger sociability, contrasting it with a valedictorian speech by Erica Goldson. Goldson expresses her own frustrations about being declared valedictorian by her school:

… in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contend that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I'm scared.


Reflecting on this issue, James notes:


I like the idea of reading things outside of my school assignments, something that I didn't do too much until about three years ago. Yes, I think that I was right to go to school and learn stuff that didn't interest me. That's the case right now, for I need to know certain things that I consider boring in order to navigate my way through life effectively. But it's enjoyable to learn for the sake of learning.

At the same time, as a person with Asperger's (and there are people with Asperger's who may have different impressions on this), I enjoyed the structure of school. You study, learn facts, regurgitate them back to your teacher, and thereby succeed.


Like James I have mixed feelings about education as a process of absorbing information and spitting it back out. Let me say right off that I do not endorse such a mode of education and, like most people, agree that, in of itself, such an education is pointless and only serves to teach children how to play the system and ultimately hate learning. That being said, my younger self did have a very high regard for this process and was quite good at it at least in so far as this information pertained to a field of interest, mainly history. My younger self saw knowledge as the ultimate good; the more information you had in your head the smarter you were and the closer you were to understanding reality. It was only when I got into college that I started to seriously think about the purpose of studying history and the underlying methods by which one does so. My view of knowledge shifted from knowledge as self evident and objectively true facts to be passively received to methods of analysis to be used to make sense of subjective pieces of information, meaning nothing in of themselves. Today the history courses I teach are less about historical facts than a method with which to analyze the period incidentally listed in the title of the course. (See The Challenge of Skeptical Relativism.)


Despite having moved away from my earlier attitude toward education I still have not completely rejected it. Even in retrospect, I do not see the time I spent memorizing historical facts as being wasted. On the contrary I see it as a necessary stage in my intellectual development, without which I could not be the method thinker that I am today. It was in reading Daniel Willingham's Why Student's Don't Like School that the two sides of my thinking clicked together. Willingham offers a defense of rote learning, particularly in the early stages of education as a necessary foundation for any serious intellectual education. In any field there are just certain things you are going to have to know cold before you move on and there is no way around simply having to grimace and swallow. A conversation about critically understanding the history of western civilization is going to mean nothing to people who lack a basic awareness of Caesar, Charlemagne and Napoleon. (Unfortunately this includes a fair number of college students who supposedly passed European history in high school.) So a process of memorizing and spitting back information does have its limited place. Think of it is capital to be earned and then spent in order to acquire a real education.

4 comments:

Idler Stork said...

Can critical thinking skills be taught?

Back in undergrad days, I took an English course in Critical Thinking and Philosophy course in Logic and learned very little.

I learned all my methods of analysis in my empty bedroom, when I would drop the book I was reading anytime I hit upon something interesting; I would just sit and think think think until I was able to decipher the symbolism or make connections. It was pure effort, uninterrupted thinking which led to long chains-of-thought. I believe in the efficacy of pure, uninterrupted contemplation.

Do you think everyone has this capacity? It seems like people with Asperger have an advantage in contemplative thinking because they would be able to tune out all the social minutia swirling around them. Has that been your experience?

- RVA

Izgad said...

RVA

Good to hear from you.
My response would be yes, critical thinking can be taught, but not in the setting of your average classroom, focused on tests and with a teacher who is a mere passive broadcasting mechanism for information. What you need is more of a master disciple relationship as opposed to teacher and student relationship. For example I had the good experience to take numerous classes with Dr. Louis Feldman at Yeshiva University. Whatever titles where one Feldman’s courses, whether “History of Rome,” “Classical Literature,” Greek or Latin, were incidental. The classes were about Feldman being himself and going on any side tangent that suited his fancy. Over several semesters you got to see and appreciate a man who has the entire field of classical history on his finger tips and how he thought through issues. So more than learning anything about classics you learned how to be a historian.

Clarissa said...

"It seems like people with Asperger have an advantage in contemplative thinking because they would be able to tune out all the social minutia swirling around them. Has that been your experience?"

- It has definitely been my experience. I agree with you that it is necessary to sit and concentrate for long periods of time on your subject and that can't be taught.

However, what can and should be taught in the classroom is the end result of such contemplation. Most students today have no idea that, say, a literary text can conceal anything of interest beyond what it says (or seems to say) directly, hence, it doesn't even occur to them that such concentrated thinking is nevessary for a deeper understanding of a text.

So when I come to the classroom (at least, in the lower-level classes), I listen to their interpretations of the readings and then show to them how much more can be extracted from the text through analysis. It's a little like doing magic tricks. The end result is hopefully that the students would think "Wow, I want to do that to a text as well." :-)

Clarissa said...

"The classes were about Feldman being himself and going on any side tangent that suited his fancy. Over several semesters you got to see and appreciate a man who has the entire field of classical history on his finger tips and how he thought through issues. So more than learning anything about classics you learned how to be a historian."

- I couldn't agree with this more! What I bring to the classroom is so much more than a collection of facts on Hispanic Civilization. I bring the language, the culture, and a certain way of being within that language and culture.

This is why Internet learning at the college level is a stupid idea.