Sunday, May 06, 2007

Off-the-cuff musing: A culture of savants?

Yesterday I dashed up to Topeka to visit with Mrs. M. for the day at her parents' house, and while there we watched a Discovery Channel piece on Kim Peek and recent attempts by neuroscientists to get at just what it is that results in Peek's extraordinary capacity for recalling fact. Peek is the closest person I know who is like the the title character in Borges' magnificent short story "Funes the Memorious," but that's not why I'm writing this little post.

I'm writing this because, in a couple of ways, he reminds me of some of my students.

I'd prefer to link to a transcript of or a video link to the show, but in the short time I have, I couldn't figure out the Discovery Channel's website well enough to be able to do that, so: apologies in advance for having to rely on my own, imperfect memory. Two separate remarks, each having to do with missing connections but themselves not overtly connected in the show itself, struck me as really interesting. The first was that a scan of Peek's brain revealed that that portion of the brain that, in "normal" brains, links the left and right hemispheres is all but missing in his. This seems to result in the fact, something like what most of us, because of cultural and historical divides, must do when looking at Bruegel’s painting Proverbs, that Peek takes literally what most of us would recognize as figurative language: One researcher said that, when he asked himwhat it means to "get a grip on yourself," Peek immediately began grabbing at himself. The other arose from the comments of a psychologist who interviewed Peek. She noted that while Peek is not shy about approaching people and speaking with them, he has at his disposal a set of stock phrases that he uses with them. There's no semantic give-and-take in those encounters and, thus, no "conversation." He doesn't engage with or respond to others so much as sort of talk at them.

First observation: My students are not savants but, like Peek, many of them have lost, or don't exercise, their capacity to comprehend figurative language. The immediate context for my self-quoting below (in comments to a post of Ariel's in The Vocabulary Reclamation Project) is speculation on the consequences of the loss of metaphor on spirituality, but

As a teacher, I've noticed my students' declining ability to think abstractly, which they may think of as being free of illusion but I think of as neglecting or making harder their chief job, being human.

I think an inevitable consequence of the atrophying of our capacity for figurative language leads to that phenomenon of "collage students":
The picture you see at the top of this post is illustrative of the challenge I face as a college instructor (I know they're middle-school students, but the idea's the same). All those faces, apparently happy . . . but none looking at each other, and only one looking at the viewer. This seemed more representative of what I've found to be true in my classrooms' dynamics than what I saw as I perused similar pictures from college websites. Their pictures have the students either looking at each other or, say, a Bunsen burner, as they earnestly engage in some academic endeavor, or they're looking at the viewer. Would that such pictures reflected the reality of the classroom, at least as I experience it in my little corner at a community college. That's not a complaint, mind: it's simply fact. The vast majority of my students want to be in class, so that's not what I'm speaking of. It is that, as the EMBLOS says in her discussion of Walter Ong, we've entered into a new orality, one which the various new electronic media, going back, I'd say, to the arrival of cable television and including--especially?--the Internet, facilitate, serving simultaneously as that orality's symptom and cause. They're looking every which way because they have so many places to look, but they don't all have a place in common look (and no, Google doesn't count). Thus the absence of appositives and, as I've noted with my students, the difficulty they have in thinking about abstract ideas and in presenting the arguments of people who might disagree with them. All is here and now and/but centers around the individual.

Obviously: I'm in no way arguing that Kim Peek isn't a human being. But part of being human is putting oneself in the shoes of another as a first step toward engaging with that other: metaphorical language, yes, but what other recourse do we have to express the act of engaging? How does one describe that act empirically?

What I was fascinated by as I watched Peek in this program was that he seemed to me a physical embodiment of a cultural and social phenomenon: an unspoken disconnect between Mine and Thine. I was watching him, but in him I saw us.


Camille said...

I'd be interested to know whether the phenomenon you are observing is caused by the developmental level of your students, is actually caused by technology, or is some combination of the two? Also, how do the present students compared to those ten years ago?

As a beginning teacher I struggled with figuring out what were realistic expectations for the various ages of students that I worked with. I made many gross miscalculations before I knew what to expect. I imagine with college students, they are almost adults, but still may be holding on to adolescent thought patterns (your ego-centric group sound like high-schoolers). Therein, the million dollar question... how to bring them to the next level of understanding. I certainly don't envy your job. :)

dejavaboom said...

I see this every day in my toddlers at home, literalism (a word?) and the disconnect twixt Mine and Thine ...but I am more worried about the utter absence of "Ours". Understandable in babies, unforgivable in human beings. Figurative language my students don't grasp: 'fabric of society' *sigh*