Mind-Changing Books: The Mind on Paper

In the first blog of this series on education, I wrote about Werner Jaeger’s Paideia. This three-volume work from the 1930s and 1940s details the invention in the Greek era of the kind of “question-pondering” education that I value. I recently read through these volumes for the first time, and they made a deep impression on me.

In this companion piece, I write about another book that has impacted me significantly. It is a recently authored book by my friend and colleague David Olson.

David Olson is a psychologist and cognitive scientist with an enduring interest in education, and particularly in literacy education. We all recognize that the human species made a huge leap when, sometime in the last fifty thousand years, our powers of expressive and receptive spoken oral language first emerged. As homo sapiens, we became able to express in words what we were thinking or conceptualizing (on the likely assumption that we actually had thoughts); to speak to and convince others about what was happening and how we thought about it; and, perhaps as well, to reflect on our own thinking.

A second epochal step occurred when, about 5000 years, writing was invented in the Middle East. In addition to expressing ourselves orally, those of us who were literate could write down for future reference our thoughts, our desires, our fears, our financial transactions, and, for that matter, our shopping and laundry lists. Think The Iliad, The Odyssey, the code of Hammurabi, and indeed the holy scriptures of various religions. Equally, those in our midst (and even those far away) who were literate could read what we had written and form reactions and judgments. While Plato and Socrates were critical of the proliferation of the written word—because it appeared to threaten human powers of memory—the capacity to read and write became desirable and treasured. It was the pressure to obtain literacies—in the mother tongue, in classical languages (read or spoken), in numbers and other forms of mathematical symbolization—that led initially to the widespread opening of institutions and settings that merit the label “schools.”

The invention of the printing press represented a major milestone: no longer was literacy restricted to specially-trained male scribes—it became widespread in any society with the means and the motivation to print and spread written words. In fact, in nineteenth-century England, It’s estimated that, each week, 10% of the adult population read a serialized chapter of the current novel by Charles Dickens (quite possibly drafted only a week before).

In two mind-opening books, The World on Paper (1994) and The Mind on Paper (2016), David Olson delineates the tremendous capacities conferred on individuals when they become truly and wholly literate. Not only can they sound out words (e.g. C-A-T denotes and means cat). Not only can they read and understand a sentence in a book (e.g. “The cat has four legs and a tail”). Ultimately—and this is the powerful point demonstrated by Olson—if they (we) continue to read and to become members of a genuinely literate society, they (we) come to think in a totally different way.

Consider some examples. If I say, “The cat has four legs and a tail,” you can look at the cat and see whether I am right or wrong. But if I say, ”Homer said that the cat has four legs and a tail,” you immediately hesitate because Homer was reportedly blind. Or if I say “The cat has no tail,” you either think that I am blind or that I am speaking about an unusual cat. To use the technical term, I’ve introduced the notion of a propositional attitude. It’s not a question of whether the cat has a tail per se; it’s a question of who made the statement, for what reason, on what evidence, and with what desired impact.

Now the previous exchanges could occur in a non-literate society. But in the absence of a written record, it’s difficult to recall who said what, when, and why. Literacy allows us to pin down claims, to ascertain who made them, and to draw at least tentative conclusions about their veracity. Otherwise, it’s just my words against yours (I say “words,” but in a preliterate society, the very concept of “words” does not even exist—nor does it exist for toddlers even today).

It’s not that difficult to understand that individuals make statements and that these individuals can be challenged on whether those statements are true or false or indeterminate—and how we might ascertain which is the case. The genuine sea change occurs when one goes through life perpetually thinking in terms of the nature of claims, on whose warrant, with what authority, and how one might substantiate or challenge those claims. Nowadays, in any learned profession (as opposed to a craft or skill), much of the education and much of the discourse takes place via statements of the sort that I mentioned—who made them, why, with what consequence, and with what sequel. The nature of science changed—indeed, one could say that science was actually invented—not when individuals observed nature, nor when they conducted experiments, nor when they discussed them with friends, but when they wrote about what they had done. Only by virtue of public­ation did they subject their claims to discussion, to argument, and to confirmation or refutation by others who read those words and accompanying symbols and reacted in a publishable manner—also in terms of words and other symbols, like mathematical, musical, or other forms of graphic notation.

To drive home this crucial point, let me use two familiar examples. The first comes from the kinds of standardized tests that we have come to take for granted today in developed societies. The student reads a paragraph or two and has to answer questions about the paragraphs. Rarely if ever is the students asked simply to state whether the sentence(s) are true or false. Rather, the successful student needs to be able to think in terms of the author and reader—and answer questions like, “The author probably believes…“, “In view of what you’ve read, the next section of the essay will address”, or “Which of the following phrases is least likely to be the subtitle for the essay?” Such questions, depending on whether you select the “correct answer” of 4-5 offered alternatives, can determine whether you are admitted to the college or graduate program of your choice. Successful performance depends upon your being able to take what Olson terms a meta-representational stance: understand the author, his or her propositional attitudes, what kind of an argument is being made, and what is likely or unlikely to follow from it. Truth and falsity of individual sentences have nothing to do with such questions. Indeed, one can make valid or invalid inferences even if the entire paragraph consists of statements that are false.

Moving from the classroom to the political campaign, many observers (including, presumably many readers of this blog—I am being meta-representational here) believed that Hillary Clinton would win the U.S. presidency, perhaps handily. But insightful analyst Salena Zito—one clearly capable of meta-representational thinking—asserted, “Hillary supporters took Trump literally, not seriously,” while “Trump supporters took Trump seriously but not literally.” In Olson’s terms, Hillary supporters listened to the words that Trump spoke, realized that many of his assertions were false or fatuous, thought about what followed or did not follow from those assertions, and so dismissed his candidacy. In contrast (according to this line of argument), Trump supporters did not listen to him the way that a highly literate would read another—not word for word, not sentence by sentence, not in terms of implications and consequences. Rather, paying scant attention to specific claims and implications, the Trump supporters discerned the emotional force, the “good guys” and the “bad guys” being portrayed, and the underlying points that Trump was intimating—and proved sympathetic to those implicit messages.

Put another way, many Trump supporters listened right through the words and attended to the underlying meaning, much like someone who was not reared in a literate world (which of course is not to say that they were illiterate—though it is worth noting that Trump, while literate, does not read books and claims to love “the poorly educated”). In contrast, many Clinton supporters, as readers who spend much of their times living in the meta-representational land of linguistic implications, insisted on listening to the phrases, connecting them to the speaker of the propositions, and then passing judgments on whether or not the statements were warranted and what implications and conclusions followed from their premises.

These are two different stances to spoken (and written) language. Language has literal meaning as well as underlying force. Ideally, one is able to attend to both forms of meaning—indeed, the classical study of rhetoric, dating back to classical times, focuses on convincing people and not on being literally accurate. But it’s important to know what kind of an endeavor one is involved in and not to misdirect one’s efforts or conclusions. Just as literal truthfulness and warranted inferences may not count for much in a political campaign, outsized rhetoric is inappropriate in a scientific article. Indeed, current work in cognitive psychology by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argues that we develop reasons in order to convince and not to be truthful. Evolutionarily, that assertion may be accurate; but the entire thrust of science, if not of scholarship altogether, is to transcend arguments that are merely powerful in favor of devising explanations that stand the test of time.

As I have just hinted, there’s much more to say about each of these books, and I continue to ponder their messages and their implications. I believe that Olson pursued his work without attention to Werner Jaeger’s writings about the origins of classical education and of course Jaeger, who died in 1961, could not have known about Olson’s writings. And yet I see them as integrally related. Olson could not have thought what he thought or written what he had written in the absence of the habits of mind and word that were initially enabled by the Greeks (recall the titles of Olson’s books The World on Paper and The Mind on Paper). For his part, despite his erudition, Jaeger carried out his analyses before cognitive psychology and cognitive science had emerged. And so he could not have anticipated and explicated the changes of thinking and representation wrought by the written world and how his world—and indeed our worlds—have been remade as a consequence.

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