Transformative Experiences: Positive and Negative

It is certainly reasonable for education to foster transformative experiences. I am skeptical of any educational program, whether preschool or adult classes, which denies that it seeks to bring about such experiences. To be sure, transformation cannot be guaranteed. Moreover, there can be false positives—one thinks that the trip to Europe with one’s friends was transformative, but it actually disappears from memory with little trace. And there can be false negatives: one takes a course in art history and gives it a low rating. But later in life, one calls regularly and gratefully on knowledge and skills from the course as one begins to collect or indeed to make drawings.

In my own case, during my years as a graduate student at Harvard, I had two experiences which, at least in retrospect, prove to have been quite transformative. One was decidedly negative, the other clearly positive.

The bad news first. As a beginning graduate student in developmental psychology, I was required to take a course in social psychology. The course was taught by two young instructors: Stanley Milgram, an expert in the experimental study and manipulation of human behavior, and Thomas Pettigrew, an expert on the nature and sources of prejudice. Each week, about 15 graduate students read key texts and then, seminar style, sat around a table and discussed the readings critically.

I took the course a few years after Milgram had carried out and published his path-breaking studies on “obedience to authority.” One week, we read and discussed a key article about the amazing finding—that, contrary to what the overwhelming majority of psychiatrists had predicted, most American subjects would deliver a powerful electric shock to another individual simply because a man wearing a laboratory jacket had so instructed them.

In the course of the discussion, I made a few critical remarks about the experiment. I wish that I could remember their substance; I do remember that they were quite reasonable comments, and I think that I presented them in a polite or at least a non-confrontational manner.

What then happened, fifty years after the event, still makes me shudder. For several minutes Milgram viciously attacked me, saying that I was trying to ruin him, destroy his career, undermine social psychological experiments, and blow up the field of social psychology. None of these comments were fair-minded—indeed, I would call them paranoid.

What happened thereafter was even worse. Not a single person in the room—neither my fellow students, nor the other faculty member—rose to my defense in any way. Rather, like a sudden, one-time explosion, the episode passed, and we went on to other comments on other readings.

Only after the session did my fellow classmates and the other professor come and speak to me and, in effect, apologized to me for Milgram’s unprompted explosion. I was too stunned to ask them why and, indeed, sought to suppress if not banish the experience altogether from my mind.

But in fact the opposite occurred. I learned invaluable lessons from the experience, ones that have stayed with me to this day. First, you can get attacked by an authority figure, and there is nothing that you can do about it at the time. Second, do not expect to be defended, even by individuals who know better. Three, continue to speak your mind, but strive to do so in as non-confrontational a manner as possible. And, if you cross over a line, apologize.

You may wonder what happened, in a small academic department, between Milgram and me. We never discussed the event. We entered into the more traditional student-faculty relationship, and he even read and commented on some of my papers. And later on, well after I graduated, we had a few professional contacts. Milgram died at a very young age—his loss to the field (as well as to his family and friends) was severe, and I have long since forgiven him, though I have never forgotten him.

On to the positive experience—and happily so. As a graduate student, I was a founding member of Harvard Project Zero, a research group in education which happily survives to this day, fifty years later. Project Zero was initially directed by Nelson Goodman, an eminent philosopher who was particularly interested in the nature of different kinds of symbols, including those in the arts. (With David Perkins, I co-directed Project Zero from 1972-2000.)

Goodman and I became quite close, and we even collaborated on projects—he as a seasoned philosopher, I as a budding psychologist. We were both interested in how different kinds of symbols are understood and processed—for example, to use the language of Susanne Langer (see here), how human beings process written and spoken language as compared to how we process the visual arts or dance.

At that time, studies of the functions of the two halves of the brain were becoming known, due chiefly to experimental procedures whereby one can send stimuli only to the left or the right hemisphere. Both Goodman and I wondered whether the difference between language (and what is often called a discursive symbol) and depiction (what is often called a presentational symbol) might be respected (respectively!) by the left and right hemispheres of the brain—thus giving a “material” basis for a distinction important to philosophers and psychologists.

It so happened that Norman Geschwind, a brilliant young neurologist working in Boston, had been studying this issue—disorders of higher cortical functions with brain-damaged patients. Possibly with my help, Goodman invited Geschwind to speak to our small research group, then housed in a small building on Prescott Street in Cambridge.

As with the Milgram episode, I do not remember the details of Geschwind’s presentation—though I could certainly invent one convincingly because I heard him lecture at least 100 times in the succeeding fifteen years. But as an individual interested in artistry (then the principal focus of Project Zero), I was fascinated to learn that famous artists had been studied after they had sustained damage to their brains—and that what they were still able to do, as opposed to capacities that had been impaired, revealed important information about artistry. So, for example, a famous composer had sustained damage to certain areas of the left hemisphere; he could no longer speak, but he could still compose. In contrast, an eminent painter with damage to certain areas of the right hemisphere could still speak about his drawings, but the spatial configurations were greatly distorted.

Not only were these findings fascinating and counter-intuitive. I came to realize that a study of the brain—and particularly of cortical pathology—might hold answers to questions about the nature and organization of artistry. These were questions that had haunted me but for which I had hitherto lacked both populations to study and methods by which to study them.

Not long thereafter, I made one of the major decisions of my then young scholarly life. Instead of continuing work in developmental psychology and looking for a teaching job, I instead would seek to do postdoctoral work in neuropsychology with Norman Geschwind. He was kind enough to agree. I did a three year post-doctoral fellowship under his guidance, and we became colleagues and friends until his untimely death in 1984—when he, like Milgram, was still in the prime of life.

I have one other memory from Geschwind’s visit to Project Zero. He was scheduled to speak in the afternoon. I had to return home after the formal talk because I had recently become a father and wanted to be with my wife and daughter. But after dinner, I returned to Project Zero, and what had started out as a standard seminar was still proceeding until well into the night.

I cannot draw any deep conclusions from these two examples—one of very short duration but with long-time personal consequences, the other somewhat longer and with long-time scholarly consequences. But I can say to every student—of any age—that you should always be open to such life-changing experiences and seek to give them as positive a spin as possible. And I can say to every teacher, as Henry Adams memorably wrote, “A teacher can affect eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

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5 Comments on “Transformative Experiences: Positive and Negative”

  1. joshlange February 14, 2018 at 12:50 pm #

    Maybe Milgram was just subconsciously administering his own “shock treatment” on you! Surely, it must have felt great that the great Prof. Milgram became so defensive with you, effectively putting you on his level, or even above.

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