Thursday, March 18, 2021


 Reflecting on reading ED Hirsch in the 1980s, I was reminded of a favorite analogy of mine back then, that we need cuphooks on which to hang the cups of new information and new experience, or they simple fall and break, or at best, are hard to find among all the other crockery. I applied it first to education, as I was frustrated with the whole nonsense, then gaining steam, of not teaching names and dates, but trying to teach experiences or abstract understandings. This is first wrong because it doesn't work.  There must be some structure for a child (or adult) to work from. A date is of course arbitrary, relating to how many times the earth has revolved around the sun since then rather than, and the King could have been named Edward or Choppers instead of Henry, but some structure is essential, or the information has nothing to attach to.  Any of the concrete details provide a structure that is helpful to learning: wearing the costume, eating the foods, using the tools, or on paper viewing and drawing the trade routes, tracing the boundaries, putting little sheaves of wheat or fish on the page to show exports. Dates provide a versatile time structure, as they can identify broad ranges "Oh, like before 1000AD even," or more nuanced information "Wait, that was only two years after he became king."  Of such things history, geography, culture, and much of the arts are understood. If you take that away then it becomes people with no names doing things in an indefinite time in a place not specified.  None of that information will be efficiently stored for retrieval.

One can imagine other structures.  Fine.  But this one has been agreed upon, and thus allows us to communicate it more fully.

The second problem is that all this vagueness prepares the ground nicely for indoctrination. If the children - or again, adults - do not really know anything, then you can give them predigested summaries so that they think they do. You will notice that this is exactly the accusation from education traditionalists what is happening in schools today, up through graduate level.  As far back as 1980, a coworker counseled a younger person going to college that sociology was a waste of effort. "Blacks are cool, gays are fine, women have been oppressed.  That's all you'll learn.  I know, I was a sociology major for two years."

It is an exaggeration, certainly.  I learned not only expressly but via social signalling what to believe learning theater and medieval literature, but I did also read plays and books, attached to actual authors and centuries. Yet when every course must address issues of gender, race, class, oppression, where will the time for that come from?  The student will read five poems fewer, one book less.  Next year, there will be further subtractions.

Yet there was a second area where cuphooks were needed.  I found I needed them at work. At least, I thought I did.  I learned an unintended lesson there.  We would attend conferences and planning sessions of what was to come! Where new group homes were going to be built, and what specialties they would have! New therapies! New programs! I mentioned at a department meeting shortly after one of these that I was finding it all rather vague and blue-sky. "I need some cuphooks to hang these cups on," and the department head laughed. She was a smart person but had half-bought into this nonsense, and my comment was refreshing to her. "It's worse than you know!  He's been talking about these things for almost a year now, and i can't think of a single cuphook I can hang any of it on!" It became an in-joke in the department. These planners!  These dreamers! It takes them so long to get stuff done, and this is why.  They spend so much time talking about it, and checking in with each other that the actual work goes slowly. 

Rinse. Repeat.

In a few years I had learned that the work did not go slowly, it didn't happen at all.  None of those group homes got built, as the budget people learned that they did not reduce hospitalisations, or arrests, or any other measurable. Different housing programs or treatment approaches would get imposed on everyone from above, ignoring all the discussion that had gone on before.  I learned that this is what happens in a bureaucracy when the intent is to disguise the fact that no work is being done.  There will be no cuphooks. I doubt this is much intentional, even in large bureaucracies like government.  These are people who are vague in their thinking, and thus believe they are really accomplishing something. You don't have to fool them, they embrace being fooled, else they would have no meaning. It's all very Screwtape Letters and Great Divorce.


Sam L. said...

Mugs. Got a bunch. 20 years in the AF will do that. Also, one from the Titan Missile Museum. That and going to a number of years of seeing "Shanghaied In Astoria" (local melodrama) and getting some mugs there.

Texan99 said...

Our local chamber of commerce is all about meetings to propose focus groups to propose meetings about focus groups.

I have real trouble keeping history in my head, unless I know of a good, vivid story about it. I don't have to believe that the events in "A Lion in Winter" are accurate to be able to keep straight when Henry Plantagenet was in power (I always think of Katherine Hepburn shouting, "Of course he has a knife. It's 1187, and we're all barbarians") to be able to keep straight that in the late 12th C. he was getting on in years, and then there was Richard the Lion-Hearted and John Lackland. It's like a little anchor, or as you say, a cuphook.

Lately I've been working on a lot of Biblical exegetical works at Project Gutenberg, mostly because I like the Greek, but it's slowly starting to pound some judeo-centric history into my head. Even so, I find it fantastically difficult to keep straight what's going on with the Hittite, Assyrian, Egyptian, Persian, and Babylonian empires. I need a good story with memorable landmarks and dates, something to help me remember, in year X when so-and-so was in charge in Judah, it was Y years before or after some other great Middle Eastern power was rising or falling.

For more years than I like to admit, I had a terrible time recalling which was which between the Punic Wars and the Peloponnesian Wars, or even who the adversaries were. One good yarn like "Rome" or "I, Claudius" really helps.

james said...

It helps if you can pronounce the names ( "Kuk-Nashur", "Tan-Uli", "Tempti-Halki", "Shirukduh"), and if the names have easily recognized distinguishing features. I'm used to distinguishing Henry and Henri, but throw transliterations of Babylonian at me and I get lost.

Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: This is first wrong because it doesn't work. There must be some structure for a child (or adult) to work from.

The science supports your claim: When learning a new subject, it can be difficult to remember either the details — or the patterns.

But just to point out the obvious, you need both. Facts without some notion of the pattern are difficult to remember (such as trying to remember a series of random digits). Conversely, didactic patterns have no impact on the mind when they are not rooted to the details of what makes up the pattern. The didactic patterns, then, are just more disconnected facts.

One of the best procedures for remembering is to relate new knowledge to something already known even if they seem unrelated, such as method of loci.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

True. There may have been a time when education was just lists of facts - though even learning the state capitals has the structure of There are fifty states. You live in one of them. They each have one capital city. Some of these are big cities you have heard of, some are not. - but I don't think we are in danger of that at the moment. Too many vague schema, not enough hard information. I have to wonder if schema eventually collapse if they have no accurate data in them. Would the Soviet Union be a possible example? And does it point to the persistence of unsupported schema or to collapse?