Being different, learning difference

1. Who you lookin’ at?

I don’t know how it was where you grew up, but among white working class folks in Central Pennsylvania, if you think for yourself and people don’t like you, you’re weird . . . but if they do like or at least respect you, you’re merely “differnt.” As in, “Yeah, you know, Bonta, he’s, well . . . differnt!” It’s kind of like being African American: not necessarily a bad thing, but always worth mentioning. “Yeah, you know, them fellas that came out to replace my water heater was both colored. Nice guys, though.” And ever so slowly, one sees a similar acceptance of gays and lesbians beginning to spread – at least among women and the more emotionally secure among the straight men. Although I kind of doubt that some of the more colorful terminology for people so flagrantry different will go away any time soon.

This contrasts markedly, of course, with the ethos of college-educated WASPs. Sometimes it’s comical the extent to which members of this tribe (in which I include myself) will go to avoid even drawing attention to another’s ethnicity or sexual orientation. We tend to be acutely aware of the fact that such statements as I have quoted above presume stereotyped qualities. And we have a nearly unshakeable belief in the power of correct language to enforce correct thinking.

This view has its blind spots, of course. For some reason, it’s almost always O.K. to make fun of poor or working class white folks – precisely because they are presumed to be uniformly prejudiced toward, um, *cough*, you know . . . People of Color. This supposed failing appears to give carte blanche for their “betters” to ridicule everything about them and their culture – which isn’t even afforded the dignity of authenticity, being viewed instead as a warped or immature version of our own.

This is in fact consistent with the ideology of white supremacy, which is insidious precisely because it is invisible, a blind spot. How many times have you heard folks in the media refer to white people as if they have no ethnicity? And isn’t this how many WASPS view ourselves? “Color” comes from without: poor people are almost by definition colorful, even if they’re white hillbillies or Okies. Good for entertainment. But we – we seem bland, even to ourselves. Here, the Spanish word blanco includes just the right range of meanings: White. Blank. Target: what everyone is after. We are the default setting.

What I’m saying here is that most of us supposedly better educated, middle class white folks are no more enlightened than our working class counterparts. Members of both moieties are capable of tolerance, though almost inevitably they take themselves as standards of normalcy. No, the Ku Klux Klan doesn’t win many converts from among the well-to-do: the language of open hatred and rage is, well, uncultured. Thus, the better educated prefer to talk about “reverse discrimination” (originally a Klan idea, by the way) and “cultures of poverty/dependency” (which never seems to include the imaginatively impoverished and connection-dependent scions of wealthy families, such as our current “president”). The highly educated elites of both major political parties, in a rare display of bipartisanship in the mid-90s, had little trouble convincing themselves and significant portions of their power bases that shredding the social safety net would actually do those lazy people on welfare a huge favor. Aside from then-Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, hardly any voices in mainstream political circles or in the media were willing to confront the obvious fact that very few corporations could survive a minute without massive taxpayer subsidies. That’s good welfare, necessary for the survival of the rich.

Well-educated white folk, no matter how conservative, never speak publicly in racialist terms. But simply changing the language hasn’t changed the reality for poor people in this country and around the world. Nor, I’m afraid, has it altered the fundamental mindframe. While it’s impolite to openly challenge African American claims to Culture (aside from the deformed, immature kind), a mention of “ebonics” at a white cocktail party is almost always a laugh line, except perhaps among confirmed liberals. The huge, unexamined assumption at the heart of white supremacy is that They want/need to be like Us. They are un- or underdeveloped; huge swaths of the planet are viewed as being in desperate need of something called development. (Even many liberal environmentalists, who decry the destruction caused by developers in the U.S., believe this.) Everyone envies and wishes to emulate the American Way of Life, our leaders solemnly atone – and probably sincerely believe, in company with many others.

In Manufacturing Consent and other books, Noam Chomsky has advanced a sort of loose model to try and explain how political indoctrination can happen in a free society. Ever-more-restricted ownership of the mass media is of course one key element. But just as critical, Chomsky finds, is the way the educational system tends to enforce conformity and to weed out those who are too different. For example, much of the workload required to get a PhD is needless and inhuman, unless you assume that a good part of the reason for educational hierarchies in the first place is to serve as social sorting mechanisms. In that case, it makes sense to try and guarantee that the folks at the top of the intellectual pyramid are adept at swallowing their pride, jumping through hoops, and manipulating ideas according to carefully prescribed, peer-reviewed and enforced standards. (That’s not to say this always succeeds, I hasten to point out, given that at least six regular readers, including both my brothers, have PhDs, and none seem all that brainwashed! But in fact my brothers’ descriptions of their fellow grad students and professors were not encouraging, to say the least.)

Even without the class-based analysis, it seems intuitively obvious that academia constitutes a culture largely dominated by white men, and that new aspirants to the fold must adapt themselves to that culture either by internalizing its (white, male) norms, or by finding a way to maintain ideological independence without making too many overt faux pas (at least until they get tenure). And it’s perhaps unavoidable for members of any given culture both to want to enforce such norms, and to regard themselves as the standard against which all others should be measured. In addition, it is generally unthinkable for members of any priviledged class to question the ideological basis of priviledge in the presumption of specialness. The problem becomes particularly acute, however, when that culture holds a near-monopoly on the licensing of thinkable thoughts within a larger society that views itself as egalitarian.

But aside from the egalitarianism, this is nothing new. Ever since the invention of writing systems, the folks who knew how to write made fun of those who didn’t. Humor at the expense of ignorant bumpkins can be found in the earliest cuneiform texts. Walter Ong, whose invaluable Orality and Literacy I quoted from a while back, goes so far as to suggest that much of what we measure as “intelligence” simply reflects the degree to which a given mind has internalized and learned to reproduce uniquely literate thought-patterns.

2. Who you callin’ dumb?

Bigotry can take many forms; the perception of East Asians or Jews as more intelligent can be as damaging as the still-widespread perception among whites that black people (for example) are in some way just not as smart as we are. Again, this is the sort of sentiment one hardly dares to whisper in polite society. But I sort of doubt that the book The Bell Curve became a bestseller on the strength of sales to KKK members alone. And, as I’ve suggested, the willingness of middle-class folks to believe that “poor white trash” are dumb as dirt shows that most people do indeed regard intelligence as inborn and as correlating to some extent with class, if not skin color as well.

Most public school teachers have long ago stopped wondering why so few “good” kids end up in the remedial classes, and why so few kids from poor families ever score high enough in I.Q. tests to make it into gifted or advanced placement classes. It’s easier to believe that we live in a meritocracy, and that social differences reflect measurable genetic differences, than to question the tests themselves.

It was always painfully obvious to me that my good fortune in coming from a highly literate family was the main thing that gave me both the ability and (as time went on) the confidence to ace all manner of standardized tests. But over the years I’ve also come to appreciate the apparent irony that so often those with the least facility for the kind of abstract thinking I excel at possess a superior way with words. I find myself thinking, “If only we could properly educate these people who lard their speech with proverbs and other colorful expressions and who tell stories so expressively – if only we could turn them all into writers!”

Semi-literate people are also, for lack of a better term, semi-oral. Walter Ong showcases a study by the Soviet psychologist A.R. Luria, who “did extensive fieldwork with illiterate (that is, oral) persons and somewhat literate persons in the remoter areas of Uzbekistan . . . and Kirghizia in the Soviet Union during the years 1931-2 . . .

“[Luria] identifies the persons he interviews on a scale ranging from illiteracy to various levels of moderate literacy and his data fall clearly into the classes of orally based versus chirographically based noetic processes. The contrasts that show between illiterates . . . and literates as such are marked and certainly significant . . . and they show what work reported on and cited by [J.C.] Carothers (1959) also shows: it takes only a moderate degree of literacy to make a tremendous difference in thought processes.”

The methodology was informal and relaxed, encouraging subjects to answer questions (or not) as naturally as possible. The subjects were, of course, unfamiliar with standardized tests, but that only makes the conclusions more valuable for the insights they offer into how kids from illiterate or semi-literate backgrounds perform on IQ tests. (Even in my own case, I still recall quite vividly how frightened and disoriented I felt during what I later realized was my first encounter with an intelligence test. I had not yet learned to read. Interestingly, when I took the test again a few years later, after I had become a voracious reader, my score improved by over 25 points. Had it not been for direct pressure from my parents – as intellectuals, honorary members of the local elite – I never would have been given the opportunity for a re-test.)

Ong draws attention to five main conclusions, which I’ll try to do justice to with fairly brief quotes. (For those interested in pursuing this subject, Luria’s own book, Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundation, has apparently been translated into English.)

“(1) Illiterate (oral) subjects identified geometrical figures by assigning them the names of objects, never abstractly as circles, squares, etc. . . . ”

“(2) Subjects were presented with drawings of four objects, three belonging to one category and the fourth to another, and were asked to group together those that were similar or could be placed in one group or designated by one word. One series consisted of drawings of the objects hammer, saw, log, hatchet. Illiterate subjects consistently thought of the group not in categorical terms (three tools, the log not a tool) but in terms of practical situations – ‘situational thinking’ – without adverting at all to the classification ‘tool’ as applying to all but the log. If you are a workman with tools and see a log, you think of applying the tool to it, not of keeping the tool away from it in what it was made for – in some weird intellectual game. A 25-year-old illiterate peasant: ‘They’re all alike. The saw will saw the log and the hatchet will chop it into small pieces. If one of these has to go, I’d throw out the hatchet. It doesn’t do as good a job as the saw.’ Told that the hammer, saw and hatchet are all tools, he discounts the categorical class and persists in situational thinking: ‘Yes, but even if we have tools, we still need wood – otherwise we can’t build anything.’ Asked why another person had rejected one item in another series of four that he felt all belonged together, he replied, ‘Probably that kind of thinking runs in his blood.'”

As expected, subjects with a few years of schooling answered “correctly.” Those who were semi-literate “mingled situational grouping and categorical grouping, though the latter predominated.”

Luria also attempted to teach abstract classification to each of his illiterate subjects, but they invariably resisted learning: “They were convinced that thinking other than operational thinking, that is, categorical thinking, was not important, uninteresting, trivializing.” I have often felt that myself. Much as I love to indulge in it, the invention and proliferation of categories – mental boxes – leads one further away from reality, not closer to it. And I wonder: how does “categorical thinking” differ from what Buddhists, for example, label discriminatory thinking? To what extent might the direct intuitions of artists and mystics represent simply a return to preliteracy, an escape from thought patterns ingrained by “chirographically based noetic processes”?

Finding # 3 in Ong’s summary involves reactions to “formally syllogistic and inferential reasoning,” the alphabetically-enabled invention of the ancient Greeks. In sum: “Syllogisms relate to thought, but in practical matters no one operates in formally stated syllogisms.” Ong cites philosopher James Fernandez, who “has pointed out that a syllogism is self-contained: its conclusions are drawn from its premises only. He notes that persons not academically educated are not acquainted with this special ground rule but tend rather in their interpretation of given statements, in a syllogism as elsewhere, to go beyond the statements themselves, as one does normally in real-life situations or riddles . . . I would add the observation that a syllogism is thus like a text, fixed, boxed-off, isolated. This fact dramatizes the chirographic base of logic. The riddle belongs to the oral world. To solve a riddle, canniness is needed: one draws on knowledge, often deeply subconscious, beyond the words themselves in the riddle.”

And I would add that if in fact the category “intelligence” corresponds to anything in nature, it might well be this very canniness – a great word! A few people are prodigies, simply somehow more swift from birth onward. For most others, canniness – or wisdom – comes, if it comes at all, through life experience and through association with individuals who already possess such wisdom, especially grandparents and other elders. One trains oneself in the value of insight, the development of intuitions and the cultivation of special knacks – none likely to come through schooling as we know it.

Luria’s fourth significant finding was that non-literate people resisted even the logic behind definitions. Rather than describing concrete things, they preferred to give examples, though this didn’t seemed to reflect any lack of facility with description. “‘Say you go to a place where there are no cars. What will you tell people [a car is]?’ ‘If I go, I’ll tell them that buses have four legs, chairs in front for people to sit on, a roof for shade and an engine. But when you get right down to it, I’d say: “If you get in a car and go for a drive, you’ll find out.”‘”

“(5) Luria’s illiterates had difficulty in articulate self-analysis. Self-analysis requires a certain demolition of situational thinking. It calls for isolation of the self, around which the entire lived world swirls for each individual person, removal of the center of every situation from that situation enough to allow the center, the self, to be examined and described.” One man was asked to describe his shortcomings: “‘This year I sowed one pood of wheat, and we’re gradually fixing the shortcomings.'” (A pood is a Russian unit of weight, equivalent to 36.11 lbs.) Luria asked one of his subjects, “Well, people are different – calm, hot-tempered, or sometimes their memory is poor. What do you think of yourself?” “We behave well – if we were bad people, no one would respect us.” This exemplifies, as Ong notes, “Self-evaluation modulated into group evaluation (‘we’) and then handled in terms of expected reactions from others.

“Another man, a peasant aged 36, asked what sort of person he was, responded with touching and humane directness: ‘What can I say about my own heart? How can I talk about my character? Ask others; they can tell you about me. I myself can’t say anything.'”

Ong concludes: “It is perhaps impossible to devise a test in writing or even an oral test shaped in a literate setting that would assess accurately the native intellectual abilities of persons from a highly oral culture.” The use of examinations to sort people came into use in the West only in recent centuries; the use of written exams to create and maintain the ruling classes in East Asia is much more ancient and contains valuable lessons for those who care to look. But I’ll have to leave that for another post.

I don’t want to minimize the importance and, indeed, the many rewards of mastering what Ong calls the grapholect: the dialect of the ruling class – in our case, standard English – that becomes the repository of written culture and the key to the whole, vast garden of the text. To use an analogy, my belief in the absolutely essential importance of large tracts of wilderness does not diminish my fondness for human society. In fact, in my view, the latter quickly grows sterile and unhealthy without regular infusions from the former realm. In like manner, I see the persistence of folk culture and the oral lifeworld of felt experience as necessary for the continued vitality of literate culture.

We can argue about whether or to what extent ethnocentricity or in-group exclusivity might be “natural” or inevitable. But history and anthropology do offer abundant examples to suggest the power of ameliorating influences. Multiculturalism has been the norm for most peoples throughout history. Monolingualism such as many WASPs experience it seems quite rare – especially if we consider additional competence in a non-standard English dialect to constitute a form of bilingualism. If I’d been a little less “differnt” and a little more social back when I was in public school, I might be able to claim such bilingualism myself.

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