Sunday, December 11, 2005

Activity of Thought

A superb essay on the Utility (or otherwise) of Mathematics, via Armed and Dangerous had me thinking yet again as to whether the Law of the Excluded Middle was an issue with regard to the standard issue definition of coercion, ie: "coercion is defined as the state of being forced to enact a theory that is not active in the mind".

Is it the case that in attempting to phrase the definition so as to avoid accusations of pseudo-scientific status, the appeal to logical assertion oversimplifies the nature of the workings of the mind?

It's clear that coercion, as defined above, can indisputably describe a particular state, in the situation that the mind is in not engaged in any way with the activity that it is required to perform, and that in this situation no learning is taking place, but it could also be the case that some learning could result in a situation where there is some element of enacting a theory that is not fully active in the mind. The mind, afterall, remains a place of mystery, where the nature of active theory is poorly understood. Is it possible to be consciously coerced by a theory and yet be actively absorbing it beneath awareness?

Of course, the appended definition: "coercion limits rationality and creativity" allows for the fact that activity of thought is, in all probability, a matter of a sliding scale. School education, although it's apologists would probably be loathe to admit it, largely relies upon information sneaking in through the back door of the unconscious mind. This is how these institutions get away with claims to be places of learning, but a question that could then arise:

Could it be that this kind of mostly coerced, structured and directed learning (that sneaks in past conscious resistance), could this be is more profitable to the learner than the apparently more haphazard acquisition of knowledge that occurs with the self-directed, active learner?

The answer, that seems to be supported by a reality check, is that the more active the thought, on whatever the level of consciousness, the hard-fought scratching over a work sheet, or the lazy day-dream in the bath-tub, the greater the richness of experience, and the greater the possibility of creativity and rationalism. We would be better off working towards this, and in addition, helping our children acquire all the other necessary knowledge that will enrich their lives, within the remit of active theory.


Ron R said...

I think, though, that the only reason they produce any learning at all is the fact that the victim of that environment actively pursues some learning as a coping/survival mechanism.

In other words, the back door created by coercion is a coping strategy.

Could it be... No. (Irrestible retorical question)

Carlotta said...

I am sure you are right that this kind of learning strategy also accounts for a proportion of the learning that actually does take place in schools, (and I also happily admit that am not completely sure that such a thing as coerced learning takes place at all). It is also possible that uncoerced, fully active learning does take place in schools on occasion, but that this is entirely by good luck rather than good management.

But re: learning in order to avoid coerion rather than for the merit of the subject itself - this seems like a poor lesson to learn, not only because it is likely to produce bare minimum type standards, but also because the meta-lesson that one would hope that people would grow up with is that "if something is good, it can be shown to be good" other words, one would only work at something that appeared to have genuine intrinsic worth.

Working at something simply because you have been told to do it limits the opportunity for rationality, insofar as you are unlikely to make a fully independent judgment as to the worth of the subject, so you risk ending up with a population who are prepared to apparently electrocute an experimental subject behind a screen on the mere say-so of a man in a white coat.

Ron R said...

Given I teach at college, I can attest to the second paragraph. My main job is really teaching my students that I'm not going to 'process' them into something, but show them I have/know something they want and that it is worth having.

I might blog about that in another couple weeks (if I remember).