Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Reading Brain

Do our students have radically different cognitive structures than ourselves?

The December 24th issue of the New Yorker contained a 'Critic at Large,' piece by Caleb Crain, 'Twilight of the Books." I've been haunted by it. The principal point is not that the newer generations are reading less, which we already knew. It is that they are reading differently. The truly frightening suggestion is that such differences make a difference at the cognitive level for developmental reasons. From a young age, people are encouraged to hone the skills required for, say, reading a technical manual, while the skills required for reading a novel or a piece of philosophy (e.g., imaginative capacities) are left undeveloped. We know that some cognitive functions - language use in particular - has a "window" beyond which the capacity for engaging and strengthening that capacity is lost. It's presumably a function of the plasticity of mind.

In my introduction to philosophy course I do some basic formal and informal logic for the first few weeks. I have been surprised to find that the one skill they truly struggle with is finding counterexamples to claims. So, for example, I will give them a claim such as "All art is beautiful," or "If something is alive and capable of motion, then it is an animal." They really struggle to find counterexamples to these sorts of claims. I'm not surprised when introductory students find philosophy or even basic formal logic alien. I am surprised when they find it difficult to do something which I thought would be relatively second nature. Evidence for the possibilities raised in "Twilight of the Books,"?

Perhaps. There is also the well known psychological bias that when a human recognizes some previously unnoticed phenomenon, she begins to see it everywhere. I hope that this more optimistic reading is the case.

But it highlights a further thought, for me: we are often asked to conform our teaching to the "learning styles" of our students and to their "learning differences." I should hope that there are some limits to this. I would not like to conform my teaching to accommodate this particular learning style. In addition, to take the not-so-optimistic view, the empirical evidence may show that an eighteen-year-old whose imaginative and analytical capacities have, so to speak ossified, may never be able to recover them so matter how skillful her teachers are.


  1. Perhaps it's the particular examples you've chosen, but I wonder if these problems might stem partly from a lack of knowledge rather than a lack of imaginative abilities. I admit that the only counterexamples I can think of to your "animals" claim concern carnivorous plants or plants that move in response to sunlight, and it's not implausible to think that our introductory students just don't know about those things. Some anecdotal evidence to back this up: I once TAed for a logic class in which students were asked to provide a counterexample to the claim "All animals that live in the ocean are cold-blooded." Many couldn't think of one. One responded, "But I have to know stuff to be able to answer that, don't I?"

    I think this is a plausible line about a lot of higher cognitive abilities: They require a lot of background knowledge that many of our students might lack.

  2. I don't want to be defensive, but I don't think the examples are poorly constructed. The animals claim was there precisely because there is one obvious answer.

    Moreover, I want to say to the student: yes, you have to know stuff. Of course you have to know stuff. Surely it is not unreasonable to expect a college student to know that whales are mammals. Or, in philosophy of language, they really should realize that France is not a monarchy. This is not sophisticated stuff. Students should know that they are expected to share the burden of educating themselves.

    I agree that some students lack this knowledge. But that only increases my pessimistic worries. If my students don't know that whales are mammals, what sorts of expectations for their education are reasonable? Should they even be in college? And if they think that it's reasonable to complain to their philosophy teacher for asking them to know basic facts of ordinary biology, what does this say about the role they play in their own education?

    I know this is unpopular, but it's worth discussing.

  3. Sorry, I didn't at all mean to suggest that your examples were poorly constructed—just that I might be missing other counterexamples to those particular generalizations.

    And I absolutely agree with you that students should know this stuff. I was shocked to learn that my students didn't know that whales are warm-blooded. (I couldn't tell if they didn't know that whales are mammals or that mammals or warm-blooded.) I'm only pointing out that they might not. And if that's the problem, then all the imagination in the world isn't going to help them much.

    So I don't disagree that this is a major problem. I'm only offering another (not incompatible) diagnosis.

  4. I don't doubt that there is some truth to what these empirical findings suggest. Still, I tend to think (and anecdotal evidence seems to support) that it's really just a matter of lack of exposure and will.

    Few students have actually been asked to think in these ways ever before. It takes a long time to think in a new way. So I don't fault them there. Beyond that, it seems to me to be a question of desire. Do they want to learn to do it? For most, they live in bad faith. They say, supporting the claims you cite, that they don't have "a philosophy type of brain" and other sorts of nonsense.

    Of course, it's just a rationalization for why they don't put the time in to try to get better at it. In the end, I echo Becko's concern not to teach to this "style" and for the reasons cited. I choose not to embrace a lot of potential bad faith by giving it credence beyond what it deserves.

  5. "From a young age, people are encouraged to hone the skills required for, say, reading a technical manual, while the skills required for reading a novel or a piece of philosophy (e.g., imaginative capacities) are left undeveloped."

    I'm not sure what to say to this. In my opinion, much of the best philosophy is very much like a technical manual, and if someone were to ask me to read Merleau-Ponty (just to pick one), you'd better believe I'm going to think to myself, "I wish this guy would get to the *expletive* point."

    Maybe I'm just too young to get it.

  6. David, thanks. Sorry for the misunderstanding. I was giving one example, but I find similar issues when I teach novels in the core humanities course my liberal arts college offers. When teaching novels it is even more apparent.

    Chris, you are right that there is a lot of lack of exposure and will, but what I am worried about is mutually compatible with that. If the K through 12 system has broken down to such a degree that students aren't exposed to the kinds of mental processes engaged in what one might call deep reading, then it should be unsurprising that when asked to do so in college they won't succeed. This would explain the lack of will: as I'm sure we have all experienced, students are highly sensitive to failure and will more often shut down than risk failing at some task again.

    What I am worried about is that after eighteen years of lack of exposure, developing these skills will be as difficult as teaching a feral child to speak a language (yes, I know these anecdotes have been called into question - I'm just trying to make an analogy). The cognitive science on this is still out, of course.

    Kevin, as for much of philosophy being like a technical manual and as for Merleau-Ponty not getting to his point: There's not much I can say here since it sounds as though you are reporting your experience. It hasn't been my experience, but that doesn't say much either, I suppose. Philosophy does require that one be able to think in terms of the possible and the necessary rather than the merely actual and it's this sort of ability I'm worried about.

  7. Becko,

    Don't get me wrong, I share your concerns about the larger (possible) developmental point. I guess for me, the largest concern isn't actual (dis)ability, but rather the bad faith that comes with students assuming that they don't have the ability for one biological reason or another.


    Some of my favorite philosophy pieces are written like technical manuals. But, at the same time, many of my favorites also defy that model as strongly as they can (most Eastern philosophy would fall into this camp, I think).

  8. Your post raises a number of fantastic issues, Becko. An anthropologist colleague of mine describes today's college students as living in 'secondary orality,' where the oral and pseudo-oral (think YouTube, texting, etc.) are supplanting the written as authoritative. As I like to think of it, students are increasingly literate but few know how to read.

    So the question is, what ought we do in response? Like you, I often find talk of "learning differences" and "learning styles" frustrating insofar as it's too readily assumed that (a) these differences or styles are (once students reach college-age, at least) essentially fixed, which makes capitulating to them the only alternative, and (b) anything that can be learned can be learned in any 'style.'

    With respect to (b): As philosophers, I think we have a good reason to defend and value the written heritage of our discipline, for whatever its drawbacks, it seems awfully difficult to make sustained arguments about the kinds of intricate topics philosophy addresses in any other medium besides the written word. In other words, that philosophy is a highly verbal, written discipline is not a contingent historical fact but one that flows from what the discipline investigates and how it investigates it. That's why there's no cognitive substitute for reading a philosopher in his or her own voice. (And it's why there'll never be a movie version of Spinoza's Ethics, say. Not to deny that one could learn a lot about the ethics of abortion from watching a film like "Juno.")

    My remarks about (b) have implications regarding (a): We have to do our best to move our students into the written culture of philosophy, a large part of which involves imagination, seeing alternatives, envisioning counterexamples, etc., as you rightly point out. Vis-a-vis our earlier discussions here at ISW about encouraging students to read, I think the first step is for us to acknowledge what we and our students know but are reluctant to acknowledge: that most of them don't know how to read what we assign them. That being acknowledged, we can begin to help them develop reading strategies, etc., that impel them toward the literacy habits they need to study disciplines like philosophy successfully. As I see it, that's all we can do.

    One last point: I've heard cognitive psychologists say that the late adolescent brain is still developing and that critical thinking and abstract reasoning often don't blossom until the 20's. I can't recall the sources for that claim, but perhaps there's reason for optimism in this area.

  9. In response to the first two posts--where Becko suggested students are stupid due to lack of imaginative abilities, and David that students are stupid because of a lack of knowledge--I want to suggest a third option. It might be that your students just aren't grasping (or aren't comfortable with) this philosophical game of providing counterexamples.

    For example, the student who objects, "but I have to know stuff to be able to answer that" seems to be conceiving of his task as finding a priori or logical problems with the argument, rather than the a posteriori examples you're looking for. To me, it seems quite plausible to think that 100% of the students in your classroom could shoot down someone in real life who claims "all ocean-animals are cold blooded," and yet they all remain silent in the unfamiliar context of a philosophy class--where they're not quite sure how this game you're playing works, and are afraid of being shot down on a question so easy. Indeed, if they have some intuitive and naive sense that logicians usually concern themselves with a priori issues, I'd think they're actually being quite perceptive.

  10. In response to the general claim about a cognitive decline in today's youngsters, I want to say first of all that I think having this sort of pessimistic view of your students (regardless of its accuracy) is likely to have a disastrous impact on the classroom. I'm not sure exactly what evidence I'd cite to back this up, but there's little doubt in my mind that a professor who enters a class thinking his students a bunch of hopeless imbeciles is going to be much worse at motivating them than a professor who approaches his/her students with a deep sort of respect for their statements and viewpoints.

    I tend to agree with Chris that students' failure to develop their philosophical thinking often has a lot to do with motivation. Hence the problem might be that you're failing to motivate students--failing to show them why what they're doing is important in their own lives--then concluding that the students are idiots, and thereby becoming even worse at motivating them.

    In contrast to your suggestions about a decline in young people's imaginative/cognitive functions, I'd like to propose the opposite (since I think it a beneficial belief for us to have): new technologies are making the younger generation more creative and imaginative than ever. When you compare throwing a ball around like people did 50 years ago to some of these unbelievably complicated computer games 10 year olds are playing--not to mention photoshopping, website designing, and programming--I tend to think the latter activities do far more to advance cognitive development than the former. There is, in fact, some evidence for this: the Flynn Effect documents a consistent rise in IQ scores since the 1930s, and the most popular current hypothesis explaining this phenomenon is that it was caused by the continual introduction of new technologies.

    As far as the claim that kids today are learning skills for reading technical manuals rather than for imaginative tasks, this seems to me to be wildly inaccurate. Kids NEVER read instruction manuals; they just plow right into new technologies, creatively experimenting with this or that--and quickly blowing their manual-reading parents out of the water. Personally, I suspect technology is cognitively good for students, but motivationally bad--especially with respect to the internet, which provides a continual, always available stream of distractions, and gets students used to clicking away every 5 seconds. The internet trains us, I think, to be impatient readers.

  11. Frank seems to me to have nailed this: our students aren't stupid (or any more so than we were when we were their age), but they have been brought up in very different styles of information-gathering, conversation, reading and response. Comment-threads don't apparently encourage the 'make generalisation/refine by counter-example' strategy familiar to professional philosophers; hyperlinks don't encourage close and deep reading of single texts (but computer games do help develop a rich and quick-footed imagination, I think). Motivating our students to take up traditional philosophical modes of reading and arguing requires showing them the worth of these things.

  12. Sam, Frank, and Anonymous 5:31,

    Remember that neither Becko nor I said that our students were stupid. Our worry is that they have a hard time with specific skills that are generally thought to be important in philosophy. Having other skills is great, but as Michael points out, it's very hard to do philosophy if you can't draw on a certain skill set, which, at the very least, includes careful, extended reading. The challenge, therefore, is not "what to do with the imbeciles in our classroom" (who could stay in the profession with that attitude, anyway?), but rather how to get the people in our classroom to learn the skills they need to do what we're trying to teach them to do.

    Anonymous 5:31, I agree with you that some of this may be a matter of context. That's a good point.

    Re: the Flynn effect. I have my suspicions about what the Flynn effect shows (as does Flynn, incidentally), and am not at all convinced that it shows that we really are getting smarter.

  13. David - I don't think we disagree; my remark that 'our students aren't stupid' was meant light-heartedly, and not as a criticism of anyone. The points I wanted to make seriously were, 1) to support several people who'd suggested the same thing you're suggesting: that there are distinctive skills involved in philosophy and that they need to be developed (they're not the natural property of some superior students). And 2) to suggest that if we want students to develop those distinctive skills, we have to show them that it's worth doing so. It's not obvious - although it is, I think, true - that these skills are valuable.

  14. David, I think you're right that I was distorting what you and Becko were saying a bit, and I apologize for that (as well as for some of those accusatory "you"s which I really didn't mean... maybe I'll get better at these comment boards someday).

    However, Becko's original suggestion was not that students lack some specific skills important for philosophy. This, I think, nearly everyone would agree with, and most philosophers already conceive of themselves as helping their students develop certain skills related to critical thinking, reasoning, and (possibly) interpretation. Instead, Becko suggested that students might "have radically different cognitive structures than ourselves"--and that the window for developing these cognitive structures might have already passed by the time they get into college.

    Now this suggestion clearly goes a deeper than just saying students lack a few skills, which we need to help them work on. In effect, I think talking about "radically different cognitive structures" in this way does basically amount to declaring students hopelessly stupid--at least in the context of a philosophy classroom, and if they arrive there past the age of 18. So I think my criticisms of that position basically stand.

    Your suggestion about skills, however, seems acceptable enough to me. And, of course, a big part of the challenge is getting students motivated enough to learn these skills. So we seem to be in agreement.

  15. Frank and Sam,

    Seeing as how I started this thread with an unintentionally harsh comment, I should apologize for taking yours to be harsher than you meant them to be.

    You're right, Frank, that having a "radically different cognitive structure" is different than lacking "specific skills." But if our students do have radically different cognitive structures than we do, we need to know about that. Saying, "They think just like we do," would be at least as bad, I think, as saying, "They're idiots." I'm not sure what to do about this, but I think that if some of our students are all but unable to think in the ways we expect them to, we need to confront that fact.

    One middle way here might be to say: They have different cognitive structures, which are very good for some things (as you mentioned), but not so good for philosophy. They're not stupid, but they have a very hard time with philosophy. How can we put the cognitive skills they have to work in the classroom?

  16. I suggested a possibility that is being considered by contemporary cognitive scientists and I speculated about what effect this would have on teaching were the possibility actual. It is an empirical question, and not being a scientist, and having pointed out that the science on this is not in, I never claimed that in fact students have radically different cognitive structures.

    One of the effects of the possible lack of imaginative capacities would be a decline in some very specific skills required to do philosophy.

    Needless to say, I never said our students were stupid. Needless to say, I walk into the classroom with confidence and optimism.

    I also care very deeply about teaching, which is why I think it is important to ask and think about these sorts of questions.

    I also think it is important for teachers to be honest about their concerns and challenges without fear of being accused of being a bad teacher.

    Teaching tends to be one of those professions like nursing - you are expected not only to do it and do it perfectly, but to love every single aspect of it and never have any doubts. I regard this as unrealistic and far more damaging to the classroom than is healthy dialog among peers.

  17. Yeah, Becko... My post was totally unfair, and I agree with everything you just pointed out about how one should be able to throw something like this out there, without facing personal accusations about one's teaching abilities.

    I should also maybe mention that I'm not actually a peer. I'm 21, which is probably part of the reason I'm so dubious that you and I have these radically different cognitive structures (and worried about what effect this view might have if we were to try to have a conversation). When I first encountered serious philosophy 3 years ago, I did find it quite difficult and had to learn a lot before I could engage with it with some proficiency. But I doubt these challenges were much greater than what an unexposed undergraduate would've faced in 1950. In addition, when I look around at my peer-group, I find it totally implausible that "imaginative capacities" are among the things we lack.

    I suspect (and I could be totally wrong here) that your perspective on this topic is informed by the particular group of students you're working with. I guess I just want to say that if this "scientific" proposal is something you're haunted by, I don't think you've got much reason to be, given that it seems to me to have about as much credibility as your average ghost-sighting. But when it comes to how you should think about and understand working with your students, I've obviously got nothing of value to say, given that I have little teaching experience and no idea of the challenges you face.

  18. Dear Frank: No worries! I'm just learning how to navigate the various ways in which the online written word can fail to express a person's intentions myself. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful response.

    Just as a final note: much of my concern here has to do with the abject failure of the K through 12 system in the U.S. This is not our student's fault - they have been cheated out of a fundamental right that is essential to a well-functioning democratic society. But it is also no less real for not being their fault.

    College teachers are expected to make up for what students missed out on the K through 12 system - including how to read in the deep sense of reading. Whether this is wise or fair is not really my concern. My fear is that if the system continues to deteriorate at the rate that it has, we won't be able to make up for its failings at the undergraduate level.

    The human mind is the product of a developmental system. The possibility I am concerned with - and again, I have to stress that this is a possibility - is that the cognitive scientists will discover that there are some skills we can't afford to put off developing until college.


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