Two systems of abstraction allow humanity to think: language and mathematics. Both are systems of symbols, hierarchical, and governed by rules. There is a direct relationship between proficiency with these abstract systems and proficiency of thought, but both proficiencies start with fundamentals. The mind that appreciates the beauty of Shakespeare’s language first had to grasp “See Spot run.” The mind that understands the implications of E=M(CxC) once learned 9×9=81.
Yesterday, SLL posted James Howard Kunstler’s modest proposal to improve the situation in Baltimore and other urban disaster areas: “[T]each young black kids how to speak English correctly.” It is an excellent proposal, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. Conceptually, teaching either language or mathematics is fairly straightforward. As hierarchical systems, learning starts with the basic building blocks—letters and numbers. Once those are mastered, language education moves up to syllables, words, sentences, and so on; mathematics education proceeds from addition and subtraction to multiplication and division, theorems and proofs, algebra, geometry, and so on.
Just as nobody in economics ever got a PhD with a thesis about supply and demand, nobody in education got one explicating or extolling “old school” hierarchical, step-by-step learning. In both fields, academic honors are won with incoherent prose, complicated statistics, Greek-letter-equations, and abstruse theories. The fairly simple concepts both fields can honestly lay claim to have been discarded or dressed up to make them appear much more substantial than they actually are.
Education theses gather dust; the damage they’ve inflicted is evident in the lamentable state of language and mathematical proficiency among the majority of students, documented year after year by much-maligned standardized tests. While SLL claims no expertise in the arcane field “Education” has become, it appears that the crippling of students’ minds has had two broad components: dispense with step by step learning and jump among steps, on the theory that as the later steps are learned, the earlier steps will somehow be mastered, and dispense with hierarchies, on the theory that everything is interrelated, so by teaching everything at the same time, the student learns everything.
Evidently, “rote memorization” of foundational concepts has become the scourge of the educational establishment. First and second graders no longer repeat arithmetic and multiplication tables until they are drilled into their heads for life. Rather they are “exposed” to them, along with many other concepts, repeatedly through many grades, which leaves middle schoolers counting on their fingers as they try to perform the addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division necessary for fractions, decimals, the Pythagorean theorem, and algebraic proofs. Similarly, words are not built syllabically through phonics; the parts of speech and rules of grammar are “discovered” rather than drilled, and standard methodologies about sentence, paragraph, and compositional structures are abandoned, scorned as inhibiting free expression. Consequently, students never learn how to give a coherent speech or presentation, or write a lucid report or essay. Most of them, however, are amazingly proficient at texting.
Learning language and mathematics basics takes time and is hard work, often involving rote memorization, but you can’t build a house before you lay the foundation. Life would indeed be simpler if we only communicated with grunts and gestures, and if our mathematics was limited to what could be done on our fingers and toes, but that takes us back to the stone age. It is the ability to formulate ever rising hierarchies of abstract concepts that has propelled the human race. Some have said the war on abstraction is being waged to dumb down humanity, making it easier for an elite group to rule. If that is the plan, it has gaping holes, as all such plans do. The weapons to threaten us, the technology to monitor us, the mass communications to propagandize us, and the economy that supposedly would provide our bare subsistence and the rulers’ aristocratic splendor all require high-level abstraction and consequently, high-level thought. The war on abstract thought will have no winners.
TRY BUILDING A FACTORY, OR FIGURING OUT WHEN A POLITICIAN IS LYING, WITHOUT ABSTRACT THOUGHT