Steve Walker

Some less or more well-organised thoughts

Archive for June 2011

Gleick & Aristotle: writing and reasoning

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I’ve just been reading James Gleick’s ‘The Information’, which I’d thoroughly recommend to anyone with an interest in information and information technology (and which is likely to trigger a number of posts in the near future…).

According to Gleick, Aristotle argued that thinking only became possible with writing. By thinking, Aristotle meant thinking in abstractions (e.g. thinking of beauty rather than of a collection of beautiful things) and the ability to consider relationships between these abstractions in a rigorous way (that is, logically). This appears to be supported (some 2,000+ years on) by research conducted on illiterate peoples of remote areas of Uzbekistan and Krygyzstan carried out in the 1930s by Luria, a Russian psychologist. These peoples, it seems, were unable to think in terms of categories and abstract reasoning. Gleick cites an example of their difficulties in abstract reasoning identified by Luria’s research:

‘In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white.
Nova Zembla is in the Far North and there is always snow there.
What colour are the bears?

Typical response: “I don’t know. I’ve seen a black bear. I’ve never seen any others…. Each locality has its own animals”.’  (Gleick, 2011: 39)

Assuming, for the moment, that Aristotle is correct and there isn’t a better alternative explanation for Luria’s observation, the implication is profound. It might give us, particularly those involved in education, cause for reflection on some recent trends. Chatting recently with a friend whose response to a comment I made about the need for reading and writing for students to be able to follow and construct sustained reasoned argument was that this wasn’t needed any more. This friend is not a professional educator, but his response certainly seemed to chime with what some educators are arguing.

The use of multimedia, podcasts, and ‘micro-texts’ of twitter, Facebook statuses and so on in educational settings has become an area of intense interest. Approaches such as learning by doing and ‘authentic’ learning from the constructivist also focus on practical learning. Of course, such methods can greatly enrich and enhance learning through accessibility, motivation, engagement, and allowing the development of skills. It would be foolhardy to reject them out of hand.

I suspect, though, that Aristotle would point to the continuing need to foster extended written analysis and argumentation skills, which shouldn’t be displaced from university curricula if we want to foster critical and logical reasoning. Which I think is the point.

Written by Steve

June 12, 2011 at 3:09 pm

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