Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Herbartianism Made Fun and Easy, Part Eight: Get the point?

Part Seven is here.
"Jokes must not be judged by their power to raise a laugh. There are jokes that insist upon our laughing; others are content with a chuckle; some are satisfied with a mere gleam of intelligence. This last class includes those cases in which an idea does not belong to a system in which it is found, but which might belong to that system. There is nothing incongruous between the idea and its new environment, except the fact that this is its first appearance there." ~~ Sir John Adams, The Herbartian Psychology Applied to Education
In Part Six, I included photos from the movie My Cousin Vinny. Why is it funny when New Yorkers Vinny and Lisa drive into Alabama in a red Cadillac? When they get stuck in the mud and are puzzled over grits? Why is it funny when Lisa snaps photos of everything with her pink camera?  Because they so obviously don't belong in this small town, and they know it.

After Adams wanders around a bit in Chapter Eight with the role of jokes in the classroom, he points out that they can actually be useful: they are about trying to get the point of something.

And jokes, riddles, metaphors and similes can work forwards or backwards. You might be given the key to a poem right at the start ("it's about daisies"), and just enjoy the similes; or you might have to figure out for yourself what's being described. Like Sherlock Holmes, quoted in an earlier chapter as one who could "reason backwards," a good riddle-guesser is given "the second part of the simile and [has] to discover the first part, or [is given] the metaphor and [is] required to discover the literal truth." "The mind may have the masses given, and be set to discover the idea which will connect those masses."

For example, in a Latin translation:
"First he reads it over, picking out all the words or idioms that he knows. Each known word or phrase or reference is a centre round which ideas gather. The second step is to make some sort of hypothesis as to the general meaning of the whole passage--a description, a speech, an argument, or what-not. This hypothesis must be such as to fit into all the known words, and must fix the tone of the whole. The third process consists in working backwards from this hypothesis...just as Holmes' proceedings after a case is once started are merely a hunt for verifications."
Adams talks about different "systems" being in operation in any situation, and the confusion that happens when I'm talking about one system and you're talking about another. It's the stuff of classic comedy, as old as the "Grouse in the Gunroom" story, which draws its humour from a confusion of names and is possibly the great-great-grandfather of the Fawlty Towers episode about "putting Basil in the ratatouille." It works in My Cousin Vinny as Vinny, who's never actually tried a case before, has to figure out several unfamiliar systems at once:  the courtroom demeanor the judge expects, the rules about what the prosecutor can or can't reveal ahead of time, and what seems at times to be almost a foreign culture.

The educational point of this is that, first, teachers should try to be as clear as possible about what "system" they're using, if they want students to answer questions not only logically but along the expected line of thinking (without unintended humour from a clash of "systems"). But second, that education should teach you to, so to speak, start with a whole and figure out the parts, because...this is the Herbartian bit...each thing you already know or recognize is like an apperception mass, and that helps you make sense of new ideas. As someone commented about My Cousin Vinny, he shouldn't have thought grits were strange, since they're so much like polenta. I guess his food apperception masses just weren't functioning that day.

But Cousin Vinny ends up defending his cousin in court very logically and successfully, because he starts with one unquestionable fact: his cousin didn't commit the crime. Since he did not commit the crime (the fact), someone else did (the hypothesis), and the people who say they saw it happen must have been mistaken. Or maybe need new glasses.
Do you see the Charlotte Mason idea straining to come out there? Again, it doesn't sound very Herbartian, at least in the view we've generally held of Herbart, but here it is: learning happens when your own mind has to make the connections. Not when somebody else feeds you the answers. And that's how Cousin Vinny won his case.

Part Eight is here.

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