21 December 2007

A “Graphic-Functional” Way of Thinking

Here are some more thought-provoking passages from Caleb Crain’s “Twilight of the Book” article in the current New Yorker, concerning how written language seems to enable or require abstract thinking:

in 1974, when Aleksandr R. Luria, a Soviet psychologist, published a study based on interviews conducted in the nineteen-thirties with illiterate and newly literate peasants in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Luria found that illiterates had a “graphic-functional” way of thinking that seemed to vanish as they were schooled. In naming colors, for example, literate people said “dark blue” or “light yellow,” but illiterates used metaphorical names like “liver,” “peach,” “decayed teeth,” and “cotton in bloom.”
Ironically, if a poet were to use those same terms for colors, we’d praise her skill with metaphors. Here the written word seems to make colors abstract rather than tied to empirical observations, and thus washes out the comparisons with anything but other colors.
Experimenters showed peasants drawings of a hammer, a saw, an axe, and a log and then asked them to choose the three items that were similar. Illiterates resisted, saying that all the items were useful. If pressed, they considered throwing out the hammer; the situation of chopping wood seemed more cogent to them than any conceptual category. . . .

One frustrated experimenter showed a picture of three adults and a child and declared, “Now, clearly the child doesn’t belong in this group,” only to have a peasant answer:
Oh, but the boy must stay with the others! All three of them are working, you see, and if they have to keep running out to fetch things, they’ll never get the job done, but the boy can do the running for them.
Illiterates also resisted giving definitions of words and refused to make logical inferences about hypothetical situations.
Some of these responses may actually be adaptive for a culture that doesn’t require much dealing in abstract thinking. For Luria’s illiterate farmers, it may well make more sense to group everything you need to gather firewood or not to send the kid off than to play “One of These Things Is Not Like the Others.”

Our culture values literacy highly, but around the year 800 Charlemagne was the most successful person in Europe despite not being able to write, at least according to an early biographer. Literacy was surely useful then, but it just wasn’t crucial in Charlemagne’s society. (Speaking of strong rulers, we might want to be sure that the studies of illiteracy from the Stalinist USSR weren’t tailored to produce particular results.)

So what does it mean to define and gauge literacy through standardized tests of reading comprehension and writing? Such tests reflect the standards of the society that produces them. If our society does change to value interpreting visual information or personal interactions more than written information, our standardized tests will change, too, to reflect what’s useful in that lifestyle. We may rediscover the link between colors and parts of the natural world, rather than labels for parts of the spectrum of visible light.

1 comment:

david elzey said...

Damn, but you're one hell of a scholar, J.L. This is the kind of stuff I could spend my whole life hunting down just for the fun of it. I've long thought there was a legitimate visual literacy with its own vocabulary that is diminished with learning, not necessarily reading and writing.

I think this is partially a function of our education system where as children progress through the system the time spent in the creative and visual arts is eliminated to the point where it becomes an elective, and only where those electives have been allowed to exist.

Poetry has always been a hybrid outsider art - it intimidates literate folks but the illiterate seem to like it just fine.