The Dialogue of Thought with Others

I have not yet read Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind, but it will be among my next books. In an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement (quoted by Cynthia Haven), Jon Nixon writes, “For [Arendt], thinking was diametrically opposed to ideology: ideology demands assent, is founded on certainty, and determines our behaviours within fixed horizons of expectation; thinking, on the other hand, requires dissent, dwells in uncertainty and expands our horizons by acknowledging our agency. It is the task of education — and therefore of the university — to ensure that a space for such thinking remains open and accessible.”

What kind of thinking is this? We talk often about “critical thinking” but don’t define it carefully enough. According to Arendt, it is the “dialogue of thought.” It is both introspective and responsive. Both aspects are essential.

Let me play with this idea a bit. If your thoughts are introspective but without dialogue, you end up in a rut; you have nothing to temper or shake your view of the world. You go around and around with the same thoughts; maybe you negate them, maybe you insist on them, but you get used to seeing them swirl around, clockwise and counterclockwise, the same ones over and over.

If you are only responsive, then you have no response at all; you depend so much on what others say that you cannot understand their words. You seek wisdom but then accept or reject it flatly instead of taking it in. You seek knowledge but apply it without imagination or play. You fear the opinion of others but crave it at the same time.

The life of the mind, the kind Arendt holds up, requires a combination of aloneness and dialogue — but what combination? It is unique for each situation and person; it does not stay constant but must be recalibrated again and again. It breaks apart and comes together. There are moments of clarity and rapport and longer stretches of fumbling. The very search for the right proportions is individual and particular; my thinking will not be like anyone else’s, but its very character makes it capable of dialogue. In other words, to have a life of the mind, one must be prepared for constant and subtle dissent: not the opinionated kind, but the kind that allows for the unusual.

Depend on the opinions of others, and your thoughts become rags, with no firmness or fineness of their own.

Insist on your own opinion, and your thoughts become sticks.

The ideal, though, is not a pair of knitting needles with yarn, although that has its own place. There is no instrument or product here, at least not the kinds that can be delimited. There is only life, and in life there is everything.

The Ubiquitous Team

Humans enjoy (and sometimes suffer from) a richness of relations. We first form bonds with family members, then start to make friends of different kinds. As we get older, we join groups, collaborate with others, and participate in many kinds of associations. Throughout all of this, solitude allows us to make sense of our relationships, come back to ourselves, and regather our strength and thoughts. Often relations change or break; often they renew themselves in different forms.

Today the concept of the “team” has overtaken all other associations. Just about every group gets called a “team”; and relations outside of teams get short shrift. It is even common to address people as “team.” The problem is not with teams or teamwork but with their ubiquity: the insistence that everyone be part of a team and the suggestion that any resistance at all to the team is a show of personal selfishness or weakness.

The team is just one form of association. Its role is to work toward a concrete goal in a tightly coordinated manner. For instance, if you are an athletic team, your goal is to score more points than the opposing team. You work together toward that end. No single athlete’s brilliance matters unless it contributes to that goal. Likewise, if you are working with others on fundraising (for instance) and have a specific target to achieve, then those contributing to the achievement of the goal are acting as team members.

But there are many forms of collaboration and association that are not quite team-like. A musical ensemble, for instance, is not typically called a “team” (though this is changing as the “team” denomination spreads over onto everything). Although musicians work tightly together, there is a soul to what they do, a kind of solitude to each contribution. Also, the goal is somewhat concrete but not only concrete. A concert goes beyond attaining a goal.

In addition, many associations benefit from the differences and divergences of the members. The work may not be tightly coordinated at all. For instance, in a college English department, the faculty may have different areas of specialty and different approaches to literature. Insofar as they can engage in dialogue, insofar as they have enough common ground, and insofar as the students benefit from their differences, it is good for their efforts not to be too strictly defined and pieced together. As the economist John Jewkes noted in 1958, overemphasis on teamwork can diminish not only individuals, but dialogue between them.

Beyond that, the richest personal and professional associations are often not group relationships, but one-on-one collaborations, friendships, and partnerships. Rarely can a group attain the understanding, rapport, and sympathy that exists between two. When the team is treated as the pinnacle of relations, even personal conversation, even original ideas get subordinated to the team. There is subtle pressure to include others in conversation at all times, to avoid saying things that stand out, to give others credit for one’s own work, and to reserve one’s highest praises for the team.

Teams and teamwork are not bad in themselves; they have an important place in daily life. Most of us have situations where we need to work tightly with others and where our own thoughts and wishes must recede for a while. Yet there is also work that we do better alone or with select others–and work that isn’t quite teamwork. Also, we must not always be working; there must be room and time for thought, exploration, rest, and laughter.

Learning to serve a larger endeavor is also valuable–but there are times not to do so, and many ways of doing so. It is at least as important to diverge from the group–when such divergence is genuine–and to question group assumptions. This may interfere with “teamwork” in the sort run but may actually enrich the work and the relations. As far as I know, we only get one life on earth. It would be a shame to waste it by flattening oneself.

So, without disparaging the team in itself, without dismissing its specific value, I resist its ubiquity with all my heart and soul. There are many more ways to be with oneself and others.

Sleep and Work

When you are running raw and ragged from early morning until late at night, getting four or five hours of sleep per night, a full night of rest brings surprising clarity and strength. Thoughts arrange and complete themselves, emotions settle, and even the face loses its streaks and strains. So it is ironic that, feeling rested, I had a temptation to stay home from synagogue and get work done. (Yes, I do write and work on Shabbat–but going to shul is one of my unbreakable rituals.) I thought: I could catch up with grading, prepare for the many events this week, clean up my place, and so forth–a tempting and reasonable array. Then I realized that the very urge came from a rested state, and the rested state is nothing to take for granted. So I will trek to shul and honor this rest for a few hours more.

It has been an eventful few weeks–with the release of the second issue of CONTRARIWISE, the end of the marking period (I have about a hundred tests to grade this weekend), and more. My article “You Are Embarked: How a Philosophy Curriculum Took Shape and Took Off” just appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of American Educator. I have many ideas for blog posts, articles, stories, and so forth–and hope to complete some of them soon.

The Elephant in the Reform

Elizabeth Green’s recent article and book excerpt “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” has drawn keen responses from Dan Willingham, Robert Pondiscio, and others.Still, one problem needs more emphasis: the lack of focus in the classroom. Math, like most other subjects, requires not only knowledge, but concentrated and flexible thinking, on the part of teachers and students alike. With this in place, a number of pedagogical approaches may work well; without it, pedagogy after pedagogy will flail. The ongoing discussion has upheld a false opposition between old “rote” methods and (supposedly) new methods devoted to “understanding.” It is time to see beyond this opposition.

By “focus,” I mean concerted attention to the topic at hand. This is not the same as perfect behavior; I have known some “wiggly” students who were clearly thinking about the lesson. Nor does it mean passive intake; to the contrary, it can involve a great deal of questioning, comparison, imagination, and so forth. Such focus is largely internal; in this way it differs from what people commonly call “engagement.” A student may be highly focused while doing nothing physically; a student may be visibly active (in lesson activities) but not thinking in depth about the subject.

After leading into her discussion with a story, Green asserts that reforms such as the Common Core will fail if teachers have not been properly trained to implement them. “The new math of the ‘60s, the new new math of the ‘80s and today’s Common Core math all stem from the idea that the traditional way of teaching math simply does not work,” she writes. Improperly trained teachers will turn them into nonsense or, at best, a set of rote procedures:

Most American math classes follow … a ritualistic series of steps so ingrained that one researcher termed it a cultural script. Some teachers call the pattern “I, We, You.” After checking homework, teachers announce the day’s topic, demonstrating a new procedure: “Today, I’m going to show you how to divide a three-digit number by a two-digit number” (I). Then they lead the class in trying out a sample problem: “Let’s try out the steps for 242 ÷ 16” (We). Finally they let students work through similar problems on their own, usually by silently making their way through a work sheet: “Keep your eyes on your own paper!” (You).

Green contrasts this with a “sense-making” method used by the elementary school teacher and scholar Magdalene Lampert:

She knew there must be a way to tap into what students already understood and then build on it. In her classroom, she replaced “I, We, You” with a structure you might call “You, Y’all, We.” Rather than starting each lesson by introducing the main idea to be learned that day, she assigned a single “problem of the day,” designed to let students struggle toward it — first on their own (You), then in peer groups (Y’all) and finally as a whole class (We). The result was a process that replaced answer-getting with what Lampert called sense-making. By pushing students to talk about math, she invited them to share the misunderstandings most American students keep quiet until the test. In the process, she gave them an opportunity to realize, on their own, why their answers were wrong.

Like many others, Green confuses the outer trappings of the pedagogy with its internal intent and sense. A teacher at the front of the room, doing a great deal of the talking, could push the students’ thinking much more than a teacher who has them struggle on their own. Within each of these approaches, there can be variation. What makes the difference is the teachers’ and students’ knowledge of the subject, their willingness to put their mind to the topic at hand, and their flexibility of thought. (Willingham does address teachers’ knowledge and flexibility–but more needs to be said about the students’ own attitudes toward the lesson.)

The “elephant in the room” is our devotion to damage control in the name of something lofty. We are trying to repair situations where students are not doing all they can to master the material. Likewise, we are shaping the teaching profession to be more managerial, athletic, and social than intellectual. There’s a lot of mention of “collaboration”–but nothing about thinking about the subject on one’s own.

If students in a classroom are all putting their mind to the topic at hand (not because the teacher has “engaged” them but because this is what they do as a matter of course), and if the teacher knows the topic thoroughly and has considered it from many angles, then the learning will come easily–if there is a good curriculum, and if the students have the requisite background knowledge. That sounds like a lot of “ifs,”–but it comes down to something simple: when you enter the classroom, you have to be willing to set distractions aside and honor the subject matter. Honoring it does not mean treating it as dogma. It means being willing to make sense of it, ask questions about it, and carry it in your mind even when class is over.

If the above conditions are absent, then that is the problem, period. It is not a question of who is doing the talking, or how well or poorly the teachers have been trained.

Suppose I am a math teacher. (I am not and never have been; I currently teach philosophy.) Suppose I am teaching students to solve a problem of the following kind: “A train travels an average of 90 miles per hour for the first half of its journey, and an average of 100 miles per hour for the entire trip. What was the train’s average speed for the second half of the journey?” First I must establish that by “half” I mean half of the distance traveled. Then I must start to anticipate errors and misunderstandings. (Someone will likely offer the answer “10 miles”; another might offer “110 miles.”) I must be able to get other students to explain why these are not correct.

Then how to proceed? I ask the students what information we have, and what we are trying to find out. We know that the journey consists of two equal parts. It doesn’t matter how long each one is, since we are looking at speed, not distance traveled. So, we will call it d, but we are not going to try to find out what d is. It does not matter here.

Let t1 designate the time taken (in hours) by the first half of the trip; t2, the time taken by the second half, and t the total time.

So, we know that d/t1 = 90 mph for the first half. Thus, t1= d/90.

We don’t know what d/t2 is for the second half, since we don’t know the train’s speed, or rate (r) for the second half. Thus, t2 = d/r.

We know that 2d/t (total distance divided by total time) = 100 mph. Thus, t = 2d/100.

We know that t = t1 + t2.

Thus, t = 2d/100 = d/90 + d/r. (One could call on a student to perform this step.)

Thus, 2d/100 = (d/90 + d/r).

Thus, 2/100 = 1/90 + 1/r. (Divide both sides by d.)

Thus, 1/50 = 1/90 + 1/r.

Thus, 1/r = 1/50 – 1/90.

Thus, 1/r = 4/450. (Some students might arrive at 4/45–important to be alert to this.)

Thus, r = 450/4 = 112.5 mph.

As I lay this out, I can see some of the misconceptions and confusion that might arise. Some students might remain convinced that we need to find out what d is. Some might assume that t1 and t2 are equal. Some might grasp the steps but not know how to go about doing this themselves. Some might not know how to check the answer at the end.

But if I go to class prepared to address these issues, and if the students continually ask themselves (internally) what they understand and what they don’t, then even this amateur lesson will get somewhere–unless the levels in the class are so disparate that some students don’t know what an equal sign is. Of course, doing this day after day is another matter; a teacher needs extensive practice in the subject matter in order to prepare lessons fluently.

I am not proposing a magic solution here. Attention is not easily come by, nor is flexible thinking. Nor is curriculum or background knowledge. (Math teachers will probably point out errors of presentation and terminology in my example above.)

But if we ignore students’ obligation to put their mind to the lesson (in class and outside), teachers’ obligation to think it through thoroughly, and schools’ obligation to honor and support such thinking, we will continue with confused jargon and hapless reforms. Moreover, classrooms that do have such qualities will be dismissed as irrelevant exceptions.

 

Note: I made a few revisions to this piece after posting it.

Update 8/23/2014: In response to a reader’s comment, I changed “elementary school teacher Magdalene Lampert” to “elementary school teacher and scholar Magdalene Lampert.” It was not my intention to understate her academic credentials–or to comment on her work.

The Forum (BBC World Service): Panel on Solitude

In April I took part in a panel discussion on solitude, along with authors Eleanor Catton and Yiyun Li and host Bridget Kendall, on BBC World Service’s program The Forum. (Update: I thought the podcast was going to expire on July 28, but it appears that it will be up for another year.)

Also, you may be interested Melvyn Bragg’s recent discussion on the philosophy of solitude, also on BBC. (Because my streaming is spotty, I haven’t listened to it yet, but I hope to do so soon. It looks promising.)

Finally, you may enjoy the recently posted samples from my students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE.

The Blessing of Slight Neglect

Almost a year ago, I commented on William Faulkner’s Nobel speech. I focused on how the sprawl of our lives–the pressure to be available around the clock, the leveling and spreading of our intentions–tends to break down our sense of sanctity (broadly defined),* and how, without a sense of sanctity, we lose touch with what he calls the “old verities.” Today I would like to comment on a different aspect of his speech: the “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” I begin, though, with a change of direction. Last week, I started a post along these lines and ended up dissatisfied with it. I realized that there was great danger in implementing Faulkner’s words in a literal way.

From Faulkner’s speech:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

One could nod vigorously and say, yes, we have forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, and that’s part of the problem in education today. We look at social, political, economic problems–but not the problems each of us carries in our private minds: problems of love, loyalty, hate, betrayal, and their limitless combinations. Therefore, it seems that we should turn our attention again to these problems.

Yes, but how? The worst thing–and the thing likeliest to happen–if someone were to present this argument to education policymakers–would be for schools to mandate daily attention to the “old verities.” Teachers would be required to write an “old verity” on the board every day. When reading a work of literature, students would have to identify the “old verity” that it addressed. This is deadly and counter to Faulkner’s meaning–for he is speaking of fiction and poetry, not of dogma. (The links in the previous sentence point to the etymology of these words, which is interesting in terms of the “kneading” and “piling.”)

Something would likewise be forced and false about addressing “old verities” through so-called “informational text” (heavily touted in schools, even in English class). It cannot be done. Philosophy and history can tackle the central human problems–but to do so, they cannot rely on abstractions and information alone; they need insight and form as well. Insight and form belong to fiction and poetry, which in turn rely on a certain concealment, or a complex kind of revelation. That is, to see truths of this kind, you must also have room in your imagination for the unseen.

A passage from José Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Quixote sheds some light on this. (Note: These texts are among the shorter readings in the Epic course at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers, where I am currently teaching. The past two weeks have been filled with the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, and other works–all of these read in their entirety–and we will finish next week with Moby-Dick.) Here’s Ortega y Gasset:

There are things which, when revealed openly, succumb or lose their value and, on the other hand, reach their fullness when they are hidden or overlooked. Some men refuse to recognize the depth of something because they demand that the profound should manifest itself in the same way as the superficial. Not accepting the fact that there may be several kinds of clarity, they pay exclusive attention to the clarity peculiar to surfaces. They do not realize that to be hidden beneath the surface, merely appearing through it, throbbing underneath it, is essential to depth.

Maybe there’s a blessing in having Faulkner’s “old verities,” the problems of the human heart, overlooked in schools. Maybe a certain kind of overlooking is the best kind of honor. I think we can honor them through curriculum and general bearing, without pounding themes and messages into the students’ heads. Give students room to hear the works, to wade through them, to feel their pull and counter-pull. Show, through selection, intonation and gesture, that something worthwhile is there.

I think of these lines from the beginning of James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover:

The more I struggled to be plain, the more
Mannerism hobbled me. What for?
Since it had never truly fit, why wear
The shoe of prose? In verse the feet went bare.

One can go barefoot as a reader, too–and this means reading and interpreting in an unfettered way. Yes, one analyzes what one reads, often in great detail and depth, but one does not try to map everything onto a specific external meaning, method, or theory. One allows the literature its life, not all of which can be explained in external or technical terms. (Some of the most inspiring criticism is fiction of its own kind.) When one does this, when one enters literature with heart–in the Hebrew sense of “lev,” not our current sentimental sense–one will confront those verities willy-nilly.

There is a focus and clarity that comes from not fretting over what we are going to get from a given thing. Unfortunately, schools have been trained into a “customer service” mode. They are supposed to deliver a product to the students–who, for their part, are supposed to expect one. There is partial good to this; one does want students to learn and do concrete things. But one can accomplish this with recognition that it is not the whole.

Beyond this, I have started to think that certain kinds of “neglect”–not extreme or irresponsible kinds, but the kinds that let things hide just a little–may hold more good than we know. In the same way that a poem or essay revises itself when one steps away from it, so we, too, may take shape when others are not looking. We get to putter around and think things through. The neglect must be slight, though, and not self-justified. A world shrivels when it asserts that the things it ignores don’t exist.

 

*Sanctity: the quality or state of being holy, very important, or valuable (Merriam-Webster); I would add: the quality or state of being set apart from other things. (In the earlier post on Faulkner’s speech, I didn’t use the word at all; rather, I used terms that conveyed a similar meaning.)

Note: I made some edits to this piece after its initial posting.

Room for Debate: Balanced Literacy

The July 2 edition of Room for Debate (New York Times) addresses some of the controversy regarding Balanced Literacy. The panelists are E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Pedro Noguera, Lucy Calkins, Claire Needell, Mark Federman, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and myself.

A few days later, Alexander Nazaryan’s op-ed on the subject drew impassioned responses as well. As I read comments on the various pieces, I saw a need for definitions and distinctions. For example, group work is often equated with collaboration, but the two are not the same. I explain the difference (or part of it) on Joanne Jacobs’s  blog.

A Philosophy Journal Celebration with a Song

Major GeneralThe CONTRARIWISE reading and celebration–at Word Up Community Bookshop in Washington Heights, NYC–is just over two weeks away! CONTRARIWISE is my students’ philosophy journal; on May 18, from 3 to 5 p.m., we are celebrating the release of the inaugural issue. There will be readings, signings, refreshments, and philosophical surprises. In addition, the journal has a song! I wrote the lyrics and will sing the verse. The audience–or as many as are game–will come in for the chorus.

It is to be sung to the tune of the Major General’s Song from The Pirates of Penzance. If you plan to come to the event, you may want to practice the chorus in advance. Here it is:

This is the very model of a journal of philosophy.
There’s room in it for football chants and hints of anthroposophy.
It teems with letters, poems, essays, dialogues, and hidden jokes,
traversing space and time just like a spaceship full of giddy folks.
It has a piece on lying, in particular Pinocchio;
it’s very very humble with a bit of braggadocio.
There’s even Folly writing to the wailing man who lost his nose…

Lost his nose? … lost his nose? .. Got it!

and visions of utopia where nobody gets frosty toes!
Chorus: and visions of utopia where nobody gets frosty toes (3x)

It shows a lot of deference when poking fun at Socrates,
and when discussing medicine it calls upon Hippocrates.
In short I can hypothesize, with certainty, that possibly
this is the very model of a journal of philosophy!

Chorus: In short we can hypothesize, with certainty, that possibly
this is the very model of a journal of philosophy!

 

Note: The drawing is from the program of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s children’s production of The Pirates of Penzance, 1884.

Solitude of Time

The subject of solitude seems trickier and trickier, the more I think about it–and more and more important. Yet it is important only in relation to things that require it. There is no sense in pursuing or defending solitude for its own sake. Also, it is possible (and even common) to seek solitude for the wrong reasons–such as escape and self-defense. They are “wrong” insofar as they involve closing off the mind and the experience. To make things even more perplexing, it is possible to seek  solitude for “right” and “wrong” reasons at the same time.

But what is this solitude? In his treatise De vita solitaria (On the Solitary Life), Petrarch posits three kinds of solitude: solitude of place, solitude of time, and solitude of the mind. For a long time, it was the third that interested me the most; recently, I have been thinking about solitude of time.

Solitude of time comes in many forms. There is solitude of chronos, the procession of time; solitude of kairos, the right moment for things, and solitude that combines the two.

We often think of time as a material possession: “I have time” or “I have no time.” When viewed as such, it seems closely related to money; a wealthy person has leisure time, whereas a poor person must work.

But it is possible to view time not as possession, but as vastness and structure. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes of the “architecture of time“–in particular, Shabbat, which opens up an infinity of time. “The higher goal of spiritual living,” he writes, “is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” He makes clear that he does not disparage information-gathering for a higher good: “What we plead against is man’s unconditional surrender to space, his enslavement to things. We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.”

It is easy to forget the difficulty and unpopularity of Heschel’s words. They come from solitude; they demand solitude. They ask us to set aside our trinket-gathering, if only for a little while.

The artist Karen Kaapcke (who happens to be a parent at my school) articulates something similar (albeit quite differently) on her “Drawing 50 Blog“–her project, beginning on her 50th birthday, of drawing a self-portrait every day for a year. “This is surprising to me,” she writes–“the path of these drawings is less about me, my 51st year, how do I look as I age – and more about what living as a draftsperson, being-in-the-world as a draftsperson, means. And so, I am finding that sometimes the drawings, while starting with myself, do not have the sense of being about only myself, but a connection to a state that might be, almost, universal.”

There is something solitary about recognizing time. That recognition can take different forms–but one is alone in it. On the day that my students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, arrived in boxes, I had come to school just for that occasion (I had no classes on that day). But even when the boxes were within feet of me, I knew it wasn’t time to open the first one; that had to wait for the editors-in-chief. That was a short wait–but I remember the utter clarity of it.

The right time is not always “now.” (The hermit in Tolstoy’s story “The Three Questions is wrong.) The right time is now only when one recognizes that it is now.  Sometimes the right time is “not yet”; that very stretch of time between “not now” and “now” is solitary.

Timing in speech and music–a sense of tempo, rhythm, cadence, pause–is another way of recognizing time, of grasping the intersection between the stream and the moment. One knows when the timing is right, yet such timing is entirely singular, never to be repeated exactly. Even if it were repeated exactly, it might not be right the second time.

Time is not just a segment or line; it has dimension. Solitude lets you see into the dimension. One could reword a line from Zarathustra’s Roundelay, to say “Die Zeit ist tief” instead of “Die Welt ist tief”–but they  mean something similar, since it is the deep midnight speaking here. (It is part of the answer to the question posed in the first two lines: “O Mensch! Gib acht! / Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?”

There are times when possessible time dries up and crumbles, and the true time opens up. But we always return to the illusion of possessible time. (We must, in order to “do” anything with time.) Is it that simple, though? Does time divide up like that, into the illusory and the real? Or is it necessary to “grab” time in order to see past the grabbing? I think the latter: “material” time can lead to “matterless” time, as long as we allow this to happen.  For example, a person can get things done by a certain time in order to have a stretch of doing nothing. Also, the completed things, once done, are there for good, even if they decay materially.

Why is the solitude of time important? When one finds it, one is no longer subject (entirely) to group demands and rush. One has to meet certain demands, but one also stands outside them. It’s like having a mansion that costs no money and isn’t in the least bit gaudy.

 P.S. Those interested in solitude may wish to tune in to The Forum (BBC World Service) this weekend.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece (for style and clarity) after posting it.

What Would Become of Walter Mitty and Fern?

There’s a new medical term for excessive daydreaming: Sluggish Cognitive Tempo. This is not a joke; research into this possible condition has been in progress for thirty years or so. Although it has yet to be recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it has conferences and articles in its name.Some supporters of the new diagnosis wax exuberant over the supposed clarity it brings to the ADHD question (since it overlaps with what has been known as ADHD).

Before discussing the problems with such a diagnosis, I will give it its due. “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo” (SCT) is the term for a cluster of symptoms: daydreaming, mental fog, confusion, frequent staring, and others. Researchers have been looking into the possibility that this cluster exists apart from ADHD. If this were so, and if treatment were found for the condition, many children and adults could be spared the pain and risks of misdiagnosis–and might have access to effective treatment. For those whose condition prevents them from functioning from day to day, this could be a godsend (or a science-send).

So, why fret over this? I worry for Walter Mitty, the protagonist of James Thurber’s story and the film based on it (the one starring Danny Kaye; I was unable to bring myself to see the more recent one). Walter Mitty would have been diagnosed with SCT, and then we would not have had him. There would be no “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.” Mitty would be “on task.”

In fact, many a wandering mind would be herded back onto the task at hand. But maybe some of those wanderings are more interesting than the task. Maybe we attach too much value to task performance. (I bring this up–in relation to solitude, not SCT–on BBC World Service’s program The Forum.)

I have had students who had difficulty staying on task because they were thinking about the subject in an interesting way–as well as students who seemed “off-task” because they were actually concentrating hard (and not taking notes as the others were). I myself tended not to take notes in school; I preferred to listen and think. Fortunately my teachers let me be; today, I would be considered off-task.

The daydreamer may actually be highly attentive–absorbed in the matter at hand and unwilling or unable to move on to the next thing. The one who stares into space may be listening closely to something.

Granted, some people’s daydreaming and other SCT-associated symptoms prevent them from doing what they themselves want to do. But when it comes to diagnosing children, it is adults who decide whether there’s a problem. They might not see the rewards of daydreaming; they might only see the low grade on the homework assignment. “Why didn’t you start each paragraph with a topic sentence? Why do you have only one supporting detail here instead of two?” Wandering minds such as Mitty, Tristram Shandy, and many an actual person would get faulted, diagnosed, and fixed. The world would fill up with dreary essays that never departed from the rubric.

In Charlotte’s Web, Fern’s mother pays a visit to the family doctor, Dr. Dorian, in order to seek his advice about Fern, who, in her view, spends far too much time alone with the animals, just sitting and listening to them. Dr. Dorian leans back, closes his eyes, and says, “How enchanting!”

I do not mean to romanticize a serious condition–but I suspect that if SCT had been a diagnosis in Fern’s day, and if Dr. Dorian had not been so wise, Fern might well have ended up on medication.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 176 other followers