About this course
|Note: The present document is Part II of a series on this topic. If you want to take a copy of "About this course," you may prefer to print the complete version. In any case, the present section will not be intelligible unless you have already worked through Part I. And it is followed by Part III.|
2. Grasping the task as a whole, and its payoffs.
But if it's harder to see what the moves are to take on with purely mental tasks than with those that require physical enactment, it's even more difficult, in advance, to appreciate their point and purpose.
Think again about playing tight end, swimming, driving a car, playing the piano. People who undertake to learn these skills usually have a pretty good idea in advance of both of what the overall activity "looks like," and of what being able to do it for oneself would open up for one. You don't have to explain to an American teenager how his life would be enhanced by being able to drive: he knows that quite well before he ever undertakes to learn how to drive. And while he is learning to drive, he already has a decent conception of how the various sub-moves that driving embraces (braking, operating the clutch and gearshift lever, flipping the turn indicator, steering, accelerating) come together, co-operate, co-ordinate to accomplish some more comprehensive sub-move (turning a corner). The point is that these smaller sub-moves are all understood - even by the learner - as situated in an overall context that makes them intelligible even before one can do them individually or co-ordinate them in one's own activity.
Recall what we said before about how playing tight end presupposes competence in analyzing football contests as a whole, i.e., competence as a spectator of the sport - how a player would not even understand the roles of his particular position within the game if he did not have a comprehensive understanding of the game overall. This prior "bird's eye view" of the activity to be learned there for the learning musician and swimmer, too. That's why the Red Cross can break up the task of coaching a new swimmer into discrete units for separate and serial rehearsal, without running the risk that learners will find the piecemeal drills senseless while they do them. First we practice getting our face wet. Then we learn to float prone. Next we take up the arm stroke, on land, then standing in the water. Then we add it to the prone float. After that the flutter kick - on land, in the water holding the hand rail, then hanging on to a piece of Styrofoam, and finally with the prone float. Then we add the arm stroke. After that come the breathing techniques, etc.
All the time the learner is practicing these separate modules of sub-moves that go up to make up the stroke as a whole, she is conscious of their role within the overall activity of swimming the crawl as a whole. But imagine what must be the case for the rare swimming pupil who happens to be blind. When he is asked, for example, to practice getting his face wet, he has no conception in advance of where the whole process of rehearsal is leading. After learning to float, what is the sense of getting out of the water and moving one's arms in the overhand pattern? What is the configuration of the overall complex of activity within which each of the sub-moves he is asked to master is supposed, eventually, to fit?
After all, in swimming the crawl, we do a whole bunch of things simultaneously. We stroke with our arms as we lie prone on the water's surface and kick, all the while moving our head sideways and down, taking a breath of air and then expelling it under water. We don't, as in learning, do these things in series, one after the other. There is, in other words, a particular structure that unites all of these constituent moves in a definite way. Until we "get it together" in this overall pattern, we don't have it. And, for the blind person, this means that he doesn't have a conception the activity he's set out to learn how to do until he's actually done it himself .
Clearly this is a huge disadvantage. Unlike the learner with sight, the blind would-be swimmer has to take it on faith that the individual sub-tasks he is rehearsing will eventually come together in something worthwhile. After all, none of the sub-moves is worth anything in itself. In isolation from all the others, outside of proper articulation with each other within the overall pattern, each is pointless and impotent - witless and boring. The temptation is much greater to discouragement. Each element of the whole, encountered in abstraction from a prior conception of the whole, invites the exasperated challenge: "So what?"
But this is not unlike what it feels like as we try to pick up on mental activities. Since these activities don't express themselves directly in overt bodily enactments, we don't come to the learning of them with an already formed notion of what they consist in as a whole. So even when we've picked up on some move, we often haven't picked up on the one's that go along with it to accomplish some intelligible overall performance. And not having a grasp of this larger whole, we can be left wondering whether what we spotted going on was in fact a move after all.
Worse yet, we are likely to have only the vaguest notion - or no notion at all - of what the carrying out of such activities result in: of what they do for us, what their point and purpose is. No one has to explain to us how our life would be enhanced if we were to learn how to play the piano, or fly an airplane, or skate on ice. We can witness people having fun doing these things and easily imagine a good deal of what being able to do them would open up for us.
But what about formulating and solving algebra problems, or making sense of objects like Kafka's "Couriers"? What can these do for us? The answer can only be had when we know how to do these things, not before. Hence deciding to learn how to do such things involves a rather large act of faith. It's not just that we have to believe that we can succeed (as discussed in Appendix II). It's that we cannot know in advance why we should take up these tasks in the first place.
Now in the case of literature, we are not in altogether so bad a predicament as we might be. All of us enjoy movies - something that would be impossible if they were nothing but baffling to us. And we've been dealing with stories from way before we learned how to read. So in fact we already know a good deal, in a general way, of what engaging with literature is like and what it issues in, even if we haven't reflected on these matters in any persistent way.
Still, many of the works with which we will be practicing in this course will initially be baffling. This may be true even for some works that we could place within one or another "realist" tradition (supposedly concerned with "familiar experience"). Williams's "Poem" is a case in point. Moreover, even those that yield up much to the repertoires of engagement we're already practiced in will repay our trying to interrogate them in novel ways. And whenever we venture into new territory, we will be investing our energies (and suffering our frustrations) without any clear idea in advance of what the worth of learning how to do this might be.
3. Mastering the task.
There's one other crucial difference between exclusively mental tasks and those activities enacted through movement of our limbs. This one, though, should cause us to take heart.
We alluded earlier to the immense investment in physical effort and even pain that anyone who wants to learn a sport must be willing to make. This gives rise to its own stock of frustration, which is further compounded when it's the job of your opponent to make life more difficult for you, and more yet when the sport is a contact sport. Pianists, flautists, guitarists: all have to spend hours doing repetitive exercises, which can be terribly boring in themselves. And everyone who learned to operate a stick shift has been through the clutziness of stalling the car in the middle of an intersection.
The chief problem in mastering bodily activities is that knowing what the moves are is not enough. We have to get our bodies actually to make the moves. And not only are our limbs not in the habit. Often they are simply not up to it. We have to do here with the problem of physical recalcitrance - the positive resistance our bodies offer to our wish to make them behave in novel ways.
Hence the training regimens of windsprints and weights, finger drills, practicing parallel parking over and over. Someone once asked the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker how he learned to do his wonderful stuff. "Well," he said, "first you learn to do all the scales. They you learn to play all the tunes. Then you learn to play all the tunes in all the scales. Then, "he said, "you forget about all that." But, of course, many who set out to learn to play a musical instrument - even without the dream of becoming a Charlie Parker - quit before long, out of the boredom and frustration that must be gone through before they can play well enough to have any fun.
In mastering mental tasks, we get to skip all of this drudgery just to get in shape to do what we discover must be done. Since basic competence requires no physical dexterity or limberness, no strength and endurance, we get to dispense with painful stretching, exhausting sessions with the weights, and dry heaves at the end of the track. Indeed, implicit in what we've already said about picking up moves by "watching" others carry them out, is the fact that, with mental moves (but not with physical moves), seeing the move cannot be accomplished apart from doing it. If we can see what the move is, we have already, by way of some sort of intellectual empathy, performed it in our own right, along with the mentor.
So here's how things stand. With physical tasks (no matter how complex), it's easy to see the moves, and how they fit together into a meaningful whole, and what the ulterior rewards are of the task itself. What's hard is to internalize the moves, to make them a part of one's second nature: to master the task is to collaborate in getting it to master one's own body. But with novel mental tasks (sometimes even fairly simple ones), it's often at first hard to see what the moves are, how they fit together with others to constitute an overall strategy to some purpose, and what the rewards of accomplishing that purpose can be. On the other hand, once the move is seen, it's already been accomplished by the learner, and is ready to be experimented with on new occasions. And in doing this the learner will never confront resistances comparable to those presented by a body that has not yet been brought into appropriate physical condition.
This means the sources of frustration and defeat in the learning of bodily and mental tasks are differently located. Particularly in the case of mental tasks, its easy for the learner to take on an extra and unnecessary load of exasperation - at himself, for his bafflement at what he's being asked to do, or at the teacher for not explaining it clearly enough. Why can't I see what's going on, as I can with basketball? Because it's strictly speaking invisible: it's not going on in the talk that constitutes class discussion, but as is were "behind" or "through" it. Why isn't the instructor telling me what I should be doing, by spelling out it out clearly? Because it's best conveyed not by describing it but by demonstrating it, that is, by just doing it. Why can other people see what's going on? It's not because they were born with some special faculty that I lack - a "third eye," as it were, that picks up on "meanings." We've all got the same equipment, and they've just caught on to how to put it in gear in the task at hand. With mental activities, catching on can be a struggle, and when it is - even when others seem to have gotten over the hump - it's no reflection on one's intellectual talents. We should just keep a lookin', because once we finally have seen the move, making it our own can be a breeze. That's why in learning how to do "intellectual" work, progress tends to go in spurts: we seem to get nowhere for the longest time, and then suddenly we take off in a big jump.
 It is precisely because it understands that both these acts of faith are required for students to decide on their own to enroll in a course in philosophy, and because it appreciates that students are unlikely to have the experience that would give them a rational basis for extending these acts of faith, that the Arts and Sciences Faculty has made it a positive requirement rather than an elective for students in all of its degree programs to take a course in philosophy. And it is because designers of high school curriculums are aware that the idea of learning to drive presents neither of these obstacles, that they invariably specify a course in driving as a fully free elective. Return.
 You may want to review what was said earlier in note 8, reproduced here.:
Mastering a new technical vocabulary is something far different from memorizing definitions -- in itself a witless activity. Memorizing can be a useful first step, because it enables us to reproduce for contemplation the complex of elements that constitutes the definition (supposing it is well-formed) -- so that we can proceed to the real business of forming and appreciating the point of a concept that we have never before entertained. To do this we have to think through each element of the definition (each constituent concept out of which the definition offers to fashion it) and each relationship the definition puts these building blocks into with others. This means we have to carry out a whole series of thought experiments, imagining how the concept we are seeking would be altered if any of these elements were dropped or substituted for by some close cousin, or if any of the relationships were made into something else. And we have to do this all the while trying to figure out what difference such differences in turn would make. Why does the community of people who employ the concept choose to use this tool for the job instead of some concept different in just this or that respect. What, indeed, is the job they are getting done with it? And what's the role of this task, in turn, in some larger activity they are up to?
In other words, learning a new technical vocabulary is simultaneously (1) training in perception and (2) training in a for-us new theoretical perspective. We are being inducted into a new way of seeing things -- learning to notice matters we have never taken into account before. And we are being invited into a way of seeing relations among these things, and familiar ones, that makes sense of them in some fashion we have never imagined before.
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Copyright © 1998 by Lyman A. Baker.
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This document last revised on Monday, August 23, 1999.