Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: & / Teaching / Society / Social Epistemology / Reading /

Mission: to trace the purpose of the ideal of universal literacy in kleptocracy

First I’m just going to blurt some things, scrapbook style. This section should get edited and ordered as it grows. Some of the key materials have already long been at K.

We have records of humans scratching, painting, carving, notching … going way back. Cro-Magnon bones from c. 18,000 years ago seem to track the moon. By that time drawings of the ibex, harbinger of spring (and lots of fresh meat), were already stylized to a symbol. Well on its way back toward ten thousand years ago Sumerians were writing in clay, apparently taking inventory of crops in storage. Some minister, some foreman, some bureaucrat had to know what the marks meant, be able to tell the king what was in the barn. But can we imagine every little Sumerian child forced to learn to interpret the clay tablets? No. The society needed farmers, and a foreman, and a scribe, and a couple of others in training. And if they didn’t have lots of fields, and too many people, and back-breaking quantities of surplus food, they wouldn’t have needed the foreman, and certainly not the scribe.

Claude Levi-Strauss said that ancient writing’s main function was “to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings.” I don’t see that applying to tracking the moon, or to reducing one’s drawing of the ibex toward irreducible simplicity.

But I certainly see it applying to societies with compulsory rituals, none more conspicuous than compulsory schooling.

The English word reading relates etymologically to the Old German reden. In modern German reden means to read. Ah, but once upon a time it meant “to pick up.” If the chieftain wanted to know whether to go to war the next day, he’d consult with his priests. They’d burn sticks, bones, whatever in the fire. then they’d scatter the embers, let the coals cool a bit, pick them up, and study them: like reading tea leaves. Reading was interpreting. This mess of soggy leaves, this mess of charred bone “means” … fight, don’t fight; get married, don’t get married …

2005 11 26 Funny, what I wish to say now has nothing to do with the points I’d planned the other day. But here goes:

When I was in college the Humanities class was assigning Homer one day and Herodotus the next. The instructors typically gave a brief quiz, typically multiple choice, just to see if everyone was keeping up with the reading. With four choices of answer, one of them agreeing with the text, the instructors might waste one of the three wrong answers for the sake of a joke. Thus: for some battle one side was known to use horses, so the other side mounted its cavalry on camels. The horses didn’t like the camels, got spooked, didn’t cooperate, and so the camel riders were victorious. Herodotus? One of those guys. (I still haven’t quite completed all my Freshman reading.) (I can’t imagine who could.) So: one of the questions read “Why did the SoAndSos use camels?” And of four choices the correct answer was “Because the opponents’ horses were afraid of camels.” And one went, “They figured they were as good as any other brand.” (Many of us smoked like chimneys in 1956.) If a student were just guessing, his odds on that one might have crept toward one out of three instead of the common one out of four.

I have little idea how much those quiz scores counted toward one’s final grade: probably very little, possibly none. The instructors were looking for means to encourage the students to keep up with the reading (a task impossible for me). (I read quite a bit faster now than I did at eighteen, but I still couldn’t read all that material on time, even were I taking only one course instead of five.)

Paul Goodman wrote that tests were an important communication between teacher and student: testing showed both how communications were progressing. Goodman emphasized (and I repeated at FLEX) that test results are no one else’s business. Who ever is paying the tuition should have the right to ask the instructor how things are going with Little Willie, but no one else. It’s not their business: not any administration, and certainly not prospective employers. (As Illich said (and I repeated), business and industry should be able to give their own tests.)

I believe in such tests. And by analogy, I believe that many another category of would-be communicant should be empowered to use such tests: and in some cases the results should be made public. Writers who submit a manuscript to a publisher, or to an agent (or to the public), should be able to test how well the publisher, agent, etc. has read the material. And if the writer believes that the test shows that the publisher hasn’t understood the material, by all means, that is information that the public should have access to.

Kaluza (or was it Klein) showed his paper on spatial dimensions beyond three to Einstein. Einstein recommended that he not publishing just yet. Kaluza complied. Who knows how the delay retarded physics in general? Did Einstein understand the paper? Did he understand it well enough?

I use Einstein in my first example believing that any reader will recognize Einstein to have been above your average intelligence (and reading ability). I’ll say that he was well above your average genius in intelligence. But, by now it’s clear, there were some things he wasn’t ready to understand: couldn’t understand.

The public should know how low its ceiling sometimes is.

My friend Phil said that the gospels show the Jesus disciples never understood a word he said. (Did Jesus give them a test? I’m confident that he did. I’m confident that Jesus knew perfectly well that they were not passing it.)

The first letter I ever wrote to the White House I wrote with the expectation that the White House would be able to read and understand it; not that they would read it, but that they would be capable of reading it. The second to Nth letters I sent I wrote without any expectation that they would be read or that there was anyone in the White House who would be able to read them.

My subsequent tests demonstrate to me that there are not likely to be any judges, lawyers, doctors, professors … experts of any kind, who are likely to understand what I say.

But: the public doesn’t seem to care. The public doesn’t want to kick over any sand piles: they might be fire ants.

Now: fire ants indeed are everywhere throughout their habitat, and their habitat is growing. Kill one “hill” and there are other ants ready to set up a new hill within no time.

The same is true of human social stupidity. Individually, one on one, lots of us are smart. Group us together, and … Well, look at the world.

Most of what I write, and much of what I say, IS an intelligence test.

Who’s passing it?

Just about no one.

Sentience & Semiotics

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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