©2000-2016 by CJS Hayward
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Theory of Alien Minds: A UX Copernican Shift (and Gifted!)
Profoundly Gifted Magazine Interviews Maximos Planos
Gifted Problem, Generic Solution
The Orthodox Martial Art Is Living the Sermon on the Mount
The Hayward Nonstandard Test: An Interesting Failure
The Way I Think
The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab
A Concrete Face to "The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab"
An Author's Musing Memoirs: Retrospective Reflections, Retracings, and Retractions
Tong Fior Blackbelt: The Martial Art of Joyous Conflict
Frankincense, Gold, and Myrrh: A Look at Profound Giftedness through Orthodox Anthropology
Zeitgeist and Giftedness
Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide
When All Else Fails
In That Hideous Strength, the Pendragon's circle is said to possess knowledge of XYZ that orthodox Arthurian scholarship would not reach for centuries. And a thrill of absolute transcendence seemed to ripple through those words. But in fact there are downsides to being under-studied, and some forms of giftedness are really a terrain without too much of a map.
All human beings, and in particular all Christians, are gifted; the language of giftedness comes from a passage in the Bible where the question is not whether you are gifted, but what gift you have. And this has to be the deepest significance of the word 'gifted.' But the condition called giftedness by psychology, and profound giftedness, is its own condition with special needs and challenges that don't go away if you say: "I believe everyone is gifted."
Over time new works have been added and others taken out; the criterion being not to provide so much local color ascribable to profound giftedness, of which there is enough in my other works, as things profoundly gifted individuals will recognize as intended to help cope and survive. And it may in the end not just be the profoundly gifted who find things practical.
[Author's note: since originally articulating the "theory of alien minds" concept in response to an Asperger's text that was framing things the wrong way, it has become increasingly evident that "theory of alien minds" is the core competency in User eXperience ("UX")... and also the core competency in gifted who effectively communicate with the outside world... and also the core competency in advertising... and...]
There was one moment of brilliance, I was told, when a North American missionary visiting in Latin America was asked if clothing and sheets lasted longer in her first-world home. The question was not surprising and it reflected cross-cultural understanding: bedsheets and clothing in the U.S. can last for quite some time, while bedsheets and clothing in the host country wear out quickly, perhaps in a few weeks, and it is nickle-and-dime drain on none-too-deep pockets to keep replacing them. The question, perceptive enough, was a question about privilege and easy living.
The missionary’s response was astute. She thought for a minute, and then said that yes, sheets in her home area lasted much longer than several weeks if properly cared for… and continued to explain, in addition, what people wore when they were all bundled up for bitter cold. Winter clothing is not mainly for modesty, and gloves, hats, and scarves (or, today, ninja masks) exist because on the very worst days every square inch of exposed skin will be brutally assaulted. The conversation ended with a slight degree of pity from people who only wore clothes for modesty realized that yes, as they had heard, bedsheets and normal clothing lasted much longer than several weeks, but there were some other price tags to pay. The missionary’s communication was in all sympathetic, human, and graceful.
Something similar may be said of the degree of IQ where you learn firsthand that being making other people envious is not a good thing, and where it happens more than once that you need to involve authorities or send a C&D letter for harassment to stop, and where others’ insecurities leave you socially skating on thin ice surprisingly often. Nonetheless, what may be the most interesting social lesson may have every relevance to “UX,” or User eXperience, and it has to do with what is called “theory of other minds“. The normal conditions for developing “theory of other minds” can run into difficulties, but there is something very valuable that can happen.
Having lived and written the various pieces over the course of several years, I would like to circle back and add a post script to “Zeitgeist and Giftedness,”now that I think I finally know what should be at the beginning.
Now I want to place something about what future trajectories hold for profoundly gifted, at least in the general case. I am not writing out of clairvoyance, or any belief that this applies to everyone even among the profoundly gifted, or anything of that sort. I also do not comment here on the singularity we live in (see https://cjshayward.com/singularity). I am writing out of what I know historically, what I know from my own experience, such skill for living as I have, and connecting the dots.
Also, as a caveat, I have been shifting in terms of Kiersey’s temperaments from being more NT to more NF. One of the first documented effects of a proper NF is that people will take you for whatever they want you to be, whether you like it or not. I do not advocate that the reader adopt such attempts, but I mention it because it may be a contributor to my getting along with some people later in my middle-aged life, and it may muddy some of my suggestions. I believe that some combination of both may explain why I have repeatedly had women my senior by a couple of decades hitting on me.
One quote commonly misattributed to Gandhi reads:
First they ignore you.
Then they make mock you.
Then they fight you.
Then you win!
As someone who has paid close attention to Gandhi, this doesn’t sound like Gandhi, certainly not the chapter on “Ahimsa or the Way of Nonviolence” in All Men Are Brothers. It sounds hollow and tinny, where however much I might have stepped away from him and written “A Farewell to Gandhi: The Saint and the Activist,” I find in Gandhi a heart of love not here displayed. I am aware of a couple of genuine quotes where Gandhi says, for instance, that if your opponent unleashes a storm of verbal abuse, and you respond without anger, you will be respected. However, the above quote is in my mind unworthy of Gandhi.
That stated, there is a grain of truth in it, and I would like to convey what I know of that grain of truth.
It was said of hockey great Wayne Gretzki that he skated, not to where the puck was, but where it would be. And this is an effect of giftedness that seems more pronounced the higher you go. I’ve found that this happens whether I like it or not, and whether or not I had the faintest intent of channeling the (future) Zeitgeist. In all examples included, I tried to persuade people, but the thought of being a forerunner to fashion was not on my mind, and I almost wanted to take a shower when my (I though) distinctive approach became the current fad.
Inside the gifted range, pay very close attention to when someone very smart takes credit for being countercultural, because that’s where the fashion will be in 2-3 years. That was about the delay between I heard a friend talk about refusing to have men wear neckties because ties denote the status of a slave, or at least did in the past.
In my own experience, there have been several points where I “came up with” things that were well ahead of their fashionable status, and were met with extreme hostility, perhaps partly because they badly broke political correctness as was in the mainstream at the time.
As time passed, sometimes to my horror I found that the thing I had been ridiculed for had been making the rounds.
Let me give a few examples.
When I was studying at Cambridge, I proposed that the holy kiss in the Bible was a worthy object of proper scholarly inquiry. The faculty insisted that study of the holy kiss fell under the domain of Realia, a word used in German theology for physical questions like, “What kind of physical objects was St. Paul the Apostle referring to in his metaphor of putting on the full armor of God?” or, “What did buildings look like?” An attentive reader of the Bible will notice that besides the room on a roof given St. Elisha, the Mosaic command to build something of a wall around a roof reflected building practices unlike Western tented roofs, where in a land where rain was very infrequent, a roof could be used as a spare room instead of a dead surface perhaps holding solar panels, and on a literal level this is something like a divinely inspired building code to build houses so that people would be less likely to fall to their deaths from your spare room, or else get nasty (and possibly, eventually, fatal) wounds.
I proposed a doctrinal study of the holy kiss, and this was inconceivable to the Faculty of Divinity. At one point, I drew a line in the sand and said “I want to make a specifically doctrinal study of the holy kiss.” He immediately overruled me, saying, “The best way is to do a cultural study, and let any doctrines arise.” Trying to involve my tutor did not help. I was not allowed to make a doctrinal study of the holy kiss: that was something that just was not done.
I might comment, by the way, that where my Orthodox advisor kept directing me was a cultural study of kissing that was not only unedifying, but left me feeling uncomfortable and dirty for months. If I may advise the reader, don’t do a sociological study of kissing. If you want a doctrinal study of the holy kiss, read what I wrote into The Sign of the Grail, which is meant to edify the reader. About the only major finding I do not remember including is, after following a suggestion that seemed improbable, noticing that the holy kiss was the only act in the whole Bible that is ever called holy. A doctrinal study of the holy kiss is profound.
But a couple of decisions, and one in particular, caught me off-guard. I was assigned, as a condition to continuing from my diploma to my master’s, to the “philosophy of religion” seminar. At the very beginning of the year, I declared a thesis topic of the holy kiss. I was recovering from cancer the previous year, which was known to the faculty, and while I do not recall discussing or announcing this decision to others, I opted for a strategy of aiming for merely passing marks in everything but my thesis, and throw everything I could into my thesis.
Two thirds of the way during the year, the faculty announced a decision that my thesis topic was not fitting for philosophy of religion. I was required to change topic completely, in one switch losing 50% of the total time spent on the academic year. Also, I got a low mark on one essay after it took me all but two weeks for a two month essay where I was trying and trying to make contact with a professor to establish which texts were to be addressed in a “Selected texts in...” essay assignment.
As far as my thesis goes, I wrote AI as an Arena for Magical Thinking Among Skeptics, online at cjshayward.com/ai, which got a passing grade. At Cambridge, which has not gone through the decades of grade inflation in the U.S., my recorded grade of 70 for my first essay is a “first”, where one in five students “takes first” sometime during times at Cambridge. The minimum passing grade for the master’s was 60. The minimum passing grade to continue to a PhD was 63. My overall grade, the only one that mattered, was 61. I was not allowed to continue. I appealed, but I was not allowed to continue. The rules were the rules, end of discussion.
Then something odd happened something vaguely like a decade later (a quick search didn’t turn up when). Various strangers started to contact me to excitedly tell me about the holy kiss.
One conversation I remember had someone ask me if I knew that there was much more than I had included in “The Eighth Sacrament.” Yes, in fact, I did. “The Eighth Sacrament” is a homily, and part of a homily’s job description is to deliver crystallized nugget(s) that will be useful to people spiritually. There are other venues where it is appropriate to be exhaustive in discussion, but a homily isn’t the place to try to tell everything you know.
(Please note that my first master’s is in math, and I’ve had a couple of undergraduate statistics courses. My diploma thesis in theology was all about ripping up bad arguments, albeit in theology rather than empirical science.)
I remembered being dismayed, as a long-standing theistic evolutionist, to note that a cherished article site that showcased deep thought, had articles attacking neo-Darwinism. My esteem for the site plunged.
When I actually read articles from Disco Toot bigwigs, I was blown away. As a child, I had read a Creation Science book because I wanted to believe that the scientific evidence pointed to a young earth. But at that tender age I increasingly realized I didn’t want to believe in a young earth enough to accept arguments that bad. I still find practically every contact with young earthers I’ve had to be intellectually immature. I remember one young earther, who had no degrees ending in “S,” telling me he would do me the favor of straightening out my backwards understanding of science. His scientific examples included how “pilots experience time differently when they’re traveling above the speed of sound” (one friend, hearing that, gulped and said, “That’s not even wrong.”) I remain a long-term non-fan of Creation Science, and I have argued at length that Creation Science is a Protestant praxis that is heterodox and doesn’t belong in Orthodoxy.
Initially Disco Toot thought leaders seemed convicing, but in the past couple of years the chief force convincing me that neo-Darwinism is wrong is the arguments the occasional interlocutor offers to convert me. Quite simply put, I am not aware of any form of neo-Darwinian evolution that makes any sense to me statically. Why not?
The best thing I can think of is to give a parable, and say that what I hear is that life forms have always been steadily been buying state lottery tickets, but there are times where a bunch of life forms won lots and lots and lots and lots of lotteries, strictly off the fossil record, and then no one wins a lottery for millions and millions of years, and after a long while bunches of life forms buy bunches of lottery tickets, and then it is millions of millions of years until anyone wins a single lottery, and the basic cycle happens again and again…
Atheists have accused theists and Creation Scientists of believing in a “God of the gaps” (that God acts in areas that are present gaps in scientific knowledge). I would answer that the evolutionary natural selection people have presented to me as an “evolution of the gaps:” the heavy lifting is done in areas we have no scientific knowledge of whatever.
In a work I will not name, I wrote,
Then Curdie made a clean breast of it, and told them everything.
They all sat silent for some time, pondering the strange tale. At last Curdie’s mother spoke.
“You confess, my boy,” she said, “there is something about the whole affair you do not understand?”
“Yes, of course, mother,” he answered. “I cannot understand how a child knowing nothing about the mountain, or even that I was shut up in it, should come all that way alone, straight to where I was; and then, after getting me out of the hole, lead me out of the mountain too, where I should not have known a step of the way if it had been as light as in the open air.”
“Then you have no right to say what she told you was not true. She did not take you out, and she must have had something to guide her: why not a thread as well as a rope, or anything else? There is something you cannot explain, and her explanation may be the right one.”
“It’s no explanation at all, Mother; and I can’t believe it. Darwinism is the only game in town.”
Now there is one point where I would like to acknowledge the obvious. Intelligent Design is not a consensus view. It is an obvious candidate for discussion of crank theories. And my suspicion is that one of the people who thinks Intelligent Design is crank turf is my dear reader. However, may I say one thing more?
I got blasted when I tried to introduce Intelligent Design to a mailing list with some very bright minds. There I was forceful harassed; I posted an email entitled, “A plea for tolerance and basic respect,” which someone quickly answered with an email subject of “Intolerant pleas for tolerance.”
I was almost entirely on the defensive after I first broached the subject, and the first major, extended struggle was not to establish that some bit I said was right, but to clarify my position against hostile mischaracterizations. It took me an extraordinary amount of effort to just get other list members to just understand that I did not believe in a young earth, but accepted standard scientific estimates of the age of the universe.
I learned quite a few years later that other members were increasingly involved in “teleological evolution,” which includes Intelligent Design. (“Teleological” refers to a theory that is intelligently guided to a goal, and rips out the heart of naturalist evolution.)
When at Fordhamin 2007 (2nd attempt at a theology Ph.D.), I wrote “”Religion and Science” Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution,” included in Religion and Science, Technology and Faith. I failed to find a single sympathetic voice; I only received corrections (or simply silence), even from a professor known for willingness to work with adventuresome thesis topics. A central concern of the work, as with The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, is a critique of scientism.
Fast forward to today. I don’t remember when this started, but today to accuse someone of scientism is almost halfway to “A hit! A very palpable hit!” even if the person alleging scientism has not done much, if anything, to establish that the other party is in fact guilty of scientism.
Again, what I said was very provocative when it was new; now that there is dust settled on my original work, it is not provocative to say now. Also, while I definitely wrote in a tradition (Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television), my work The Luddite’s Guide to Technology was written as, and remained, a lonely voice in the desert. Now it has been followed by Jean-Claude Larcheet’s more scholarly, recently published The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul (and published by Holy Trinity Monastery!), which says the same basic thing, and I gave it five stars and half-wished I could give more stars. I find it likely that more books will follow.
I have argued that it is possible to be pro-woman and anti-feminism. And, though I know the claim sounds bizarre, I have suggested that at its core feminism is anti-woman. I have long critiqued feminism, though I have argued how feminism might find unexpected fulfillment of Orthodoxy. I’ve also suggested that the terms “exclusive language” and “inclusive language” are in fact loaded language, and a preferable terminology might be “belabored inclusive language” and “naturally inclusive language”, and later suggested that people trying to e.g. make inclusive Bible translations so people understand inclusive intent in the original language, smells like a whiff of eau de “The bureaucracy is expanding… to meet the needs of an expanding bureaucracy!”
Now I have seen the first Bible translation I’m aware of that is less politically correct than its predecessor: the well-respected English Standard Version, which simply translates the related Greek term as “brother,” usually with a footnote whose apparent purpose is to get across that “brother” is naturally inclusive language, and unless the context requires otherwise, “brother” fully includes both males and females.
And, at Fordham University, in a class on social ethics with a professor who was Roman so far as I know, we read through the encyclicals and secondary sources (usually drawn from the breast of liberal Catholic dissent), and I noticed something really odd.
One leitmotif of those who opt for social ethics is “a living wage.” They keep beating that drum, much like the Energizer bunny, day in and day out, year in and year out. Then the class covered Pope John Paul’s contribution to the social encyclicals, and he suggested that a man be able to earn a “family wage,” meaning a man should be able to earn enough money to decently support a family and leave a wife in her proper rôle, and boy, were the liberals mad. It was stated very forcefully by at least one commentator that the wages of the proletariat be kept low enough that it would be a financial necessity to have both husband and wife working. So those who were not feminist enough to have a wife working outside a home, there was to be the economic compulsion that forced women to get a job outside the home whether they like it or not.
Wendy Shalit confirmed this by saying that a woman is now free to be anything she wants: a scientist, an athlete, a programmer, a mechanic, anything she wants to be… “except for a woman.”
If we ask, “In feminism, who is The Enemy, capital T,” capital “E?”” and an answer of “sexist men” is a decoy to the true answer. Traditional men may clearly be part of the problem to feminists and not part of the solution, but the real The Enemy is contented homemakers. Not that I believe this is entirely groundless; I would readily acknowledge that the housewife spending ten hours a day without adult company is a very different picture from some properly traditional societies, where men and women did not work together but both worked long hours in adult company, and the “solitary confinement during business hours” bit fosters depression. I think I am in agreement with a mainstream feminist opinion on that count. Overall, though, I would summarize the picture as I did on Facebook, much to one woman’s pleasure: “He for She. Because feminism knows that it is sinking.”
Feminism is anti-woman.
What I have outlined here is to my knowledge not an especially distinctive claim, though it may be sketched in sharper relief than is presently common. The point I would draw here was that when I first arrived at my position, I was off in my own little world and saying things that were very politically incorrect. Now my contentions are far from a majority consensus, but they are increasingly mainstream, and have struck a chord in a minority camp.
One admirer of Fr. Seraphim, who seemed practically to only ever talk down to me, talked about pedestals being dangerous even when they’re properly installed, and in this case his words seemed to have the ring of truth. He stated further that Fr. Seraphim tried to tell people he was a sinner, but he got put on a pedestal anyway.
Fr. Seraphim has been hailed to me as so gifted, although contact with his books and with his followers leave me inclined to believe he was around the gifted equivalent of a room temperature IQ (see my book The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts). However, he was at least somewhat gifted, and besides attempting some things that were truly heroic, he finished his life chained to a pedestal, worse off than the proverbial ball and chain.
I have so far in my life experienced what I would call “fame lite.” I’ve met people in person and found that they knew my website. I’ve been told my website is someone’s famous website. I get the occasional email, often kind, from a reader. There was one time when I visited my high school as an alum, and someone called out, as if I were famous, “That’s Jonathan Hayward!” However, all of these represent a lite version of fame, with the occasional warm fuzzy, and also occasional cold pricklies, and almost none of the costs of monumental fame.
Richard Feynman, when he was informed he had won a Nobel Prize, tried to dodge it. His first conversation in a storm of calls from journalists, he said this conversation was off the record, asked if there was any way to avoid this, and unhappily accepted the journalist’s answer that there was no way of opting out of the Nobel Prize that would not create even more attention than accepting it. Among the ruses he adopted, he would ask a university’s physics department to announce that a Prof. So-and-so they’ve never heard of was going to speak on such-and-such physics topic, and all physics students were strongly encouraged to attend. And then, when the lecture came, the department head said that Prof. So-and-so was unable to attend, but they had gotten Prof. Feynman to fill in. One time after such a ruse, an upset administrator asked, “Why didn’t you have a straightforward announcement that you, Prof. Feynman, were coming? All and sundry would have come to hear you.” He answered, “But that is precisely why. I did not want to lecture to a hall packed with all and sundry. I wanted to lecture to other physicists.”
Leonard Nimoy, in I Am Spock, talked about what it meant to play a major character in a TV show with a very devoted following. He explained that in Hollywood there were teachers for all sorts of skills an actor might learn how to do something, or at least a “good enough for government work” imitation, to portray characters with almost any skill. But, and this point was his payload, there was not a single teacher for how to handle public fame one one has acquired it. His fame meant that if he appeared in public, there would quite possibly be a public commotion. It meant that he learned all sorts of things about how to sneak into a restaurant through the kitchen to lessen the chance of “Spock” being seen publicly.
And my own beloved Vladyka PETER of Chicago and Mid-America came to the archdiocese as an archimandrite monk, and when he found out that people wanted to make him a bishop, like a good monk he tried to run away. Some people would see that decision as humility. I believe he is profoundly humble, but I suspect that much of what he will remember would be less humility than survival instinct: an attempt to dodge being chained to a pedestal.
And this brings me to a sad note. The last step in “First they ignore you. Then they mock you. Then they fight you. Then you win,” could be refined: the last step is really, “Then they put you on a pedestal.”
One bibliographic discussion of a Chinese scholar who studied a prior great who had ended up chained to a pedestal and lamented the pedestal, ended up with a pedestal of his own. That text was shockingly clear that such things are problematic, that a pedestal is onerous, and hampers activity perhaps even more than the “Then they fight you” stage (if the first three entries come in that order – there are times I’ve never gotten a “First they ignore you” stage before hostilities began).
I’ve made requests of my parish’s clergy for help in the instance of my being chained to a pedestal.
At this point I am moving, from claims based on public record information, to my own hypothetical speculation. It is, I believe, the place where skating ahead of the Zeitgeist, and eventually ending up on a pedestal, meet.
In my case (and I really don’t think this is for “Authors” with a potential capital “A;” most profoundly gifted are authors to some degree), there is a reason I took flak for my own distinctive sayings; I planted a flag (possibly not the first to do so) on territory no one saw as profitable. And the only entries in my portfolio were politically incorrect or well nigh offensive.
As time has passed, I have continued planting flags in politically incorrect turf, but due to aging some of the assertions in my portfolio were matched to the maturity of the present state of the Zeitgeist. My assertions had not particularly improved (though I may have revisited things being a little wiser), but the Zeitgeist had caught up. Then I started to have a mixed portfolio where some works were still very unpopular, but as time passed an increasingly higher portfolio of my collection had matured.
And, I suspect, if I live long enough, most of my portfolio will be mature in the eyes of the Zeitgeist, and I will be chained to a pedestal. And the pedestal will almost certainly end up more onerous than what I call my present “fame lite.”
Furthermore, there is a possibly competing, possibly complementary explanation: I have made social skills a priority in my life, and in consequence my social skills have improved. Whether or not you make a priority of social skills, your chosen skills are likely to improve as you give them not only years but decades of practice. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is not true at the upper end of the gifted range (I am a philologist who only really started learning a second language at the point where you’re not supposed to be able to learn an additional language, and now I’m at the philologist’s counting problem if someone asks how many I know), and especially for gifted, an old dog can become better and more practiced at more deeply learning old tricks.
A quote from “The Metacultural Gospel:”
In the morning, after a night’s dream-thought about metaculture, monoculture, and catholicity, I punched his bunk and said, “Hey, Nathaniel! How many metaculturals does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
He said, “I don’t know, Sean. How many?”
I said, “It takes fifteen:
Without missing a beat, Nathaniel asked, “How many monoculturals does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
I thought for several minutes, trying to think of a good answer, and said, “I give up. How many?”
“One. You’re making things far too complex and missing what’s in front of your nose.”
One classic developmental step in communication is developing a “theory of other minds”, meaning that you relate to people as also having minds, rather than as some sort of thing that emits what may be inexplicable behaviors instead of acting out of human motives and beliefs.
Part of how the normal “theory of minds” develops is that children tend to give adults gifts they would like to receive themselves, such as colorful toys rather than books. At a greater stage of maturity, people can go from giving gifts they would themselves like to receive, to giving gifts they would not want as much themselves, but another person would. However, in normal development this is an advanced lesson. For most people, the baseline is assuming that most people think like them most of the time.
For outliers in some dimensions, this simple picture does not work. People start with the same simple assumption: that you can relate to people as basically thinking like you. But if you’re different enough, you’ll break your shins with this approach. Perhaps outliers communicate markedly better if they know one person who starts on the same page, but communication is harder.
The crucial distinction I would draw is between theory of like minds and theory of alien minds. Both theory of like minds and theory of alien minds relate to others as having minds. But theory of like minds is based on the assumption that other people think as you do. Theory of alien minds also really and truly relates to others as having minds, but it is based on a realization that you are not the center of the universe, others often do not think like you, and you need to build bridges.
“Theory of like minds” says, “Other people have minds that are basically just like mine.”
“Theory of alien minds” takes a step back, saying, “Other people have minds, and they have minds whether or not they’re basically just like mine.
This Copernican shift has every relevance to “Let’s not forget the user” disciplines in UX.
Let me provide several examples, before getting into what it has to do with UX:
Hayward has worked long and hard to communicate well.
Many people might guess that the features of his [giftedness] would bring benefits…
…but few guess how much.
The same kind of thing goes with excellent communication. When a friend came from out of town to live in a local apartment, quite a few friends gathered to help unload the moving van.
Hayward, asked for an assignment, expecting to be asked to carry something. Instead, for reasons that are still not clear, she handed him a leash and asked him to look after a dog she has introduced as not at all comfortable around men. And the dog very quickly moved as far away as his leash would allow. But Hayward worked his magic… and half an hour later, he was petting the dog’s head in his lap, and when he stood up, the dog bounded over to meet the other men in the group.
In another setting, Hayward was waiting for labwork at a convenient care center, when a mother came in, with a four-year-old daughter in tow. The girl was crying bitterly, with a face showing that she was in more pain than she knew how to cope with, and an ugly bulging purple bloodblister under her thumbnail. Hayward understood very well what was going on; his own experience as a child who smashed a thumbnail badly enough to get a bloodblister underneath, was the most pain he had experienced yet in his life.
When the convenient care staff threw the mother a wad of paper to fill out before treatment (as opposed, for instance, to first just administering anaethesia and only after that detain the mother with paperwork), she left the child crying alone in a chair. Hayward walked over, wanting to engage the girl in conversation in the hopes of lessening her pain. He crouched down to be at eye level, and began to slowly, gently, and calmly speak to the child.
Some time later, Hayward realized two things.
First of all, his attempt to get the girl to talk were a near-total failure. He had started by asking her favorite color, and she was able to answer that question. But essentially every other age-appropriate prompt was met with silence: “Q: What kind of instrument does a dog play?”—”A: A trom-bone.” (But maybe her pain was too great to allow regular conversation.)
Second of all, she had stopped crying. Completely. And her face no longer showed pain. He had, partly by his nonverbal communication, entirely absorbed her attention, and she was unaware of pain that had her bawling her eyes out some minutes before. Hayward realized this with a start, and tried to keep up the conversation such as it was, regardless of whether he had anything to say. A rather startled Hayward did his best not to break the illusion, and did so smoothly enough that she seemed not to notice.
Some time later, Hayward was called for his blood draw. He returned to find the mother comforting her daughter, as she had not done before. The little girl was crying again, but it was a comforted crying, a world of difference from when she was alone with really quite vile pain. The mother seemed awestruck, and kept saying, “You have a very gentle way about you.”
Another time, Hayward was asked to substitute-teach a class for parents of English as a Second Language students. He was provided an interpreter who spoke Spanish and English, and the class met all objectives…
And Hayward didn’t really use the interpreter. He adapted to language and culture to bring an enjoyable class for everyone.
When studying abroad, Hayward was quite pleasantly surprised (and very much surprised) when a Ghanain housemate said Hayward had challenged some assumptions, saying Hayward was “like a white American, and like a black African, closer than an African brother…” and from that point on he enjoyed insider status among Ghanian friends. He has perhaps never received a greater compliment.
Hayward thinks at a fundamentally different level, and he needs to build bridges. But the good news is that he has been working on bridge-buildling for years and built bridges that span great differences. Being in a situation where has to orient himself and bridge a chasm doesn’t really slow him down that much.
In addition, these “super powers” can have every relevance to business work. No employer particularly cares if he can read ancient and medieval languages: but one employer cared that he could easily read bureaucratic documentation that was incomprehensible to everyone else.
No employer really cares that at the age of 13 Hayward crafted crafted a four-dimensional maze, worked on visualizing a 4-cube passing through 3-space, and looked at a data visualization in his calculus book and (re)invented iterated integration…
But some employers care a great deal that he can take a visualization project, start work along the lines suggested by Tufte’s corpus of written work, and start to take steps beyond Tufte.
No employer really seems to care that he has studied at the Sorbonne, UIUC, and Cambridge (England) in three very different fields: but co-workers have been puzzled enough that he so effortlessly shifts his communication and cultural behavior to have a colleague and immigrant ask him why he relates to Little Russia’s culture so well.
But some employers appreciate his efforts to listen and understand corporate culture. In serving like a consulant for a travel subsidiary, Hayward’s contacts within the organization that picked up he was trying to understand their language on their terms, and the Director of Sales and Marketing half-jokingly asked, “Do you want to be a travel agent?” Hayward perhaps would not be an obvious fit for personality factors, but she picked up a crystal-clear metamessage: “I want to understand what you are saying, and I want to understand it on your terms.”
Furthermore, while no employer has yet to care about Hayward’s interest in writing, one employer cared a great deal that he took a high-value document concerning disaster recovery and business continuity, valuable enough that it would be significant for the employer to file with e.g. their bank, and took it from being precise but awkward and puzzling to read, to being precise, accessible, simple, and clear.
What does this communication across barriers have to do with UX?
I’ve had postgraduate training in anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, philosophy, and psychology, and I consider “theory of other minds” communication to be out-and-out the central skill in UX. Perhaps the most structural of these disciplines is anthropology, and a training in anthropology is a training in understanding across differences.
Once anthropologists found difference by crossing the Pacific and finding aboriginal people untainted by modern technology. Now anthropologists find difference by crossing the street. But the theory of alien minds is almost unchanged.
Jakob Nielsen has been beating for essentially forever the drum of “You are not a user”. Perhaps his most persistent beating of his drum is:
One of usability’s most hard-earned lessons is that ‘you are not the user.’ If you work on a development project, you’re atypical by definition. Design to optimize the experience for outsiders, not insiders.
What this means, in competency, is “Communicate out of a theory of alien minds.” Or, if you prefer, a theory of “outsiders”, but don’t assume that deep down inside “outsiders” are really just like “insides.” Exercise a theory of alien minds.
What Nielsen is telling people not to do is coast on a “theory of like minds,” and assume that if a user interface is intuitive and makes sense to the people who built it, it will just as much make sense to the audience it was built for. It won’t. You have to think a bit differently to build technology, and that means you need a theory of alien minds. Assuming that you are the center of the universe, even if it’s unintentional, is a recipe for failed UX. We all want better than that.
Profoundly Gifted: You did some amazing things and some impressive actions when you were a child prodigy; have you been up to anything since then?
Maximos: Quite a lot, really; I’ve settled into work as a usability / user interface / user experience professional with a humble boss. And I’ve gotten married; my wife Mary and I have seven daughters, all of them with the middle name of Abigail, or “Father’s Joy.”
Profoundly Gifted: That’s it? You haven’t studied languages, for instance?
Maximos: Much water will not be able to quench love, and rivers shall not drown it; that is the important one, but yes; other languages are a bit like Scotch. One is just getting started; two is just about perfect; three is not nearly half enough.
Profoundly Gifted: So you’re not just a husband and father: you’re also a philologist—how many languages do you know?
Maximos: You are paying attention to trivialities if you gloss over my fatherhood to ask a question about my love of languages that I really can’t answer.
Profoundly Gifted:What can’t you answer about how many languages your love of languages includes?
Maximos: You aren’t a philologist when you speak two languages, or four, or twelve, or eight. You’re a philologist when someone asks you how many languages you know, and you have no idea how to answer.
Profoundly Gifted: Then what is it? What should I make of it?
Maximos: If I may shanghai an opportunity to follow the words, “If there is an elephant in the room, introduce him…”?
Profoundly Gifted: Yes?
Maximos: Asperger’s Syndrome.
Profoundly Gifted: It’s kind of like profound giftedness, no?
Maximos: Let me quietly count to ten… Ok…
I read David Pollock’s Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, and I said, “That’s me!” Then I read Edward Hallowell’s Driven to Distraction and it made sense. Then I read, on a medical practitioner’s advice, Tony Attwood’s The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, and my response was some more polite form of “Dude… pass me a toke of whatever it is that you’re smoking!“
The root problem, which I will get to in a minute, is that when people who are happy to have an Asperger’s diagnosis and happy to offer half the people they know an Asperger’s diagnosis, there are superficial similarities between profound giftedness and Asperger’s traits, things that a competent diagnostician should see far past.
Early in the title, Attwood says that when he diagnoses someone with Asperger’s, he says, “Congratulations! You have Asperger’s!” But then it goes downhill. Atwood argues that the obvious social impairments one would associate with Asperger’s are guilty as charged; Asperger’s people don’t know (without counseling and / or training) how to hold an appropriate social conversation. However, the strengths one would associate with Asperger’s are all but eviscerated. Asperger’s children may have a monologue that sounds like a competent adult discussing the matter, but this “knowledge” is a hollow shell, without much of anything of the deeper competency one would associate with an adult capable of such monologue. The common stereotype of Asperger’s patients portrays a slightly odd combination of strengths and weaknesses; Attwood’s book is less generous and really only ascribes real weaknesses.
The standard symptoms of Asperger’s have a perhaps 50% overlap with standard symptoms of profound giftedness; while it is certainly possible to be a member of both demographics, the profoundly gifted characteristics resemble Asperger’s characters for quite unrelated reasons. The similarity may be compared to the common cold, on the one hand, in which there is an immune response to a harmful invader, and environmental allergies on the other hand, in which there is a harmful response to something otherwise harmless. Or for those who prefer an example from Charles Baudelaire, there is an image of two females, one an infant too young to have teeth or hair, and the other a woman too old to have teeth or hair. (The coincidence of features is close to being due to diametrically opposed reasons.)
Profoundly Gifted: Is the question “Asperger’s or profound giftedness?” the sort of question you’d rather un-ask than answer?
Maximos: It is indeed. Or at least I’m drawing a blank to see what a three-cornered discussion of normalcy, Asperger’s, and profound giftedness has to add to the older discussion of normalcy and profound giftedness. If we can overcome our chronological snobbishness says that only now could we say something worthwhile about XYZ and giftedness, Leta Hollingsworth decided as a counterbalance to a study of mental retardation a study of some who turned out to have an IQ of somewhere around 180 or higher. She wrote an insightful and descriptive, Children Above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet, much more insightful than the treatment of profoundly gifted scoring “Termites.”
Furthermore, and here I am less concerned with the relationship between profound giftedness and Asperger’s than improperly read research, there is a consistent finding that IQ-normal, autism-normal children do markedly better at what are unfortunately lumped together as “theory of other minds.”
A much better interpretation of Attwood’s data might come from splitting the theory of other minds into a separate theory of like minds, and also a theory of alien minds. A theory of like minds works with one’s homeys or peeps; hence someone IQ-normal and autism-normal surrounded by IQ-normal and autism-normal classmates will coast on a theory of like minds. But, except in how it may be refined by practice, a theory of like minds that comes virtually free to everyone isn’t in particular reserved to a majority of people (not) affected by XYZ condition. With some true exceptions like Tay-Sachs, everybody gets along with their peeps. Gifted and profoundly gifted click with their fellows; Asperger’s people click with their fellows; to pick a few many demographics, various geek subcultures, codependents, addicts, and various strains of queer should click just as well. Everybody gets a theory of like minds virtually free; the breadth of usefulness depends on how rarely or commonly one encounters like minds, and this heavily loads the dice for Attwood’s approach.
The comparison Attwood makes in interaction with autism-normal people loads the dice in a way that is totally unfair. The comparison is autism-normals’ theory of like minds to Asperger’s theory of alien minds; he never, ever tests autism-normals on their ability to relate to alien minds, nor does he ever test Asperger’s patients on their ability to relate to like minds. And while being unsure about how far this applies to IQ-normal Asperger’s patients, Asperger’s patients often make herculean and lifelong efforts to develop “theory of alien minds” aptitude, and the result is not just that they connect, perhaps clumsily, with people of the same age and socioeconomic status; they make very close connections across age, race, and gender, and for that matter animals who may start off by being afraid of them. The theory of alien minds is finely honed, even if it is not a valid substitute for a theory of like minds, and once it is honed, this theory of alien minds reaches much, much further than autism-normals resting on a theory of like minds.
Profoundly Gifted: So your parents’ policy of non-interference and the Law of the Jungle was too romantic to teach you to be safe?
Maximos: More romantic than real life, perhaps, and putting me into a regular kindergarten, sink or swim, is neither more nor less realistic as putting a rabbit in the midst of coyotes, sink or swim. There was a real solution, but it was more romantic, and I fear being misunderstood. I certainly found it by accident.
Profoundly Gifted: What is it?
Maximos: A woman has kept a goldfish for years longer than goldfish usually live, in a fishbowl, just by talking to it in Mommy-to-baby love. Years back, hospitals which were ever concerned with sanitation witnessed a dramatic drop in infant mortality when they took the “unsanitary” step of having old women cuddle them.
Profoundly Gifted: And how does this relate to bullying?
Maximos: Let me raise and address another question first. We raise and send constant signals which are often met with escalation. When we are angry with someone, or wish for a way out of our job, or anything else, we war against others in our thoughts. That warfare is powerful. Often it comes back amplified; we can feed a corrective to the loop by responding meekly and with meek thoughts to a blast of anger. Some martial artists have talked about how few people really want to fight; such people are much less common than people who want to be the unchallenged tough guy. It does happen that there are some people want to do wrong; however, much more common are people who are disarmed when all three claims in Anger slays even wise men; yet a submissive answer turns away wrath: but a grievous word stirs up anger. The submissive answer to domineering anger is difficult, but it is possible, and it is a route that a quest for life by the Law of the Jungle will never find.
And bullying isn’t just for in the classroom. It’s also in professional life. The top quality I search for in a boss is humility. There is something aggravating about high talent. It is common practice to have sent multiple C&D letters, or equivalent, when harassment has continued after being repeatedly told, “No.” This is unfortunate, but it is a non-negotiable feature of the landscape.
And, like other things that are never the victim’s fault, harassment is never the victim’s fault; no matter how good or bad a person’s social skills many be, it is never justified to continue harassment until the person being harassed says, “CEASE AND DESIST.”
It is possible, in good faith, to do one’s best work as the privilege of the inferior before the superior to be praised, in the purest thoughts of respect, and instead be met with anger and retaliation to a perceived challenge. But if this is a live danger if we meet our bosses with thoughts of peacefulness, what on earth is to be done when we throw down work with warfare in our thoughts?
Profoundly Gifted: But don’t we all do best to avoid needlessly stepping on other people’s feet, especially our bosses’?
Maximos: Yes and NO.
Profoundly Gifted: Yes and NO?
Maximos: Have you ever spent a winter in the Midwest, perhaps Illinois? And drove after a heavy snowfall, three to four inches of packing snow?
Profoundly Gifted: Yes; it was a bit harrowing, but I made a bit of extra effort and was overall pretty safe.
Maximos: What made you safe?
Profoundly Gifted: I drove slowly, left plenty of space, and made allowances for skidding. That was enough to have me relatively safe.
Maximos: Ever driven in that kind of snowstorm in Georgia and the US South? The same three or four inches?
Profoundly Gifted: Not really; it never snowed like that when I was there.
Maximos: Years back, Georgia responded to a snowstorm three or four inches deep, and decided, “We will not be caught off guard like this again.” And then the next snowstorm the slowplows were rusted to the point of being unusuable, and you would have been sharing the road with people who don’t have even an Illinois familiarity with driving under heavy snow. Would you consider yourself safe all the same, because you need to drive in snow?
Profoundly Gifted: Aah.
Maximos: Get used to driving in a blizzard with other people not used to driving in any snow, if you want to be profoundly gifted. The approach that is usually safe sharing the road with drivers who can handle snow, more or less, does not even compare to trying to be safe hanling a road with people who just don’t know how to drive heavy snow.
And it feels awfully good to be told more than once, “You are the most brilliant person I’ve ever met,” but suppose you are so bright that the average Oxford PhD has never met someone as talented as you? You may be trying to drive safely yourself at least, but you’re sharing the road with people who are driving on a complete snow-packed terra incognita to them.
Profoundly Gifted: This sounds like a lonely and sad life.
Maximos: That was not my point at all, but what life is sad and lonely when one is searching for humility?
But let me give another detail.
You know, probably ad nauseum, about Leta Hollingsworth’s conception of “socially optimum intelligence”. The top end of the range varies somewhat depending on who you ask, but it runs something like 120 to 150. At that point you have powers to speak of, but you’re still running on the same chassis. And people who are properly above the range are rare, enough to really be exotic or a purple squirrel or something else few people have seen. The powers that come seem almost magical, but the price tag is hefty; the real advantage and the real privilege is at the heart of the gifted range, not the upper extreme.
I found James Webb’s Guiding the Gifted Child to be a treasure chest and a gold mine. One part of it says that children with an IQ above 170 don’t have peeps; the way that the book says this is that “children with an IQ above 170 tend to feel like they don’t fit in anywhere…”
…But there is another shoe to drop. There is another level, exact IQ unknown, where people are able to make peeps out of anyone. They develop a theory of alien minds so far that the distinction between the theory of like minds and the theory of alien minds no longer matters so much…
…And that is how I have found employment as the local usability and user experience guru. One of the first things people are taught for usability research is “You are not a user,” meaning that however much theory-of-like-minds knowledge you have of how software is meant to be used, you need to grasp a theory-of-alien-minds understanding of how everybody but the software developers understands it…
…Maybe you think I should be doing something more exalted in academia, and maybe I should be, but a humble and gentle boss is a treasure worth gold, and turf wars are just a little less than with academic bullies. Right now I have my wife and our seven daughters, and a steady job, and godliness with contentment is great gain.
Profoundly Gifted: Well, that about says it.
Maximus: Or not.
Profoundly Gifted: Or not?
Maximos: Or not.
Sweet lord, I have played thee false.
You don’t know how I was at a rich kids’ school, and the one and only chapel message I heard on theology of play was students who had gone through internships in third world nations, and theology of joy and play was writ large: a girl asked how you talk about germ theory to a runny-nosed little girl who offered you a lick of her lollipop. And really, how can you to people who are poor enough to be happy?
You do not know the time when I was deathly ill and was healed You do not know when I met every earthly betrayal and dishonor, and none to my own credit knew Heavenly honor next to which the summit of earthly honor is but pale and shadow. You do not know the sound of men weeping when the sleeper awakes, and the dreams are gone: the apprenticeship is finished and the godhead begins. You know I have felt sorrows above anything mentioned here, but they are not worth comparing with the glory to come, or even for the glory that exists here now in the the vast, vast open freedom of forgiveness, the utter nakedness of standing open before God, and the priceless vale of humility that is so low that no man can fall from it.
We, like social Gospel and the liberal left, believe in life before death. Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which here now God worketh in hidden transcendent glory for those who love him.
A former student of my father's, one I'd heard about, recently connected with me and asked a probably important question. I reproduce the answer, and by his kindness, the question here:
I was wondering if you have written or would be willing to consider writing about the self-awareness aspect of the gifted child and parent-gifted-child communication. I was contemplating this theme prior to reading the book - which did touch on the subject briefly, but more from a psychological/science aspect and not from a personal perspective. I converse frequently with my son about his education. I express understanding with his frustrations. I express our frustrations of not being able to provide better for him while at the same time try to not get him bogged down in the details. How can parent-gifted-child best navigate this twisted mess and come out of it with a stronger relationship in the end? What messages should and should not be conveyed?
You might read my Where is God in Suffering and Hard Times?, presently available with one one-star review. The focus for that collection, which does not address giftedness as such apart from dimensions and suffering, is primarily to strengthen people and give bearings for the rough ride I expect for the world. (I'm seeking a monastery, in which I seek a more edifying collection of suffering. And to be just a monk.)
The late Fr. Thomas Hopko is perhaps best known for a single short work, although he was a professor and author. He managed to make a collection of 55 maxims that provide a remarkably good summary of Orthodoxy. You might take some time to digest them if that interests you. Here is the list. The one that changed my life is in bold:
Maxims by Fr. Thomas Hopko
- Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
- Pray as you can, not as you think you must.
- Have a keepable rule of prayer done by discipline.
- Say the Lord's Prayer several times each day.
- Repeat a short prayer when your mind is not occupied.
- Make some prostrations when you pray.
- Eat good foods in moderation and fast on fasting days.
- Practice silence, inner and outer.
- Sit in silence 20 to 30 minutes each day.
- Do acts of mercy in secret.
- Go to liturgical services regularly.
- Go to confession and holy communion regularly.
- Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings.
- Reveal all your thoughts and feelings to a trusted person regularly.
- Read the scriptures regularly.
- Read good books, a little at a time.
- Cultivate communion with the saints.
- Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.
- Be polite with everyone, first of all family members.
- Maintain cleanliness and order in your home.
- Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
- Exercise regularly.
- Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time.
- Be totally honest, first of all with yourself.
- Be faithful in little things.
- Do your work, then forget it.
- Do the most difficult and painful things first.
- Face reality.
- Be grateful.
- Be cheerful.
- Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
- Never bring attention to yourself.
- Listen when people talk to you.
- Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.
- Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
- Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly.
- Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out.
- Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.
- Don't complain, grumble, murmur or whine.
- Don't seek or expect pity or praise.
- Don't compare yourself with anyone.
- Don't judge anyone for anything.
- Don't try to convince anyone of anything.
- Don't defend or justify yourself.
- Be defined and bound by God, not people.
- Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.
- Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty.
- Do nothing for people that they can and should do for themselves.
- Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and caprice.
- Be merciful with yourself and others.
- Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
- Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin.
- Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God's mercy.
- When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
- Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.
There's a half-occult Orthodox title (in Facebook terms, "It's complicated") called "Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives", which was the inspiration for "Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives": Beyond "The Secret" and the Law of Attraction, Work-Mystic, and The Orthodox Martial Art Is Living the Sermon on the Mount. I'd give them a guarded recommendation, but no restrictions on thinking about things that are genuinely helpful to think on and not being ruled by others' attitudes.
If I may take the bull by the horns and explain why I am essentially advocating for the Law of Attraction, the standard Oprah / New Age declension is that it is a good idea to covet all sorts of things you don't need and then keep on expecting them to make you happy, a Law of Attraction that is singularly unhelpful. However, the thoughts we think (and don't think) are followed by more of the same. Peaceful thoughts are followed by more and bigger peaceful thoughts. Hurt and angry thoughts are followed by more and bigger hurt and angry thoughts. When there is a violent thought running roughshod through my heart, it is there because I dallied with and engaged lesser thoughts of anger. One classic epigrammatically says, "That which is not desired is of short duration."
This is not an answer in terms of giftedness or even in terms of communication, and it's taken me years to make progress. But the best relief I've had for hurts stemming for or related to giftedness has been through this sort of spiritual discipline.
My live story up until now would be immeasurably impoverished if the various ways in which India had entered my life would simply be subtracted. I appreciate Indian food, even if I eat it in a non-Indian (Paleo) fashion. And that is not trivial, but there are deeper ways I've been enriched by that great nation. One of these relates to pacifism, where one of India's giants, one certain Gandhi, is perhaps the best-known person in history as I know it for the strength of pacifism. Gandhi might have said with perfect sincerity, "Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills," but there is a certain motherlode as old as the hills that Gandhi may have mined that motherlode better than anyone else in history.
My own earliest roots, the brand of Christianity I received as mother's milk, were in the Anabaptist tradition, and more specifically the Mennonite Church. I have never been a member of the Amish tradition, but I would contrast Amish as they are known today from Anabaptists in the time of the Reformation. Today Amish are seen as quiet, peaceful, and daft in being picky about which technologies they accept in their community.
(Amish are conservative, perhaps seen as a bit daft, and as Weird Al offensively jabs them, says, "Tonight we're going to party like it's 1699, not seeing what on earth could be good about partying like it's 1699.)
But Amish and other Anabaptists were originally the anarchist wing of the Reformation, the Radical Reformers who were radical even in the eyes of fellow Protestants, the Reformation's Left Coast. That they would have been parodied in the future as "quaint"ly conservative and "please don't point and stare" would have perhaps astonished Zwingli and his radical wing of the Reformation, and all their opponents, alike.
Before and during college, I went on a bit of a journey and a quest to bolster and advocate for pacifism. I studied the Sermon in the Mount; I read Gandhi write things that I thought only a Christian would write. Gandhi did not only say that his three heroes were Jesus, Daniel, and Socrates; he said that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for the sin of the world, a perfect act. And it was only years later that I learned why Gandhi did not become a Christian, something not given a single stinging word in a single quote I ever saw attributed to Mr. Gandhi.
I was filled with shame when I learned that Gandhi wanted to become a Christian, attended a Christian evangelist's meeting, and was turned away from being accepted into the Christian faith, because of the color of his skin. And he gave advice to Christians on how to present Christianity to Hindus, including displaying the hard parts very clearly, but he was not willing, after that, to consider becoming a Christian.
I would not have felt shame if I heard that Gandhi simply didn't ever consider becoming a Christian, or that he found the Hindu mystical tradition deep enough that he would content himself with Hindu roots, or that he would not have considered adopting the religion of the colonial occupiers of India, or other reasons like Hinduism as perhaps the most cosmopolitan of all world religions, or if we may permit an anachronism, Hinduism as the deep tradition that would years later establish India as a software superpower. These are all bearable. But not becoming Christian because a Christian evangelist turned him away—that is not bearable, but shameful.
In my own journey and life practices, the very oldest of the major works on my website, Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Real Peace Through Real Strength, was from my own search for pacifism. I don't deny that the nonviolent power that Gandhi described in terms of "satyagraha" or hold onto Truth (from the Sanskrit), nor that satyagraha became incarnate with Indian flesh. "I am a man, so nothing that is human is alien to me," as an ancient Roman said. The Church Fathers who quickly saw a path that meets its fruition in Christianity in philosophy or Plato is able to read of the practice of satyagraha and nonviolence, and the Indian cardinal virtue of ahimsa that recognizes you are tied to the other person and cannot harm the other without harming yourself, can be coherently interpreted without recognizing what Gandhi took, without compromise, from Christianity and the Sermon on the Mount. If Plato or Platonism can be purified, and someone Taoism can be purified, then perhaps something can be purified from Gandhi and the one nation on earth that established itself as sovereign and independent without shedding a drop of enemy blood.
I would like to briefly stop at C.S. Lewis and what is apparently an attack on satyagraha. The architect of "mere Christianity" as it is established in the West makes the only external addition to what is called "mere Christianity" that is in fact not part of Christianity as it was known then. He describes and condemns a guilt manipulation that one holds oneself hostage to make pity a weapon. And he is the only Protestant writer I have read who, in papers like "Why I am not a Pacifist," says not only that Christians may wage war but in fact that conscientious exemption is not acceptable in any sense, and pacifists as much as anyone else should be compelled to try their best to kill men in military service. And on that point I really give Lewis an F. Ruling out even alternative service for people who believe it is always wrong to kill is FAIL, at least for someone pushing a comprehensive plan of "mere Christianity."
I mentioned Anabaptism or Mennonites earlier as my earliest roots, and I have revisited them, not as a matter of regression but pushing a divide further. And there are some points of contact. The Anabaptist movement has three self-identified points of distinction:
A "believer's baptism", meaning baptism only on adult profession of faith,
A refusal to take oaths under any circumstance.
On the first point there is a disagreement between Orthodoxy and the Anabaptist tradition; what Anabaptists sought to dismantle in saying "Infant baptism is of the Devil," is one of many continuities with Orthodoxy that some in the West has opted out of.
On the second point, there is strong agreement. Now in pastoral terms there is an issue of people's comfort with a teaching, and it is not pastorally helpful to take a teaching someone is not ready to recognize, and ram it down that person's throat rather than allowing that person to grow to accept the teaching. But as far as oaths go, there was one Athonite monk who refused to take a required oath before testifying in a court of law, and endured without complaint the four months of prison that he was punished with before refusing to take an oath. St. John Chrysostom, called "the moral theologian among the Fathers par excellence," throughout every work that I have read, keeps on returning to certain moral topics regardless of perception. He keeps on hitting on the necessity of sharing with the poor, and of the theatre "in which the common nature of women is affronted" (think Internet porn, as it existed in the fourth century; to be an actress included being a member of a much older profession), and he more than once drops the hammer on the practice of taking oaths at all.
But as regards the question of pacifism, I regard my own Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Real Peace Through Real Strength as an interesting early step, particularly as there weren't too many other pieces playing in the same space that I was able to find. I asked a number of other people for feedback, and I regret my own sophomoric side of dealings with mature Christians who believe in a just war and who in every sense embodied what I advocate for here. (Wheaton College president Dr. J. Richard Chase asked for a copy for his personal files; part of this was undoubtedly kindness, but the kind gesture was against a backdrop where he probably had not seen too many works like it at all, even if he searched for them.) I've come back to review it, and there are things I wouldn't say now in this the very oldest and earliest of my works. But my coming back to it after all these years is not so much a matter of recognizing I was young and idealistic and thinking I am practical and realistic now, but looking again and saying that I did not go nearly far enough.
(Coming back years later deepened in the Orthodox spiritual tradition, or at least slightly less immature, my further knowledge has unlocked things in my earlier position that I could not understand in my early career as a convinced pacifist.)
But let us not demand perfection from everyone, and give one concession, at least, for lawful gun ownership.
One Orthodox faithful explained gun ownership and challenged people who regarded gun ownership as simply nothing but a passion of anger. And he explained how, as a loving and careful father, he hopes to never fire his gun "live", but as a loving and responsible husband and father, he knows what he would do if someone broke into his house with intent to do harm. He would bring such killing to confession, but he had his priorities straight.
(Note that this is reasoning about what would happen in an imagined scenario, not what was happening, a distinction which is important in Orthodox mystical theology.)
I have heard gun control advocates talk about how tragic it was when someone heavily armed opened fire on children; I haven't yet heard a rebuttal after a card-carrying NRA member answered, "Yes, it was tragic not only that that started, but that there was no one lawfully possessing firearms available to stop the crime. Did you hear about one of those many incidents that never appears on television, where for instance a man armed to kill a bear entered a church sanctuary with intent to do ill, and an off-duty security guard who was carrying a firearm legally and with explicit permission of her church shot and stopped a crime?"
And this may be just my observation, but the primary approach to persuasion taken by gun control advocates is to show hard-hitting images of traumatized people after an active shooter met no armed speed bump at all, to persuasion taken by the gun lobby is to mount a logical argument appealing to research and statistics. Now as a mathematician I understand Mark Twain's point that there are three types of lies ("Lies, ______ lies, and statistics!"), and I don't put my weight onto statistics I haven't seen investigated, but the question between gun control and gun lobby isn't a matter of deciding which side has cooked their books. Perhaps the gun lobby has cooked their books: but it is a little sad when only one side of a discussion argues from research, evidence, and statistics.
I may be hypocritical or a freeloading parasite when I say this, but I do not personally own a gun; I never have and probably never will. I have some skill with firearms, but that is beside the point. But I feel safer now that my state has legalized carrying concealed firearms, with a few asterisks about how to opt out on your property. I would rather be in a situation where there are two guns in a room, owned by a criminal and meant for a crime, and one by a law-abiding citizen intending to stop crime in the most drastic circumstances, than only the gun carried by a criminal. I feel safer knowing that gun-using criminals do not know where there is a lawfully carried firearm, and criminals simply do not know if I am carrying a .45 with hollow-nosed rounds.
But if you're keepinkeeping a firearm by your bed for self-defense, may I ask if you are also, for instance, investing in good night vision? Have you taken the time to install a respectable home security system? This may be slightly less "sexy" than having a powerful gun at hand, but have you established the powerful and immediate deterrent of flooding your home with light (a thief's worst enemy) if someone approaches?
And have you considered that it may be easier, after training, to hit someone while shooting out a solid stream of pepper spray—especially in poor lighting, where at least without night vision you can't really aim—than the few rounds in a gun's magazine? And that the effects on your house are much easier to clean up from a vile liquid than a few bullet holes after a powerful gun has shot through an intruder's body and hit the wall behind. Killing someone, however justified it may be, is a traumatic experience; even for trained law enforcement professionals, for instance, killing in the line of duty is trauma and good police chiefs can mandate that an officer who has killed in the line of duty get a year's counseling. Training as a law enforcement professional or soldier does not change the fact that it is traumatic to kill another person. If I had a choice between stopping a dozen innocent men with pepper spray and stopping one guilty man with a shot through the heart, I know which one I would rather remember when I look in the mirror each day.
For a first cue from the military, snipers, who know well enough how to fire a rifle at a paper target, are given one round and only one round to keep with them, carry, hold, and move around, and then after a couple of days are given one shot to take a "hostage situation" (balloon full of oatmeal or whatever) shot. Most fail the first time. With a bit more training and preparation, it gets to one shot, one kill. But it takes some training to get there. I wouldn't myself trust that with one shot, cold and in a panic, to hit home.
But with all that preface stated, may I ask people who look for safety via firearms to at least take a cue from the military?
Sun Tzu's classic The Art of War c. 500 BC, adapted for the business world in sometimes flaky ways, is arguably the greatest classic in military strategy and usually considered to be less dated than the best of the best from 100 years ago.
If one were to condense the multi-faceted classic into a single sentence, it should probably be one gem taken from the text, "All warfare amounts to deception." To put it starkly, war is not achieved by killing people, with psychological considerations in any sense being a side issue. War is about deceiving people; killing people has more of a supporting role than anything else. The terms "strategy" and "strategem" are forms of the same basic word; they amount to how to trick the opponent. You don't win well by killing each other's soldiers and seeing who has some left over at the end; military forces at any rate fall apart at a third (maybe less) casualties, and rank and file U.S. troops have guns and ammunition intended to seriously wound in the average case, but not kill. (Part of this is love for enemies; part of it is a tactical consideration that if you instantly kill an enemy soldier, you take one man out of action; if you seriously wound a soldier with a wound that may be treatable, you take three men out of action.)
One ancient account talks about how a military leader stripped a force of thousand down to a few hundred, and gave them torches and the shofars that one would use at the head of a host. Then they crept around the host, surrounded it, and blasted the horn. The entire enemy warhost, "like the sand at a seashore for multitude", fell into deep panic and was routed, falling to each other's swords (original text).
World War II might have been won under even more dire circumstances, but at least it was not the armies of second-born sons whose blood was poured out like water who won D-Day without strategem. Also contributing to that scenario was an enormous effort to build up rubber balloon versions of tanks at the like, massing to look from the air like the Allies were intending to invade from the point where the English Channel was narrowest, but sent a double agent to keep Hitler believing the D-Day invasion was just a diversion and keeping his main forces to where the channel was nearest and therefore out of the way when the breach was made on Normandy breach.
What does this have to do with home security? Everything. You're not firing on all pistons if you stop with a gun, and I do not mean that you need more firepower, or really even more gadgets.
Jack MacLean's Secrets of a Superthief says, on the cover:
"They said I was the best, the one the police called the 'Superthief.' Before I went straight I picked every lock, turned off every alarm, found every hiding place. I know how burglars get inside—and gets them out. If you're smart, you'll pay attention to what I have to say..."
Possibly the most valuable observation in the text is that home security should be 60% psychological and 40% physical, and it is seriously confused to think that you can win a physical arms race with a thief who wants to get in and isn't afraid of you. If you change your doors for heavier doors and less glass then a determined intruder will just change an already big crowbar for an even bigger crowbar. Then what other options are there? the book has some options; drawn from it:
Situation: There is an intruder accidentally making sounds in your house, or at least you think it is an intruder.
You say, crossly, with irritation and as much frosty, icy condescension as you can muster, "Yes, Sweetie, I know what the machine gun will do to the walls. I don't care. I'm going to give 60 more seconds for the SWAT team to get here, and then I'm taking care of it MY way."
Situation: A thief is casing your back door for possible entrance.
Have a clearly scribbled note on your back door, fresh-looking note that says, "Honey, will you please talk to Billy? He's let that stupid pet rattlesnake escape his cage again, and right now, I can't even find that idiotic scorpion! Can you explain to him that this is UNACCEPTABLE?"
(Women have sometimes taken to putting a pair of size 17 men's boots outside the door each evening.)
Does it work? Perhaps you may not sound entirely believable, but nerves roughened by intruding in unknown situations where you don't know how people are armed and you could legally be killed tell a different story. (The "Superthief" tells of not being able to count how many terrifying times he heard a barking dog answered by "Shaddap, Max!"
The most implausible note he described, more humorous than believable, was a notice when he wanted people to leave him alone, was a note saying that he had a severe case of crabs, and the crabs were strong enough to break people's fingers with their claws.
However, it was enough to motivate other convicted felons in prison to simply leave him alone.
There's a lot that can be accomplished by violence in certain very unhappy circumstances, and Gandhi respected those who use force nobly. Seriously, he did:
The people of a village near Bettiah told me that they had run away whilst the police were looting their houses and molesting their womenfolk. When they said that they had run away because I had told them to be nonviolent, I hung my head in shame. I assured them that such was not the meaning of my nonviolence. I expected them to intercept the mightiest power that might be in the act of harming those who were under their protection, and draw without retaliation all harm upon their own heads even to the point of death, but never to run away from the storm centre. It was manly enough to defend one’s property, honour or religion at the point of the sword. It was manlier and nobler to defend them without seeking to injure the wrongdoer. But it was unmanly, unnatural and dishonourable to forsake the post of duty and, in order to save one’s skin, to leave property, honour or religion to the mercy of the wrongdoer. I could see my way of delivering the message of ahimsa to those who knew how to die, not to those who were afraid of death.
- Gandhiji in Indian Villages by Mahadev Desai
But there is more...
...and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.
Of all the brief sayings that most mystifies people, "Our social program is
the Trinity" may be the most confusing. A social program includes a blueprint
for some more or less vaguely Utopian social order, and how by
war politics it is possible to influence, manipulate, coerce, intimidate,
bamboozle a plan to concretely build things on earth. And given such a bulleted
list of key features to a social program, it seems an extremely strained
reading of the doctrine of the Trinity.
But may I ask: What about devout Christian family communities saying, "Our juvenile correctional system is parents who love each other, stay married to each other, and love and discipline their children?" That's wordier, but the key point lies in a similar vein. If you go to a staunch Evangelical community, you may not see terribly many prisons, courthouses, correctional officers, and so on and so forth, but the purpose of a staunch Evangelical community is not that it has abundant "department of corrections" responses to a 10-year-old arrested for pushing hard drugs or a 12-year-old arrested for rape; however much there may be support for repentance, an ounce of prevention is worth a much more than a ton of cure, and an ounce of bored children in a less-than-ideal Bible study is worth years of expensive state programs to care for children who have been incarcerated.
And in that sense, prayerful life, or the entire struggle in spiritual discipline, is the Orthodox martial art. Certain threads more than others, but the discipined Orthodox life offers more than a martial art as wholesome homes offers something better than a state Department of Corrections or a doctrine of the Trinity that effectively answers social planners: "There are more things in Heaven and earth, visible and spiritual, than are even dreamed of in your ideologies."
Orthodox have various statements of how monasticism and the laity are compared, if they should be; I am of the opinion that it is beneficial to monastics to regard laity as fully equal, and laity to regard monastics as immeasurably above them. But some things in monasticism are falsely criticized as "just because it's monasticism:" taking passages of the Bible at face value is not, or at least should not, be a particularly distinctive feature of monasticism. And some people have said that Lent is just how Orthodoxy should be year round, and it makes sense to say that the bulk of monasticism is just how all Orthodox Christians should be.
Monasticism is privilege.
Monasticism is privilege, easily on par with a full ride scholarship at a top-notch university. But doesn't it entail poverty, obedience, and chastity? Well, of course. Aren't they difficult? Yes. But the vow of poverty, of never providing for your future self, is a vow of accepting the Providence who knows and loves you (past, present, and future) more than you could possibly ask. It is one of three medications that carves out a niche for abundant health. Perhaps most laity should observe chastity through faithfulness, but it is the same virtue that powers one practice and the other.
We are to be as the birds of the air, highlighted in the Sermon on the Mount:
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?
Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Do you think you can add one single hour to your life by taking thought? You might as well try by taking thought to work your way into being a foot taller! And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or, 'What shall we drink?' or, 'Wherewithal shall we be clothed'? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
There is something very powerful here, a something that is missed in business as usual in the U.S. Business as usual means heaping up treasures on earth, saying "God helps those who help themselves" (a quotation from Benjamin Franklin not found anywhere in the Bible), to be your own Providence. The idea that we are to do God's job as our Providence is at times treated harshly by Christ (Luke 12:15:
And [Jesus] said unto them, "Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth."
And he spake a parable unto them, saying, "The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, 'What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?' And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.' But God said unto him, 'Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?' So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."
I wrote about the husband who owned a gun as a means of being responsible towards his family: but my inward wincing was less that firing a gun is not turning the other cheek, than that he responded out of a spiritual illusion. This side of the Fall, we cannot ever arrange things right, and we do not do well to oust God so that we can get back to steering the helm of our lives ourselves.
It may or may not be appropriate for Orthodox laity to arm themselves, but whatever other reasons there may be for arming yourself, shutting off risk is not one of them. It is non-negotiable that no matter what hedge we surround ourselves with, the sand we grasp will slip through our fingers, and this is actually good news: we have another option, living the Sermon on the Mount, not harmed because we do not have control, and free because we know we do not need to have control, open to a larger world than the constricted world we keep on making for ourselves.
There was a Linux fortune that said, on eloquent terms that I cannot fully reproduce, that there were a bunch of starfish clinging to rocks on the bottom of a rapidly flowing river, holding the rocks tightly and terrified they would lose their grip. Then one of them suddenly let go, was battered against a few rocks, and then finding a place in the flow. And, perhaps in a dig at Christianity, the other starfish who didn't get it called the one starfish a Messiah and worshiped him while continuing to cling, and remaining terrified of losing their grip on the rock.
(But we are called to do both worship the Man, and imitate him.)
The Sermon on the Mount would almost speak more strongly about violence being unworthy of Christians if it didn't address violence. The direct mention shadows the overarching theme, where silence speaks more powerfully than words.
But there are in fact words:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:' But I say unto you, 'Ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.' And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.' But I say unto you, 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;' Ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
St. Paul's empatic plea to Christians to not demean themselves and the Church by secular lawsuits against fellow Christians (Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?) is cut from the same cloth.
But there is more.
Returning the theme of monasticism as privilege, one aspect of the depth of monasticism is that monks are not to defend themselves by force. When they are accused, they are not to defend themselves in words, as Christ Himself remained silent before Pilate (Note: ...and terrorized Pilate more than any threat could have done). And this is not exactly a mainstream approach in the West. It's a bit of an oblong concept: something that is a common assumption between the various permutations of pacifism and just war is that, once you've decided what are the appropriate means for self-defense, you can and should use the most effective appropriate means to end the danger with minimal harm to yourself and others. It just goes without saying that whatever limits may be, obviously defending yourself with speech is appropriate. But the monastic interpretation of "Ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." is quite simply that we are not to defend ourselves. We are not to defend ourself by means of lethal force; we are not to defend ourselves by means of less lethal force; we are not to defend ourselves even by words; we are not to defend ourselves even in thoughts. Not a single angry thought is permitted to us, and there are two kinds of power that we wield after renouncing power.
The first kind of power, the (relatively) obvious one, is highlighted in a story from A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul:
In the days when an ice cream sundae cost much less, a 10-year old boy entered a hotel coffee shop and sat at a table. A waitress put a glass of water in front of him. "How much is an ice cream sundae?" "Fifty cents," replied the waitress. The little boy pulled his hand out of his pocket and studied a number of coins in it. "How much is a dish of plain ice cream?" he inquired. Some people were now waiting for a table and the waitress was a bit impatient. "Thirty-five cents," she said brusquely. The little boy again counted the coins. "I'll have the plain ice cream," he said.
The waitress brought the ice cream, put the bill on the table, and walked away. The boy finished the ice cream, paid the cashier and departed. When the waitress came back, she began wiping down the table and then swallowed hard at what she saw. There, placed neatly beside the empty dish, were two nickels and five pennies - her tip.
C.S. Lewis's article Why I Am Not a Pacifist which would be more accurately be titled, for what it says, "Why No Christian Should Be a Pacifist Nor Have Either Their Church Teachings or Their Conscience Respected As a Conscientious Objector," dismissed what appeared to be Gandhi's toolchest as a dog lying in a manger (as in "Aesop's Fables:" which not only does not eat but also prevents other animals from eating). And it is not clear to me that all of the tools Gandhi used are appropriate: I'm not sure there is ever reason to seek out suffering, and after the Church's decision to both canonize St. Ignatius (who brought martyrdom down on himself), and forbid future Orthodox Christians from trying to provoke martyrdom, apart from strained readings of the Sermon on the Mount, I can't remember seeing any subsequent interpretations of hunger strike as appropriate. In other words, the Sermon on the Mount may give us tools, including a Do not resist evil that is never separate from the more foundational Truth in Do not worry, does not justify other tactics such as civil disobedience without direct provocation, or hunger strikes.
There's plenty of reason for fasting, of course, but fasting is not a tool for straightening out God and his Providence: fasting is a tool to let God straighten you out. And in fact the Sermon on the Mount tells us that fasting, like prayer, should be as secret as manageable. Then it can reach its full power. However, Lewis himself may have furnished the most touching portrayal of Gandhi's toolbox in Christian literature of all that I have read, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
"Hail, Aslan!" came his shrill voice. I have the honor—" But then he suddenly stopped.
The fact was that he still had no tail—whether that Lucy had forgotten it or that her cordial, though it could heal wounds, could not make things grow again. Reepicheep became aware of his loss as he made his bow; perhaps it altered something in his balance. He looked over his right shoulder. Failing to see his tail, he strained his neck further till he had to turn his shoulders and his whole body followeed. But by that time his hind-quarters had turned too and were out of sight. Then he strained his neck looking his shoulder again, with the same result. Only after he had turned completely round three times did he realize the dreadful truth.
"I am confounded," said Reepicheep to Aslan. "I am completely out of countenance. I must crave your indulgence for appearing in this unseemly fashion."
"It becomes you very well, Small One," said Aslan.
"All the same," replied Reepicheep, "if anything could be done . . . Perhaps her Majesty?" and here he bowed to Lucy.
"But what do you want with a tail?" asked Aslan.
"Sir," said the Mouse, "I can eat and sleep and die for my King without one. But a tail is the honor and glory of a Mouse."
I have sometimes wondered, friend," said Aslan, "whether you do not think too much about your honor."
"Highest of all High Kings," said Reepicheep, "permit me to remind you that a very small size has been bestowed on us Mice, and if we did not guard our dignity, some (who weigh worth by inches) would allow themselves very unsuitable pleasantries at our expense. That is why I have been at some pains to make it known that no one who does not wish to feel this sword as near his heart as I can reach shall talk in my presence about Traps or Toasted Cheese or Candles: no, Sir—not the tallest fool in Narnia!" Here he glared very fiercely up at Wimbleweather, but the Giant, who was always at a stage behind everyone else, had not yet discovered what was being talked about down at his feet, and so missed the point.
"Why have your followers all drawn their swords, may I ask?" said Aslan.
"May it please your High Majesty," said the second Mouse, whose name was Peepiceek, "we are all waiting to cut off our own tails if our Chief must go without his. We will not bear the shame of wearing an honor which is denied to the High Mouse."
"Ah!" roared Aslan. "You have conquered me. You have great hearts. Not for the sake of your dignity, Reepicheep, but for the sake of the love that is between you and your people, and still more for the kindness your people showed me long ago when you ate away the cords that bound me on the Stone Table (and it was then, though you have long forgotten it, that you began to be Talking Mice), you shall have your tail again."
On an immediate level, this is what nonviolent resistance may seem to have. But the "big picture" realization was one that I realized in discussion with one friend about "What will you do in situation X [which had not, and has not, happened]?" and I told a joke:
A young man who was a prospective captain of a ship was being quizzed about how he would handle difficulties.
The person quizzing him said, "What would you do if a storm came?"
"I'd drop an anchor."
"OK; suppose that the anchor gets stuck and won't come up, and later on another storm came up again. What would you do?"
"I'd drop another anchor."
"Ok, and if that gets stuck and won't come up, and later on you see another storm, what would you do?"
"Where on earth are you getting all these anchors from?"
"From the same place you're getting all these storms from!"
Fr. Thomas Hopko's 55 Maxims says, "Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out," and connects with "What would you do in situation X?" and the point I tried to make in Treasures in Heaven: The Inner Meaning of "Do Not Store Up Treasures on Earth. We are not to store up treasures on earth only in things external to our bodies; we are not to store up internal treasures on earth, things that exist in our minds.
One of these kinds of false treasure exists in terms of our perceived need to map everything we do out in advance. One teacher talked about how some scholar claimed to map out what St. Irenaeos would have said in various circumstances that hadn't happened: "What would St. Irenaeos have said if Adam and Eve, with their immediate children, had not sinned, but their grandchild did?" And regardless of the content of such scholarship, it is imposing on St. Irenaeos something utterly foreign to his mindset. As I have seen the academic community today, it is natural both to ask, "What is ...?" and "What would ...?" when trying to understand something. In patristic writers, only one of the two basic kinds of questions is valid for understanding something: "What is ...?" And no real saint that I am aware of announces that we must have a plan that anticipates every possibility before we act. Part of the point in the Sermon on the Mount is that there is no need for planning. It is as if this dialogue plays out:
God: Will you trust me on this?
Us: I don't know. I'm trying to trust you, but I really don't understand what you are trying to do with me here.
God: I know you don't know. That's my point. As your Spiritual Father, I am not asking you to do my thinking for for me. I am asking you to trust me. Do you trust me?
Us: I'm trying to fit things together, really I am, and maybe can work together if I am able to work out a plan. Could you work with me on this?
God: I am very interested in working with you. Do you trust me?
It is not my point—and probably not my position—to try to tell fellow Orthodox what saints' footsteps they may follow. There are warrior-saints, and then there is St. Acacius, mentioned in St. John Climacus's Ladder of Divine Ascent, who obediently served an abusive elder for nine years until he died, and when asked at his grave, "Brother Acacius, are you dead?" called out from beyond the grave, "No, Father, how is it possible for an obedient man to die?" And there are many others of various stripes, a kaleidoscope to the glory of God.
It is not my point—and probably not my position—to tell other Orthodox Christians whether they should join the military, or under what (if any) conditions firearm ownership is appropriate, or other questions regarding violence. I have a hunch that a good set of bright lights that turn on instantly whever someone approaches your house may, at least by itself, provide a more effective deterrent than a gun for when an intruder is already in your house. And it may be a mistake to assume that the real "I'm taking it seriously" way to address threats is something that starts with weapons. However, at least for the sake of argument, I do not wish to give a prescription for how others may relate to violence. But it is my direct wish to challenge the main assumption that keeps popping up when Christians regard violence as the real practical power.
One point regarding the Sermon on the Mount is that this side of Heaven, control that you plan out is simply impossible. The task is not to God's thinking for him; it is to accept his Providence as intended to bless you entirely, and trust him with the complete trust that the Sermon on the Mount cries out. This may mean being with the birds of the field and the lilies of the field, and being so with (in some cases) or without openness to using violence. And, though this is a lesser point, I'm a little wary of a second assumption that lurks under the covers: "Pacifism is idealistic and appropriate for an ideal world, while sometimes using force is what works in the non-ideal world that we have." But there is confusion for people stressed and worried to give that line to "Each day has enough trouble of its own." I've had times with more stress in my life, and times with less, and it may more be true that in an ideal world, we wouldn't need "Each day has enough trouble of its own, but in the rough circumstances in which we live, we need to take things one day at a time, and we need it much more than we would if we were in Paradise.
One ex-military person I spoke with talked about how top brass would keep on waking everyone up at very late night / early morning, sound the alarm, say the USSR was invading NOW, and everybody had to get up and go out to the tanks. And so soldiers would grudgingly walk out, dragging their rifles by the muzzle, and get into the tanks, and the live question in everyone's eyes was whether the officers would call off the exercise before they got the tanks out and into mud. The live concern here is whether the soldiers would have to clean the mud off the tanks for moving into the field the next morning. And he talked about idealistically believing that if only he and his colleagues trained hard enough, no one would attack anyone else.
I remember hearing a missionary's kid who grew up somewhere on the African continent saying, "You can't defeat people who have nothing to lose!" and thinking that that sounded awfully idealistic, something I really wanted to believe but couldn't, but that was over a decade ago, and since then the U.S. has been involved in multiple wars against third world nations and perhaps won none of them. World War I proudly paraded a mechanized army down to California for a sort of extended field training exercise where the entire mechanized army failed to apprehend the one single Mexican bandit that they were searching for. In Vietnam, the U.S. strategy was, "Our cool gadgets will win this war for us," the Viet Cong's strategy was to maximize the war's unpopularity back home ("ballbuster": a non-lethal anti-personell mine used by the Viet Cong, just powerful enough to destroy testicles), and the present strategy in the present conflict of shooting at ISIL from the air and arming jihadists to fight ISIL jihadists is really less of a military strategy, properly speaking, than an all-American marketing strategy.
Having control this side of Heaven is not possible, and believing that firearms can be a way to opt-out of the conditions Sermon on the Mount addresses in its prescriptions. In that sense gun ownership is dangerous, because even if you accept 100% of what NRA advocates say, you have effectively closed your eyes to some of the bedrock of what the Sermon on the Mount says. In another matter, that of finances, the Fathers are quite clear: "That robe, hanging in your closet, belongs to the poor;" "Feeding the hungry is greater work than raising the dead." If your firearm costs you the ability to live the Sermon on the Mount, drop it off at the police department; it is better for you to enter eternal life as killed where a firearm would have let you stop a crime, than to have your whole body (and your gun with it) cast into Hell.
I might briefly comment that I have brief experience with martial arts, and I have consistently noticed that they had become the driest portions of my spiritual life. Firearms and martial arts, if they are to be useful, depend on constant practice and preparation. As the banner for every school but one of Kuk Sool Won, "We need more practice!" At the grandmaster's school, the banner says, "You need more practice!" The common concensus is that with martial arts, you fight noticeably better within months, but real mastery takes years, and years, and years. And even then you don't have a money-back guarantee; any martial arts instructor worth anything will make it clear before you reach black belt level (arguably before you reach anything above white belt) that martial arts instructors will make it abundantly clear that martial arts are no silver bullet; you may be safer in a conflict but not safe against every threat; someone testing for black belt can, if arrogant enough, wind up with a hole in the head. There have been attempts to make something simply easier to learn and remember—Goshin Jitsu is meant to be simple and effective—but keeping up on a martial art just because it might be useful in a fight is a bit like spending a few hours a week practicing a spare profession so that if you happen to lose your job you have a spare profession ready and waiting for you. It's a lot of work, and it's no more of a guarantee at that.
And there is a spiritual toll for practicing violence over and over and over. You sink in a lot of time that might be better spent sharpening your skills in your own profession. Aiki Ninjutsu talks about becoming a compassionate protector of others, and talks about building great compassion to offset the incredible destructiveness of the techniques. With all due respect, I need to give all the compassion to others that I can give, without preventably siphoning it off to offset other considerations. Perhaps you can numb or ignore what it feels like to practice violence on others and have others practice violence on itself; and martial arts have an occult ambiance; the concept of ki / qi / chi is a Buddhist practice, not really Christian, and there is a good case to be made that it's magical, even without taking a common sense look at the philosophies Eastern martial arts draw on, which are almost invariably laden with an occult dimension.
...and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.
Much of what I wrote in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: Beyond The Secret and the Law of Attraction relates here. After Providence, here is perhaps the core payload for what is the Orthodox martial art.
The English word "practice" has two senses. One is, as a musician says, "I'm practicing," meaning, "I am taking time to make dry runs at this skill and sharpen it as much as possible." Or one speaks of a doctor "practicing medicine," meaning "I am exercising and doing the proper live activity in my profession." I will use the terms musician-style-practice and doctor-style-practice to distinguish the two meanings
With both firearms and martial arts, you need to practice to keep an edge, practice in the sense of the musician-style-practice. Competence requires an ongoing time sink. But live doctor-style-practice, comes very, very rarely.
One communication textbook talked about what your odds were for being assaulted on your way home: 1 in 10, 1 in 100, 1 in 1000, or 1 in 10,000. The point was that the more TV you watch, the more you overestimate the chances of suffering a violent response. The heaviest TV viewers expected a 1 in 10 chance of assault. The actual figure was the 1 in 10,000 per night figure. Notwithstanding shows glamorizing a highly romanticized view of law enforcement—when did a police show ever depict an officer filling out an hour of paperwork, or spending a day doing a daily grind of dull responsibilities—police officers draw their weapons (excluding training) perhaps once every few years.
In the musician-style-practice, you only practice very, very rarely, even including officers. No matter how much preparation it takes to keep a sharp edge, live doctor-style-practice is, and should be, very rare.
The discipline of nepsis or spiritual watchfulness over thoughts, has more than one relevance, but a nepsis that watches for and cuts off warring thoughts at the first is invaluable. Though this is a different meaning than when I last saw it, "They say that if you must resort to violence, you have already lost." Read my article Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: then read Elder Thaddeus's original Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives and learn to appreciate your warring thoughts in deeper ways.
It may seem almost "sexist" that the blame, or at least attention and corrections, should be placed entirely on one side, yours; but this dark cloud hides an astonishing silver lining. If the correction is only put on one side, so is the power to change and make the situation better. Perhaps most (not all) conflicts include a feedback loop of escalating anger (and one that most or all truly good martial artists know how to shut down, by for instance meekly saying, "You're the tough guy"—and this was a third-degree black belt who meekly and submissively opted out of having to be the tough guy). There is a classic enlightenment exercise where a group of sailors stand in a ring, with instructions to touch the shoulder of the soldier exactly as yours was pressed. And someone touches one of the sailors lightly, with one light finger press. The "equal to what happened to me" results in a heavy finger press, and before too long at all the light touch has become a meaty, and nasty, punch. It is very hard at times, but love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who despitefully use you: but you have the power, many times, to shut down the escalating unmerry merry-go-round that others will not step off of. Not that this is only for pacifists; I have seen soldiers beautifully live out of this power, and people who weren't specifically soldiers but believed in a just war (a western concept that never really took in Orthodoxy even though Orthodoxy never really places an expectation of becoming a pacifist). If Elder Thaddeus's sage advice could be summed up in a single maxim, it might be Proverbs 15:1: "Anger slays even wise men; yet a submissive answer turns away wrath: but a grievous word stirs up anger."
Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye only ends by making the whole world blind." each day and practicing our nonviolent thoughts (doctor-style-practice) a watchfulness in thoughts that is alert to snuff out smoulders when it is small rather than heroically deluging a burning house, is harder up front, but far easier down the road.
It sounds small, but the results down the road are anything but small.
Elsewhere in The Art of War, Sun Tzu writes:
It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
And this is far from what the Orthodox Church has to offer. Do we need to know the demons? No. The Philokalia may say as much about demons as any Orthodox writing may have, but we are allowed arrogance such as Sun Tzu would have considered a fatal weakness. As regards the demons, we are to be really, properly, truly, and blindingly arrogant, like the Orthodox elder who was speaking with a novice about strange noises in a courtyard and told the novice, "It is only the demons. Pay it no mind." This is cut from the same cloth as the liturgical references to "the feeble audacity of the demons." The mind takes the shape of whatever it contemplates, hence St. Paul's words, Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. We should look at Light, not darkness; live the Sermon on the Mount, and then, and not before, will we understand that the Light knows Himself and the darkness; the darkness knows neither itself nor the Light. If the spiritual eye receives things that make an impression on it, it matters what items it receives impressions from. The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light: "single" in this context is cut from the same cloth as the Beatitudes that Orthodox chant in Liturgy, confessing in abbreviated form the entire Sermon on the Mount.
It has been said, "You can choose your options, but you cannot choose the consequences of your actions." You can choose whether to look at Light or darkness: in so doing you may choose, by gazing on the Light, to be filled with peace, or to gaze deeply into darkness (and have darkness gaze into you) by training your eyes on the whirlpool of circumstances all of us face. The option is not presented to try to do God's thinking for him, and analyze and work out how we will handle the future, and instead of darkness have all of the joys of peace that beholds the Light of God.
O that we could reach far enough into overreaching arrogance that we could, like saints old and new, look upon good and bad people and only see the beauty of the image of God in each!
A lot has been covered here; the past few paragraphs narrate what, in a very specific sense, can be done as the Orthodox martial art. Broadly and in a deeper sense, holiness matters.
We live in turbulent times, as did Elder Thaddeus, who wrote, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, a gift given to me by a friend who gave a very modest recommendation: "It's not terribly deep, but I find it helpful.". After reading it and writing, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: Beyond The Secret and the Law of Attraction, I came up to him and told him he'd undersold it. It wasn't long before he agreed.
We live in turbulent times, and probably more turbulent and rougher as time goes on. But there is an alternative to being whipped out in the vortex of our times and surroundings. (Elder Thaddeus had many sufferings and was repeatedly taken prisoner by Nazis.) We have a choice about whether we will be sucked into it. It might not seem like it, but we do. Psychologists advising addicts say that you have more power than you think. If we are attentive and refuse to consent to thoughts, perhaps praying to God to save us from this temptation, and if we are in anger, praying for God's every blessing. This is not a quick overall process: it may be something that is a minute to start, and a lifetime to master. But though it may take years and years and years to master, but improvement may start much faster than months.
In Treasures in Heaven: The Inner Meaning of "Do Not Store Up Treasures on Earth", I try to unpack a small mystical slice of Blessed are the poor in spirit. There is bodily poverty, and monastics are blessed when they let go of physical possessions. But we have many false treasures in terms of ideas in our heads, and the letting-go of these false interior treasures is in step with why my previous parish priest said, "When we are praying, we should not have very good thoughts; we should have no thoughts." And this has a poverty that is hard to come by. But once you have tasted it, earthly treasures taste suddenly flat. You've drunk something purer.
When aggression and violence are met only with meekness and love, what results can be truly powerful. Evil is not always stopped from harming and killing no matter where you fall: witness Satan's defeat in the martyrs, who are not in any sense killed because they are not good enough as Christians. Martyrdom is implemented by the Devil's work, but the victor in martyrdom is always and ever in the Lord and in the triumphant martyr entering Heaven in glory as a son of God. What happens in martyrdom, but quite a few other places as well, happens when the Deep Magic of violence runs its course, but when it has run its course, the Devil's work is transfigured into something immeasurably far beyond anything that the practical nature of violence can hope for. And its primary application is not reserved to the most extraordinary moments in a well-lived life, but the warp and woof of the daily living of those who practice it, be it on ever so small a scale!
as are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,
And such and heavenly treasures are set within our reach,
Let us ever reach,
Further Up and Further In!
The Alumnus: Hello. I was in town, and I wanted to stop in for a visit.
The Visionary: How good to see you! What have you been up to? We're all interested in hearing what our alumni are doing.
The Alumnus: Well, that would take a bit of explaining. I had a good experience with college.
The Visionary: That's lovely to hear.
The Alumnus: Yes, and I know that some alumni from our Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, also known as IMSA, didn't. I got through college the same way I got through gradeschool, playing by the law of the jungle. I stopped and thought about how to approach college. I realized soon that higher numbered courses were easier than lower numbered courses, and how to find professors I could work with. And I understand why one alumna said, "IMSA didn't prepare me for college. It prepared me for graduate school." College will not automatically be a good experience for IMSA students, but there are choices the college won't advertise but could be made.
The Visionary: I wish you could speak to some of our students.
The Alumnus: I'd like the opportunity. There are a lot of things to say—that there's a normal scale of elementary-junior high-high school-undergraduate-graduate school, and IMSA doesn't fit on it. It has high school aged students, but it's not a modified high school; it's close in ways to graduate school, but there's something about it that is missed if you put it at any one point on the scale. And this has the result that IMSA students need to realize that when they enter college, they are not going from high school to the next step after high school; they're going from IMSA to something that was not meant to follow IMSA. But something that has opportunities if they knock on back doors and take advantage of some things the university doesn't know they need.
The Visionary: If you're serious about talking to our students, I mean talking with our students, I can introduce you to the appropriate people.
The Alumnus: Thank you. I was mentioning this to lead up to a gem of a class I took, one on what you need to know to make user-friendly computer programs, i.e. usability. There was something that set me thinking, nettled me, when I was reading through some of the jargon file's Hell desk slang, um, I mean help desk slang. The term "pilot error" meant much the same thing as "ID ten T error".
The Visionary: I know what "pilot error" means in some contexts, but what does "ID ten T error" mean?
The Alumnus: It's easiest to see if you write it out.
The Visionary [goes to a markerboard and writes, "I D 1 0 T" ]: Um... I assume there's a reason you started to say, "Hell desk." Aren't they just blowing off steam?
The Alumnus: Yes. Unfortunately, one of the ways many help desk employees have blown off steam is to say, "Ok. If you'll hold for a minute, I'm going to transfer you to my supervisor. Would you tell her that you appear to have an 'eye dee ten tee' error?" And they all gloat over what they've gotten the customer to say. No, seriously, you don't need to keep a straight face.
But what really struck me was the entry for PEBKAC, acronym for "Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair." There was an example given of,
Did you figure out why that guy couldn't print?
Yeah, he kept canceling the print operation before it could finish. PEBKAC.
This was philosophically interesting.
The Visionary: How?
The Alumnus: In a computer, you get these time wasting messages where a little window pops up and you can't do any useful work until you click on the button. It becomes noise for the sake of noise; like the boy who cried, "Wolf!", we have the computer that cries, "Worth your attention." After a while, the normal thing most people do is click on the button automatically so they can get back to their work. It's a waste of time to try to decipher the cryptic messages.
So when people go to print, another one of these waste-of-time windows pops up, except that this time, when you do the right thing and click on the button and make it go away, your print job fails. And this specific example is chosen as a paradigm example of PEBKAC.
For a lot of these errors, there is a problem between a keyboard and chair. But the problem isn't between the user's keyboard and chair. The problem is between the programmer's keyboard and chair.
The Visionary: Ouch.
The Alumnus: That course was what led to what I did for my Ph.D.
The Visionary: And that was?
The Alumnus: My discipline of record is philosophy of mind/cognitive science.
The Visionary: "Discipline of record?" I'm curious to hear you drop the other shoe.
The Alumnus: Usability is connected to cognitive science—an amalgam of computer science, psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, linguistics, and other areas, all trying to understand human thought so we can re-implement it on a computer. It's a fascinating area for interdisciplinary study, and usability draws on it, just from a different angle: instead of making computers intelligent, it tries to make computers friendly to people who don't understand how they are built. And a lot of things which are clear as day if you built the system aren't automatically clear to customers. A system which is usable lets the user have an illusory cognitive model of how the system works that is far, far simpler than how a programmer would understand it. And programmers don't consciously believe that customers understand the innards of their system, but there's an assumption that creeps in, an assumption of, "My way of thinking about it is how a person thinks about it."
The Visionary: That way of putting it makes the programmers sound ego-centric.
The Alumnus: I wouldn't put it in such crude terms as that; they are thinking in a way that is human.
With languages, there is a lot of diversity. Aside from the variety of languages, there's a difference between the U.S., where the majority only speak one language, and Sénégal, where it is common for people to speak five or six languages. There's a difference between Italy, where people speak one national language in a fairly pure form, and India, where English and Hindi are spliced together seamlessly. For that matter, there's the deaf outlet of speaking with your hands instead of your mouth. But with all these differences, language itself is not something which is added to being human. Language is not a custom that cultures may happen to include. There are exceptional cases where people do not learn a language, and these are tragic cases where people are deprived of a human birthright. The specifics of language may vary, but language itself is not adding something to being human. It is something that is basically human. The details and even diversity of languages are details of how language works out.
And a lot of things are like that. Understanding something that you're working on is not something added to being human; it's an interpretation of something basic. How one thinks, about technology and other things, is not something added to being human. It's something basically human.
One very natural tendency is to think that "I" or "we" or "people like us" are just being human; we just have what is natural to being human. The "them" group has all sorts of things that are added to being human, but "we" are just being human. So we expect other people to think like us. We assume it so deeply and unconsciously that we are shocked by their perversity when they violate this expectation.
The Visionary: Wow. I hadn't thought of it in those terms before. Do you think IMSA provided a safe haven from this kind of lockstep thinking for its students?
The Alumnus: I think it provides a safe haven for quite a lot of its students. But getting back to my Ph.D. program—
The Visionary: Yes?
The Alumnus: So I began, encouraged by some initial successes, to try and make the first artificial mind. For a while I thought I would succeed, after overcoming some obstacles that couldn't have been that bad.
The Visionary: What were these obstacles?
The Alumnus: Just a special case here and there, an unrepresentative anomaly. But when I worked, I had a sneaking suspicion dawn on me.
Freshman year, I had a college roommate who was brilliant and eccentric. He turned out stunning proofs in math classes. He was also trying to build a perpetual motion machine. He was adjusting this and that; I listened, entranced, when he traced the history of great experiments in physics, and talked about how across the centuries they went from observing obvious behavior to find subtle ways to trick nature into showing you something you weren't supposed to see. Think of the ingenuity of the Millikan oil drop experiment. And so he went on, trying to adjust this and that, seeking to get things just right for a perpetual motion machine. There were times when he seemed to almost have it. It seemed there were ten things you needed for a perpetual motion machine, and he had an almost working machine for any nine of them. But that tenth one seemed never to fall into place.
And I had a sneaking suspicion, one that I was going to try awfully hard to ignore, that for a long time I convinced myself I didn't know what I was expecting. But deja vu kept creeping in. I had just succeeded with a project that met every clearly defined goal I set for it... but I had just found another way not to make artificial intelligence.
The crusher was when I read von Neumann's 1958 The Computer and the Brain. Then I stopped running from deja vu. Here was crass confidence that in 1958 we discoved the basis for all human thought, and all human thought is add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Here was an assumption in lieu of argument. And here was the air I breathed as a cognitive science.
The Visionary: But I've looked at some reports, and artificial intelligence seems to be just around the corner.
The Alumnus: Full artificial intelligence is just around the corner, and it's been just around the corner since at least the fifties—arguably much longer, because for a hundred years before the brain was a computer, it was a telephone exchange. (I think that's why we talk about a person being "wired" a particular way.) The brain is always understood as the state of the art technology we're most proud of.
I hit rock bottom after thinking about how I had convinced myself I was creating a working artificial intelligence by obtaining results and reinterpreting results as success. It's very seductive, and I was thinking about what some skeptics had said about magic.
What emerged was... The effort to make computers think has found ways that the human mind is much more interesting than we thought. And I began to push in a new direction. Instead of trying to understand human intelligence to make computers more intelligent, I began to try to understand human intelligence to make humans more intelligent.
The Visionary: What exactly do you mean?
The Alumnus: There are a lot of disciplines that teach you how to think. I think scholars in many disciplines see their discipline as the discipline that teaches you how to think, where truly different disciplines are a sort of no-man's land that doesn't qualify as "how to think." But these are a coupled subject matter and how to think about the subject matter. This was, in abstracted, crystalline, and universal form, "How to think." The analogy I used at the time was that it was the elementary school number line (1, 2, 3, ...), abstracted from sets of one physical object, two physical objects, three physical objects...
The Visionary [pausing]: It sounds like you're pioneering a new academic discipline. Would you like IMSA to highlight this?
The Alumnus: I am working that out. Not exactly whether what I am doing would qualify as an academic discipline—I'm pretty sure of that—but whether going down that route would be the wisest choice. For now, I'd rather wait.
The Visionary: Are you sure you wouldn't want the prestige? Hmm... on second thought, I can see that.
What are the scientific underpinnings of your discipline?
The Alumnus [pause]: That question is one of the first ones people ask me. It's automatic.
In tandem with what you might call my loss of faith in cognitive science, I began to question the cultural place of science. Including that in a question like this, the nearly immediate question people ask is one that assumes the answers are fed by science. Three of the most difficult mental accomplishments I've made are learning to think like a scientist, crafting this discipline of how to think, and learning to genuinely ask "How else could it be?" when people automatically go charging in with science.
The Visionary: But don't you think it's important to understand what's going on in the body?
The Alumnus: Both your questions, "What are the scientific underpinnings of your discipline?" and "But don't you think it's important to understand what's going on in the body?" are examples of the tendency I'm talking about. Your latter question assumes that "understanding the body" and "study the science of the body" are interchangeable terms; they often are treated that way in Western culture, but they need not be.
The Visionary: But how else could it be?
The Alumnus: In journalism and some writing classes, students are taught a technique of cubing, which asks six questions, one for each side of the cube. The six questions are all "w" words: who, what, when, where, and how.
In most aboriginal cultures, for instance, people ask more than one question, but the big question is, "Why?" The stories provide explanations for why the world is as it is.
In science, the big question is, "How?" Laws and theories provide mechanisms for how things happen. "Why?" isn't just de-emphasized; it's something people learn not to ask, something that is subtly stamped out like much of a child's creativity. Asking "Why?" is a basic error, like asking how much an idea weighs. One philosopher of science I read gave an example of a father asking a teenaged son, "Why is the living room light on?" and getting the answer, "Because the switch is in the 'on' position, closing the circuit and causing electricity to flow through the bulb." That isn't why, that's how. And if students are taught science without being taught how to be independent from science, or for that matter if they are in a culture influenced by science as ours has been, they'll come to share the assumption that this is the one and only serious answer to, "Why is the living room light on?"
That puts things too simply, but my point is that science does not represent the full range of inquiry. Science has cast a powerful shadow, not just in that science is scientific (which is as it should be) but in that non-scientific inquiry is not as independent as it should be.
But I'm getting off topic. What I was meaning to say was that I use science, but my discipline is dependent on an independence from science as well.
The Visionary: Could I backtrack a fair distance?
The Alumnus: Sure, to what?
The Visionary: There was something in the back of my mind when you answered my question about IMSA shielding its students from a lockstep environment. May I ask a more specific question?
The Alumnus: Certainly.
The Visionary: Did IMSA shield you from a lockstep environment?
The Alumnus: IMSA was unquestionably a better environment for me than a mainstream school.
The Visionary: You're being diplomatic.
The Alumnus: Ok. IMSA tries to be a magnet school serving the gifted population. Instead of memorization, it tries to produce critical observers, right?
The Visionary: Yes, and this isn't just for IMSA. We want to be a beacon of hope, for educational progress to the state and to the world.
The Alumnus: IMSA still doesn't have a football program, right?
The Visionary: IMSA students still don't really want one. If there was enough demand, we'd have one.
The Alumnus: What would you say to a football coach who wanted to liberate the tough, aggressive quarterback struggling to get out of every IMSA bookworm?
The Visionary: I think I see where you're going. Let me play devil's advocate for the moment. Our society has recognized football as an endeavor for some. But don't we recognize that education is a goal for all?
The Alumnus: All analogies break down, and I can't force you to see my point if you don't want to. My reason for drawing that analogy is that the average mind learns by memorization of given material, and that mind is ill-served by trying to liberate that critical observer just as many bookworms would be ill-served by trying to liberate that hidden quarterback. The kind of student that does well at IMSA doesn't do so well with the memorization that serves the average student. But it's a two-way street.
The Visionary: And I think I see a connection to what you said about programmers assume that how they think about a product is how everybody will think about it. And...
The Alumnus: Yes. But there's something else.
The Visionary: So how do you think IMSA's outreach should be changed? Should we stop outreach?
The Alumnus: I'd want to give that some thought. That isn't why I brought this up. I brought up this two-edged sword to make it easier to see another two-edged sword.
The two-edged sword I've suggested is that, just as IMSA students tend to be uncomfortable with the instructional methods at most schools, average students would be uncomfortable with instruction that seeks to liberate a hidden critical observer. It's a bad match both ways. The other two-edged sword has to do with the nature of giftedness. How would you define giftedness?
The Visionary: I try not to, at least in not as strong terms as you do. IMSA is trying to liberate the genius of every child.
The Alumnus: I think your actions are wiser than your rhetoric. How much thought goes into your admissions decisions?
The Visionary: Our admissions staff give a great deal of thought! Do you think we're careless?
The Alumnus: I would have been disturbed if IMSA made a random choice from among the students whose genius would be nurtured. Are you sure you don't want to define giftedness?
The Visionary: Every child has some talent.
The Alumnus: I agree, although your words sound suspiciously like words that many IMSA parents have learned to wince at. There are a lot of parents who have bright children who have learned that "All of our children are gifted." means, in practical terms, "Your daughter will be educated according to our idealization of an average student, no matter how much it hurts her, and we won't make accomodation."
But you are, unlike me, an administrator whom everybody blames for problems, and you know that there are many occasions where coming out and expressing your candid opinions is an invitation to disaster. I groused about the administration to no end as a student; it is only as an adult that I've come to appreciate the difficult and delicate task of being an administrator, and what kind of performance on an administration's part lets me focus on my work.
I'm going to put on my suspicious and mistrustful observer cap and read into your actions that it would be politically dangerous for you to say "This is the kind of gifted student we look for at IMSA." But I am not an administrator. I am more of a private person than you can afford to be, and there are more degrees of freedom offered to me. Would you mind my giving my opinion on a matter where you in particular need to be very careful in what you say?
The Visionary: I'm always open to listen, and I'm not just saying this as an administrator.
The Alumnus: I should also say that because something is politic, I don't automatically translate "politic" to "insincere." I believe you've been as successful as you have partly because you sincerely want to hear what people have to say. When someone says, "political sensitivity," I've learned to stop being a cynic and automatically hearing, "Machiavellian intrigue."
But when I teach, I try to have a map that accomodates itself to terrain, both old and new to me. There are surprisingly many things I believe that are human universals, although I won't discuss them here. But diversity is foundational to how I communicate, and in particular teach.
By "diversity" I don't just mean "affirmative action concerns." I read what I can about minority cultures, and how Asperger's or ADD minds tick. That much is important, and I'm not just jumping on the bandwagon. But diversity doesn't begin when a student labeled as "minority," "different," or "disadvantaged" sits down in your classroom. Diversity begins much earlier. Diversity is every person. I'm fond of books like David Kiersey's Please Understand Me II which explore what temperament and Myers-Briggs types mean for personhood. I want to appreciate learning styles. I absolutely love when students come in during office hours, because then I can see exactly where a student is, and exactly how that student is learning and thinking, and give an explanation that is tailored to the student's specific situation. I like to lecture too, but I'm freest to meet student needs when students visit me in my office.
And one very important facet of that diversity is one that is unfashionable today, more specifically IQ.
The Visionary: I remember seeing a report that your IQ was so high it was untestable by normal means. I've heard that polite drivers value politeness, skillful drivers value skill, and safe drivers value safety. Is there...?
The Alumnus: If you want to dismiss what I'm saying because of speculation about my motives, there's a good case to do so. I know that. But please hear and accept or dismiss my arguments on their merits, and if you read books like James Webb's Guiding the Gifted Child, you'll see this isn't just my idea. I accept multiple intelligence theory as a nuance, but I would point my finger to the idea that a single IQ was an adjustment in theory, made by people who started by assuming multiple intelligences.
But with all the debates, and in particular despite the unfashionability of "IQ", there is excellent reason to discuss giftedness in terms of IQ. IQ may not be the whole story, but you're missing something big if it is treated as one factor among others.
Several caveats deleted, I would point out that giftedness is not a binary attribute, any more than being tall is binary. There may be some people who are clearly tall and others who clearly aren't, but regardless of where you draw the line, you can't divide people into a "tall" group of people who are all exactly 190 centimeters tall and a "non-tall" group of people who are 160 centimeters tall. There is diversity, and this diversity remains even if you restrict your attention to tall people.
The Visionary: So then would you say that most high schools serve an average diversity, and IMSA serves a gifted diversity?
The Alumnus: Umm...
The Visionary: Yes?
The Alumnus: An average high school breaks at both ends of its spectrum...
The Visionary: Yes?
The Alumnus: Um...
The Visionary: Yes?
The Alumnus: And IMSA breaks at both ends of its spectrum.
The Visionary: If there are some students who the administration overestimates, this is unfortunate, but—
The Alumnus: That's not my point. Ignoring several other dimensions of diversity, we don't have two points of "average" and "gifted" defining a line. Giftedness, anyway, is not "the same kind of intelligence as most people have, only more of it and faster"; it's a different kind of intelligence. It diverges more the further you go.
Instead of the two points of "average" and "gifted", there are three points to consider: "average", "gifted", and "profoundly gifted."
I think it is to IMSA's great credit that you have a gifted education, not a pullout tacked on to a nongifted education. Serving gifted needs isn't an adjustment; it's the fabric you've woven, and it is impressive.
But "profoundly gifted" is as different from the "moderately gifted" as "moderately gifted" is from "average"...
...and IMSA attracts a good proportion of the profoundly gifted minority...
...and the position of the profoundly gifted at IMSA is exactly the position many IMSA students had in TAG pullouts.
The Visionary: May I say a word in IMSA's defense?
The Alumnus: Certainly.
The Visionary: IMSA began as a dream, a wild, speculative, powerful, risky vision. From the beginning, its place was tentative; some of the first classes did math problems before the state government because IMSA was threatened with closing. IMSA makes things happen that wouldn't happen anywhere, and for all we've done, there are still people who would remove us from the budget. I've talked with alumni, both those who like and dislike the school, and I see something in them which I didn't see in other places.
The Alumnus: And IMSA is a safe place to learn and grow, and IMSA alumni are making a powerful contribution to the world. All of this I assume. And IMSA seems like the kind of place that could grow, that does grow. IMSA could offer the world certain extraordinarily talented individuals that have been stretched to their limit, who have spent certain very formative years doing things most people don't even dream of, and doing so not in isolation but guided and supported as powerfully, and as gently for their needs, as IMSA already offers to so many of its students.
The Visionary: If you have any plans, I would like to hear them.
The Alumnus: Before I give the plans as such, I would like to give a brief overview, not just of the average, moderately gifted, and profoundly gifted mind, but of the average, moderately gifted, and profoundly gifted spirit. Keep in mind that this is not a trichotomy, but three reference points on a curve.
The average mind is concrete. It deals in practical, concrete matters. There was one study which posed isomorphic problems to people, one of which was stated abstractly, and one of which asked in concrete terms who the "cheaters" were. The average respondent did poorly on the abstract isomorph, but was astute when it was put concretely. The average mind is more practical, and learns by an understanding which gradually emerges by going over things again. The preferred learning style is oriented towards memorization and is relatively slow, concrete, and (on gifted terms) doesn't make connections. This person is the fabric with which society is woven; a person like this tends to understand and be understood by others. The average mind concentrates on, and becomes reasonably proficient, in a small number of skills.
The moderately gifted mind, around an IMSA IQ of 140, deals with abstractions. It sees interconnections, and this may be related to why the moderately gifted mind learns more skills with less effort. (If this is true, an average mind would be learning from scratch, while a moderately gifted mind would only make adaptations from similar skills.) This person is likely to have a "collection of skills", and have a low self-assessment in those skills. (Today's breathtaking performance is, tomorrow, marginally adequate.) Self-actualizing concern for becoming a particular kind of person is much more common. The moderately gifted mind enjoys an advantage over the average mind, and is different, but still close enough to connect. This person learns more quickly, and most of society's leaders are moderately gifted. (Some have suggested that this is not just because people above that range are much rarer, but because they can easily connect.
There is controversy about how isolated the profoundly gifted person is, with an IQ around 180. Some researchers believe that the greater gap is bridged by the greater ability to connect; Webb suggests otherwise, saying that children with an IQ above 170 feel like they don't fit in anywhere. He asks what the effects would be if a normal child grew up in a world where most people had an IQ of 50-55. Some profoundly gifted have discussed the feeling that there's an instruction manual to life that everyone but them has. The unusual sense of humor that appears in the moderately gifted is even more pronounced in the profoundly gifted. Average people tend to believe some tacit and naively realistic philosophy. Moderately gifted people tend to believe some conscious and creative reinterpretation of realism. Profoundly gifted people tend to believe an almost automatic anti-realism. The realism assumed by most people doesn't resonate with them. And I need to explain what I mean by "believe" here. I don't mean that someone engaged them in a discussion and are convinced by logic or eloquence that an anti-realist philosophy is true. I mean something close to experience, as we believe that a radiator is hot after we touch it. Realism is obvious for someone of average intelligence. For someone profoundly gifted, coming to that perspective represents a significant achievement.
Furthermore, where the moderately gifted person has a "skill collection", the profoundly gifted individual has what might as well be magic powers—
The Visionary: You mean is involved with the occult or psychic phenomena?
The Alumnus: Not exactly. Profoundly gifted individuals have been known to do things like reinventing the steam engine at age six. Some of them can walk into a room and in an instant infer what kind of presentation is going to be given, and what kind of organization is going to give it. They have been known to make penetrating observations of connections between vastly different disciplines. Some have written a book in a week. Others remember everything they have read. Verbatim. Another still has invented a crude physics and using it to solve problems before she was old enough to talk. It's entirely plausible for a profoundly gifted individual to think for a few hours about a philosophical school he's just read about, and have a better grasp of the assumptions and implications surrounding that school than scholars who have studied the discipline for years. Many accomplishments are less extreme than that. Some are more extreme. I said that they might as well be magic powers because they are no more believable to many people than levitation or fairies granting wishes. Moderately gifted achievements are envied. Profoundly gifted achievements are disbelieved, and one social lesson the profoundly gifted learn is that there are certain accomplishments that you don't talk about... which feels the way most people would feel if people were shocked and offended when they tried to say, "I can read," or for that matter, "I can breathe."
These people do not think of themselves as having magic powers. Their impressive abilities are no more breathtaking or astonishing to them than our impressive abilities of walking through an unfamiliar room or understanding a children's book are to us—and if you don't believe that walking through an unfamiliar room or understanding a children's book is an astonishing mental feat, just spend a year in artificial intelligence. Artificial researchers know what kind of achievement is represented by these "basic" tasks. The rest of us misunderstand them as mundane. If you can understand how you can be better at understanding emotions than any computer in the world, and not think of yourself as gifted, you have a good start on understanding what it's like to feel that it's natural to tinker with your hands, imagine who you're going to be when you grow up, enjoy cooking, and have dreams where your brain creates languages on the fly.
It's a commonplace that the gifted can have a rough time of school. What IMSA does is place the profoundly gifted in the position of fixed pace classes designed for people significantly less intelligent than them.
It's easier to criticize than it is to give a positive alternative; let me give a positive alternative.
First of all, profoundly gifted students can pick things up much more rapidly even than most IMSA students. Something like a factor of four speedup can happen again and again. Many of these students would tear through textbooks if you let them.
The Visionary: But at IMSA we don't dump textbooks on students. We provide an environment where they can discover things for themselves.
The Alumnus: They will discover things for themselves. But if you look at learning styles, the profoundly gifted are some of the most able to understand a crystallized abstraction, and the most likely to work ahead in their textbooks.
IMSA may have a dozen or so profoundly gifted individuals at any one time.
The Visionary: And we've provided accommodation for a bright sophomore physics class.
The Alumnus: Yes, it is possible for students to lobby for accommodation on a specific point.
But it's possible to go further, as IMSA has gone further than TAG pullouts.
There could be a small number of people who serve as tutors, in a sort of tutorial system as can be seen in Oxford's and Cambridge's history. They would be like thesis advisors, less responsible for knowing what the students need to learn than offering direction and referrals.
The Visionary: What would you have them do if they tear through IMSA's curriculum sophomore year?
The Alumnus: Students that bright are likely to have their own axes to grind—good axes, axes which they should be encouraged. I really have trouble imagining a student flying through IMSA's normal curriculum and then wanting to watch TV for two years. The problem of motivating these students is like the problem of defending a lion: the first thing is to get out of the way.
The teachers themselves should offer the kind of individualized instruction that is basic to special education, and deal with the "magic powers" that the main curriculum doesn't know how to deal with.
The Visionary: Would the teachers have to be profoundly gifted?
The Alumnus: I don't know. I would place more emphasis on understanding profoundly gifted students than necessarily being profoundly gifted oneself.
Furthermore, as well as standing in need of conceptual education, profoundly gifted students could benefit from personal development to help them meet the rest of the world. I don't know whether it would be correct to say that average education should be about knowledge, gifted education should be about how to think, and profoundly gifted education should be about personal development. I think the idea is worth considering. And I would try to develop some things that aren't needed in average education and less needed in moderately gifted education, such as how to bridge the gap and meet the rest of the world.
The Visionary: I'll think about that. I would be delighted to say you've shown me how to solve this problem.
The Alumnus: I'd be surprised if I've shown you how to solve this problem. If I were asked what I could guarantee for this model, it would be that some part of it is wrong. I would ask you to consider what I've presented you as a rough draft. In my opinion it is a rough draft worth revising, changing course in midstream if need be, but it is a rough draft.
The Visionary: This is all very well for office hours, but how do you teach a class? You don't try to individualize a lecture twenty different ways, do you?
The Alumnus: I believe what I said about diversity as foundational, but I also believe there are things that are common. I believe there are significant commonalities as well as significant differences.
What would you say is the dominant educational philosophy at IMSA?
The Visionary: There are several philosophies we draw on, and several things vary from teacher to teacher. But if I were to pick one school, it would be constructivism.
The Alumnus: Does constructivism see the student as an empty pot, to be filled with knowledge?
The Visionary: Quite the opposite. Constructivism sees the students as agents, trying to actively construct their models of the world, not as empty pots to be filled, or as formless clay for the teachers to shape. We see the teacher as supporting the student in this active task.
The Alumnus: And I agree that students should be active and encouraged by teachers. A related question—do you believe mathematics is something that research mathematicians invent, or something that they find out?
The Visionary: Well, the obvious answer would be that it's something constructed.
The Alumnus: I disagree with you, at least about the "obvious" part.
The Visionary: Then I'll trust your judgment that it's something mathematicians discover. You've probably thought about this a lot more than I have.
The Alumnus: You don't need to agree with me here. There are a lot of good mathematicians who believe mathematics is something invented.
The Visionary: Are you saying I should believe mathematics is constructed?
The Alumnus: No. There are also a lot of mathematicians who understand mathematics and say mathematics is something that's found out.
The Visionary: Now I'm having trouble seeing where you're going.
The Alumnus: There's a debate among mathematicians as to whether mathematics is invented or discovered, with good mathematicians falling into either camp. The word 'discover' itself is ambiguous; one can say "I discovered the TV remote under the couch" and have "discover" mean "dis-cover" or "find out," but one can also say, "I discovered a way to build a better mousetrap," and have "discover" mean "invent". "Invent" derives from the Latin "invenire," which means "come into", i.e. "find," so that it would be more natural in Latin to say "I just invented my car keys" than "I invented a useful tool."
The Visionary: I think I see what you are saying... Are you saying that there is a single reality described both by discovery and invention?
The Alumnus: Yes. Now to tie in with constructivism... What are students doing when they are constructing models?
The Visionary: They are shaping thought-stuff, for lack of a better term, in a way that's different for each learner.
The Alumnus: And this is to break out of the Enlightenment/Diderot encyclopedia mindset which gives rise to stuffing the learner with facts?
The Visionary: Absolutely.
The Alumnus: Where would you place Kant? Was he a medieval philosopher?
The Visionary: He was one of the Enlightenment's greatest philosophers.
The Alumnus: And Kant's model of ideas was unchanged from Plato.
The Visionary: Um...
The Alumnus: Yes?
The Visionary: What Plato called "Ideas" and Kant 's "ideas" are two different things. For Plato, the Ideas were something strange to us: a reality outside the mind.
The Alumnus: Um... Plato and Kant would equally have affirmed the statement, "Ideas are internal."
The Visionary: I don't think so. Plato's Allegory of the Cave suggests that the Ideas are part of something that is the same for all people.
The Alumnus: If I may digress for a moment, I think that famous passage should be called "the Allegory of the Television." I appreciate your limiting the place of television at IMSA. But back to the topic, for Plato the Ideas were internal, but were not private.
The Visionary: Huh?
The Alumnus: Kant was a pivotal figure in our—the Enlightenment's—idea that the only real stuff outside our head is matter. When Kant says "internal," he says "private," and when we say "internal," we say "private." If you think this way, then you believe that thought is something done in a private corner. This privacy may be culturally conditioned, but it is privacy. And yet, however self-evident this seems to us, a great many philosophers and cultures have believed otherwise.
There is a private aspect to thought, but my research into how to think has led me to question the Enlightenment model and believe that we all think on the same contoured surface. We can be on different parts and move in different ways, but in thinking we deal with a reality others deal with as well. And I'm going to sound like a kooky philosopher and say that you have a deficient cosmology, and therefore a deficient corollary understanding of how humans are capable of learning, if you believe that everything is either inside the mind or else something you can kick.
The Visionary: But we're questioning the Enlightenment model, and rejecting parts of it that have problems!
The Alumnus: I know you are. And I would encourage you to question more of it.
The Visionary: How does this belief affect teaching for you?
The Alumnus: Most immediately, it helps me say ways to identify with students—connect with their thought. There are some things that pay off long term. But in the short run, when a student makes a mistake, the student is not bad, nor is the mistake is not an anomaly to push away. A mistake is an invaluable opportunity for me to understand how a student is thinking and draw the student to a better understanding.
In terms of base metaphor, if you look at Dewey's foundationalism, what it is that bothers many IMSA teachers and IMSA teachers are working to change, the basic idea is that the teacher is building up knowledge, from its foundations, in the student's mind. If I were to try and capture it in a metaphor, I would say that the student is an empty lot, and the teacher is building a house on it. The teacher is actively doing teaching to the student.
The constructivism that resonates with many IMSA teachers doesn't like the idea of the teacher being active and the student being the passive receptacle of teaching. It's fine for the teacher to be active, but they don't believe the student is passive because they were quite active learners themselves. Constructivist writers don't refer to 'students' so much as 'learners;' they emphasize that the learner is active. The basic idea is that people are actively trying to build their own unique understandings of the world, and a constructivist teacher is trying to support learners in this endeavor. If foundationalism is crystallized in the image of a teacher building a house on an empty lot, constructivist learning theory is crystallized in the image of learners picking up what they can to build their own private edifices of thought, their interior castles.
The Visionary: What do you think of those?
The Alumnus: I think we're comparing a hammer with a screwdriver. If you read debate on the web, you'll see people who think constructivism is a hazy and incomprehensibly bad version of foundationalism, and people who think foundationalism is a hazy and incomprehensibly bad version of constructivism. The truth is neither; good foundationalist teaching like Direct Instruction is doing one thing well, and good constructivist learning is doing another thing well, and different people learn differently.
The Visionary: But do you have an alternative?
The Alumnus: Yes, and it is again suggested by basic metaphor. Instead of building a house, or helping learners construct their private models, I would suggest looking at a single word, katalabein. I am using a Greek word without an exact English equivalent, because it ties together some things that are familiar—part of the shared inner human reality which we can recognize. It can be translated 'overcome' or 'understand', and it provides for a basic metaphor in which what is understood is actively acquired, achieved even, but it is not necessarily idiosyncratic and private. We still have an active learner, and implications for how a teacher can support that active learner...
The Visionary: Go on.
The Alumnus: But it's different. I was fascinated with one constructivist learning page that recast the teacher as a sort of non-directive counselor. They facilitated learning experiences, but they realized that students came in with beliefs, like "Weeds are not plants because they don't need to be nurtured," and what really fascinated me was that some of them found themselves in an ethical quandary about the appropriateness of using a science class to influence student beliefs, say to agree with a botanist that dandelions are plants.
The Visionary: None of the IMSA teachers are that squeamish about influencing student beliefs.
The Alumnus: One alum made a comment that "looney liberals" seemed to him to offer a similar service to coal miner's canaries. It wouldn't be fair to accuse most liberals of their excesses, but it was still worth keeping an eye on them: they could be a warning that it was time to rethink basic ideas. Even if those web pages may fall more into the "canary" category than anything else...
The Visionary: But what do you have instead of helping students build private world-pictures?
The Alumnus: Instead of helping students build private world-pictures, helping students grapple with, in the overcoming that is understanding and the understanding that is overcoming, the katalabein of material. And this is material that always has a personal touch, but is understood to be internal in a way that is not simply how one has arbitrarily exercised privacy, but connects with a sort of inner terrain that is as shared as the outer terrain. No two people are at—no two people can be at—the exact same place in the external, physical world, nor can two people see the same thing, because their personal bodies get in the way. But that does not mean we inhabit our own private physical universes. I can tell you how to drive to my house because to get there, you would be navigating some of the same reality as I navigate. But somehow we believe that our bodies may touch the same doorknobs and our shoes may touch the same carpets... Somehow we believe that when we turn inside, the "reality" becomes impenetrably private, influenced by culture perhaps but shared to so little an extent that no two people shares the same inner sun and moon.
The Visionary: But that's the external world! You're not talking about when people can make up anything they want.
The Alumnus: Hmm... As part of your job, you field criticism from people who want IMSA to be shut down, right?
The Visionary: Yes.
The Alumnus: And a good portion of that criticism comes from people who are certain you've never considered the objection they raise, right?
The Visionary: You've been reading my mail!
The Alumnus: And how many years has it been since one of those letters contained a criticism that was new to you?
The Visionary: You've been reading my... um... [pause] Wow.
The Alumnus: The introduction to the Handbook of Special Education tries to make a point by quoting the opening meeting of the International Council for the Education of Exceptional Children. The meeting had in all respects a typical (for today) discussion of how one should define special needs children. And the meeting was in 1923. The point was made that special educators assume they're the first people to address new issues, when neither the issues nor their thoughts are new. An old internet denizen, writing about "the September that never ended", talked about how each year in September new college students would flood newsgroup discussions with "new, new, new" insights that were, in the denizen's words, "exactly the same tripe" that had been posted the previous year.
There is really not that much that is new, and this is tied to another observation. There is really not that much that is private. There is some. Even in the outer world there are some things that are private to each person. But in the inner world—and I am not talking about your inner world, or mine, but a real world, the inner world, a place that has contours of its own and laws of its own and terrain of its own and substances of its own which are no more the subject of an idiosyncratic private monopoly than the outer world's sun and moon. Perhaps it has a private dimension, but to assume that an inner world is by definition someone's most private possession is almost like answering the remark "The Atlantic Ocean is getting more polluted," with "Whose Atlantic Ocean?"
The Visionary: Is there a way to integrate the inner world with the outer world?
The Alumnus: I am guilty of a rhetorical fault. I have spoken of the outer world as if it were separate from the inner world, and the inner world as if it were separate from the outer world. The real task is not one of integration but desegregation, and that is a lesson I've been wrestling with for years. The biggest lesson I took from my Ph.D. thesis, where I achieved a fascinating distillation of how to think from learning as we know it, is that how to think cannot be distilled from learning, and learning cannot be distilled from the rest of life. It is all interconnected. It's like a classic plot in fantasy literature where a hero is searching for a legendary treasure, and goes to strange places and passes amazing trials. We're there learning with him, until there is an end where "nothing" happens, but by the time that "nothing" takes place, we've been with the hero all along and we have been transformed just as much as he is, and we see through the "nothing" to recognize the treasure that has been all around the hero—and us—all along.
The real world has an internal and an external dimension, and there is nothing like trying to crystallize purer and purer internal knowledge to see the interpenetration of the internal and the external. I learned that the internal is not self-contained.
The Visionary: Is there anything that has been written which deals with this connection?
The Alumnus: Are you asking me if you can borrow a truckload of books? There are some cultures where it's hard to find material which doesn't relate the connection in some form.
But let me tie this in with education. Postmodernism is fragmented, so much so that postmodern scholars tend to put "postmodern" in ironic quotes and add some qualifier about whether it's even coherent to talk about such a movement. From the inside, there isn't a single postmodern movement; talking about a postmodern movement is like talking about a herd of housecats. But this is not because talking about being "postmodern" is meaningless; it's because one of the characteristics is fragmentation, and so if there is anything called postmodern, then it will be much more of a grab bag than something called modern.
Constructivism is postmodern, not in that anything called postmodern must resemble it, but because it can be placed on a somewhat ad hoc spectrum. It is internally fragmented, in that it is not helping students navigate the world of ideas, but in trying to reckon with learners' development of private models of the world. In typical postmodern fashion, the movement shows exquisite sensitivity to ways in which student constructed models are parochial, and does not inquire into ways in which students may be grappling with something universal. (At best learners' constructs are culturally conditioned.)
In what I am suggesting, learners are active, but students are working with something which is not so much clay to be shaped in the privacy of one's mind. I am aware of the parochial dimension—as a culture, we've been aware of it to death—but I'm trying to look at something we don't pay as much attention to today. I suggest, instead of a basic metaphor of learners constructing their own models, learners struggling to conquer parts of the world of ideas. Conquer means in some sense to appropriate; it means in part what we mean when we say that a mountain climber physically conquered an ascent and mastered its terrain. And this is not a cookie cutter, but it provides serious place for something that doesn't have soil to root itself in in constructivism.
I suspect that this is a lot less exotic than it sounds. Would you say that IMSA teachers often understand their students?
The Visionary: I think they often try.
The Alumnus: I think they often succeed.
Communication in general draws on being able to identify with the other. It says, "Even if I disagree with you, I understand what it means that you believe differently from what I do." You know what it's like when someone is talking with you and simply cannot identify with where you are coming from. It feels clumsy. Good communicators can identify with other people, and even a partial understanding is much better than no understanding at all.
I think the teachers I had at least showed something wiser than constructivism. Read something like Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and you will see appreciation of incommensurability and a communication divide between opposing camps; unlike the later Kuhn, you will also see that this claim of incommensurability, where opposing sides invariably argue past each other in debates, is applied to both major and minor paradigm shifts. Now if we look at a constructivist approach, where this kind of thinking is applied to individual peoples' models as well as models that are shared across a camp, then we have an excellent reason not to teach.
We have an excellent reason to say that teachers' and students' models are not only conflicting but incommensurable, that the teacher may have more power but in a fair debate they would argue past each other, and that the basis for the teacher understanding and therefore successfully influencing the student is at very least questionable. In the end, we have something which affects the concept of teaching more profoundly than the observation that students will see things that teachers don't realize. If you look at Kuhn, you will see a remark that the winning side of a scientific paradigm shift will naturally view the shift as progress. This contributes to an account for people thinking science progresses without science actually progressing. Science shifts. But the shift is not a step forward from less developed science to more developed science. It is a step sideways, from one reigning paradigm to another. And in like fashion, if you follow a natural constructivist path, you have an alternative to saying that the teacher knows more about science than the students. The teacher is more powerful, but there is a way out for someone who wants to deny that the teacher has more desirable knowledge that the students should learn. Not only can we argue that "teaching" communication is impossible, but we can argue that "teaching" communication is undesirable even if it were possible.
The Visionary: But that can't be what our teachers believe! You have to be misunderstanding constructivism. That's not how it works out.
The Alumnus: I agree with you that that can't be what many IMSA teachers believe. It is only what they say. And what they think they believe.
The Visionary: You mean...
The Alumnus: Foundationalism is a bad account of how most IMSA teachers learn. They learn actively, and IMSA students learn actively. And constructivism offers a compelling metaphor for active learning. But teachers at IMSA don't believe all its implications. Like the character in a George MacDonald book who was fond of saying, "Marry in haste, repent at leisure," and had married in haste, but hadn't really thought about repenting, even though she'd had plenty of leisure in which to repent. If constructivism may undercut the possibility of communication, and the possibility of the teacher drawing students to join her in expert practice, this is not yet a problem. In practical terms, teachers believe they can communicate, and they have something to share. And they do this. There may be problems where this goes down the road, but in practical terms IMSA teachers live a philosophy with communication that is often excellent.
And, as far as metaphors go, I think that the katalabein metaphor offers something valuable that the constructivist metaphor doesn't. In particular, the fact that teachers can communicate, and leave students better off, doesn't just happen to be true; it's something that one can delve into. You don't just take the metaphor into consideration when you communicate on a basis that doesn't come from the model; the metaphor itself gives you a basis to communicate. And it's different enough to compete in an interesting way. Or complement constructivism in an interesting way. Even if it's not perfect.
The Visionary: Yes, I know. Do you regret the fact that it's so messy?
The Alumnus: I regret the fact that it's not messy enough.
When we describe a rainbow, we say that the colors are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. But those aren't the colors of the rainbow. If you pick a color at random on the rainbow, there's a zero percent chance that you will exactly pick one of those colors. A rainbow is a spectrum, and if you have a wavelength for each of those colors, you have seven reference points for a spectrum with infinitely many colors. And a reference point can help you understand a spectrum, but a reference point is not a spectrum.
I've done, I think, a decent job of describing one reference point on a spectrum. But teachers rarely follow one educational theory in pure form; they tend to draw on several, and this is intended not to be a complete theory, but a reference point in a pluralistic theory. Most theories are a single point. This theory is meant to be a spectrum, but isn't there yet.
And as much as a robust theory of education needs to be pluralistic, sensitive to the diversity that is every student, there also also needs to be a sensitivity to the diversity of knowledge. English is cursed to only have one word for knowledge.
The Visionary:But we have well enough established division of knowledge into subjects. In fact that's what we're trying to teach our students to get past.
The Alumnus: That's not quite what I meant.
In most of the languages I know, there's more than one word for knowledge. In French, there is savoir, which is the knowledge one has about facts, and connaissance, which is the knowledge one has of a person. It's a different kind of thing to know about a fact and to know of a person, and this is reflected in different words. Conscience is not simply the French word for conscience; it means consciousness, and some of the more ethereal and personal aspects of knowledge. The Latin eruditio and notitia have other nuances. In English we do have "wisdom," "knowledge," and "information," which are as different from each other as an apple, an orange, and a pear.
And this is without treating ways of thought. One of the things I learned was that knowledge and ways of thought could be distinguished but not separated. If you look at Eastern ways, whether they are religions like Hinduism or Eastern Orthodoxy, or martial arts like Kuk Sool Won or Ninpo, you will find quite a different pedagogy from what we assume in the West. Instead of trying to open the mind and dump in knowledge, they begin by training the body, in actions, and then this begins to affect the soul and transform the spirit.
The Visionary: Isn't constructivism more like that?
The Alumnus: It is. But instead of reinventing experiential learning, Eastern ways preserve a Tao, or for a Western word, a matrix. Most recently in the West, Matrix is the name of a trilogy where each movie was better than the next. But before that, a matrix was a mathematical construct, and are you familiar with what "matrix" meant before that? It was the Latin word meaning "womb." And this concept of a womb, or a matrix, is something which has become alien to Western thought. A matrix is the medium in which you move, the air in which you breathe. It has the authority of your culture and your mother tongue. It is a very different kind of authority from the authority of a single leader, or a written rule; a matrix does not consciously command you, but provides you with the options which shape your choice. And the Eastern ways all preserve a matrix, a way, that provides their pedagogy. In a sense the difference between constructivist experiential learning and Eastern experiential learning is the difference between non-native speakers trying to speak a language and a community of native speakers continuing to use their language. Except to make the comparison more fair, constructivists are trying to construct a language, and put together something that works, and Eastern pedagogues have inherited something that works. The difference is kind of like the difference between an experimental kind of baseball glove that someone is trying out and a glove that is not only traditional but already broken in.
The Visionary: Um... I'll have to think about what you have said about a "matrix." Ok, you've given me a lot to think about. It would be premature for me to respond now. I'm going to need to think about what you've said. But let me change the susbject. What other ideas do you have about teaching, especially concrete ones?
The Alumnus: It's a bit like a light—it makes other things easier to see. But let me talk about other ways of teaching, such as listening.
The Visionary: I know how you can listen if a student asks a question, but how do you listen when lecturing?
The Alumnus: Listening is about trying to understand the other person as a basis for communication. Apart from the feedback that's in student questions—if you look for it—a person's face is a window to what is going on inside, and a teacher sees student faces frequently. I know the ominous silence when the class is so lost that students are afraid to ask questions. I don't just charge on because it's important to cover the remaining material. I try to stop, back up, and help the students to genuinely understand, and then proceed from genuine understanding. Homework offers implicit feedback on what I succeeded in communicating, and what I did not succeed in. And there's an implicit listening mindset behind trying not to inundate students with too much information at once.
There's a book of little stories, and in one of them, a sage was asked, "What is your name?" He pondered for a moment and said, "My name used to be... Me. But now it's... You." I didn't like that story at first, because I didn't understand it. Now I understand enough of it to see that it has a profound truth. Talking is about "me", and listening is part of a lifelong journey of learning to think in terms of "you." Listening has far more to offer a teacher than a better understanding of student questions.
There are a lot of things I like about how IMSA works—your belief that the needs of the mind cannot be met if the needs of the body are neglected. How this you fit this in with Arbor food service is not clear to me—
The Visionary: Thanks, Dear...
The Alumnus: Any time. But I really like the understanding you have of the human person as interconnected on multiple levels, including the body and mind. I also take that as axiomatic, and teach so that students will understand concepts and preferably their connections, and many other things. Just as I haven't read what I just said about listening in anything that came out of IMSA, but the teachers I had at IMSA were all examples of good listening.
The Visionary: Thank you.
The Alumnus: You're welcome.
But another part of the Enlightenment I reject is its depersonalization of knowledge and teaching. Have you read any Polanyi?
The Visionary: Not yet. Should I put him on my reading list?
The Alumnus: I don't know. He writes hefty, if understandable, material. It takes time to understand him, but he's worth understanding.
Michael Polanyi was a philosopher of science, and his big work was on tacit and personal knowledge. The core idea is that scientific knowledge (I would say knowledge in general) is not a set of dessicated constructs that can be understood without reference to people; it is enfleshed in people who know it. He talked about how competing swimmers inhale a little more air and exhale a little less, so they always have more air in their lungs and therefore buoyancy than we would, but this knowledge is never thought of in so many words by the coach or by the student who "picks it up" from the coach, wordlessly. I don't know if it's a fair reading to say that the knowledge we can articulate is the just tip of the iceberg, but what I do think is a fair reading is to say that the knowledge we can put into so many words is not the whole picture. I think he would have liked IMSA trying to avoid teachers mindlessly regurgitating material so students can learn to mindlessly regurgitating material.
In tandem with the Enlightenment depersonalization of knowledge, is a depersonalization of the concept of teaching and a teacher. About two thousand years ago, one teacher tried to demote teachers from being human gods (who were superior to everyone else) to being human like the rest of us. Then, in connection with the Enlightenment there came a second demotion. A teacher was no longer someone responsible for initiating those in their care into humanity, but only a part of a person imparting a skill to another partial person.
That is an illusion; no matter how much keep our mouths shut on certain matters, we are humans teaching. The question is not whether or not teachers will be an ethical force; the question is whether, given that teachers will be an ethical force, whether they will be a positive force or a negative force. Because students are affected by what kind of people their teachers are—as well as what they say—a teacher should try to be a positive force. This means things like a humility that listens and appreciates other people, and caring, and is willing to listen both to "I don't understand partial differentiation," and "I've had a lousy week."
This means that a teacher who sees past the present, and sees students as the concert pianists, research scientists, and ballerinas they can become, will by that very respect help make that potential a reality.
The Visionary [looks at watch]: Thank you. I need to be somewhere in a few minutes; do you have any closing comments?
The Alumnus: I think that one aspect of how we speak of teaching is unfortunate. We speak of the active teacher who teaches, and the presumably passive student who is taught. Nothing of this manner of speaking suggests a dialog, a two-way street—but if teaching succeeds, it must be because of a cooperation between student and teacher. Even with constructivist understanding of learning, we're just looking at what the teacher can do.
I spend most of my time thinking about how I can see to my end of the partnership, not how students can handle their job. But there is something I would love to say to students, reinforced by a handout, on the first day of class, some toned-down version of:
Prometheus stole fire. Your job is to steal knowledge.
The wrong way to think is that my job is to teach you, and you just sit there and be taught, and after enough teachers have taught you, you'll be educated.
You will get a much better education if you think that whatever I do, however well or poorly I teach, is simply the baseline, and you can start from there and see what you can do to take as much knowledge as you can.
Listening in class and asking questions is one way to steal knowledge. Is there something I said that doesn't quite make sense? If you just let my teaching wash over you, you've missed an opportunity to steal knowledge.
If you listen to my words, that's good. It's even better if you think about why I would say what I am saying. There may be a clue, maybe a little whisper in your intuition that something more is going on than you realize. That is a key that you can use to steal knowledge.
When you read the textbook, it will tell you more if you push it harder. Look at the problems. What are they asking you to know? What are they asking you to think about? There's a powerful clue about what's important and what's going on, if you're adept enough to steal it.
What do I assume about the material? I make assumptions, and some of those are assumptions I make because of what I know. If you're willing to ask why I assume something, you may steal knowledge of how people think when they understand the material.
My office hours are meant for you. Come in and discuss the material. If I see you make a mistake, that's good. It means you're learning and I have an opportunity to clarify. If you don't understand something, and all of us don't understand things from time to to time, it will cost you points to wait until the test to find out that you don't understand it. It won't cost you anything if you come in during my office hours, and I'll be glad you visited. And you might steal some knowledge.
Steal knowledge. There'll be some days when you're a little tired, and you can't look for all the extra knowledge you can steal. That's OK; just try to take the knowledge I clearly set out before you. But steal knowledge when you can.
You've gotten into IMSA, which is one of the best and one of the worst places in the world. Take advantage of opportunity. Learn to steal knowledge. And when you graduate from IMSA... Steal knowledge.
The Visionary: I definitely have some food for thought to take into the meeting. Do come and visit again! Goodbye!
The Alumnus: That I shall. Goodbye!
In recent years, I published what I then (and now) consider an interesting test. It was meant to look for indirect signs of profound giftedness. I wrote it with the hope that it would circumvent the ceiling of standard model tests, and I wouldn't have been surprised if it showed a floor above some other tests' ceilings. Let me cite the questions before continuing:
Describe who you are, how you see the world, and what your inner world is like.
Describe your most impressive and distinctive achievements.
Describe your most impressive and distinctive failures.
Describe what you hope/wish/want/intend to accomplish with your life. What do you believe you will accomplish?
What is your educational background? Include out of classroom learning you consider appropriate.
What is (are) your domain(s) of desired excellence? What is your work there? What have you achieved? What failures have you experienced?
Have you ever had management problems or been fired? If so, describe each time.
Describe any unusual or distinctive characteristics of your childhood physiology and physique.
What mental health diagnoses and misdiagnoses have been considered for you (that you are comfortable divulging)? Elaborate if desired; if there is information you'd prefer to omit, please say so.
What are your interests?
On a scale of -1.0 to 1.0, rate yourself on the dimensions of the Myers-Briggs test: E(-1) to I(1), S(-1) to N(1), T(-1) to F(1), P(-1) to J(1). Elaborate if desired.
There are a few ways to take the Myers-Briggs test, one of the cheapest of which is to check out e.g. Kiersey's Please Understand Me II from the library; the Kiersey web site has assorted information online.
What is one of your favorite books? Why? Elaborate.
Provide a sample of your best writing.
What is one of your most cherished of your creations? Explain. If feasible, include a copy; if not, describe.
As a child or youth, what was one inconsistency you observed in the adult world that was painful?
Describe, with examples, your sense of humor.
Do you fit in (yes/no/question does not admit a yes or no answer for you)? Explain.
Provide, and answer, one question that you believe will provide me with deep insight into your intelligence.
Write your own short intelligence test.
What else can you say to provide me with evidence of your intelligence?
Richard Feynmann's Cargo Cult Science address talks about the need to publicize failed experiments as well as successes. I am publishing results, not to claim a new success, but because in its failure it may be interesting. Someone else may find a refinement of the idea that works, or other lessons may be taken from its failure. This seems to be an interesting failure.
I received responses from four men, whom I will call Adam, Brandon, Charles, and David. I opened and read them at the same time to limit bias. Adam seemed gifted, around the top of the range of "optimum intelligence" where you have a definite advantage over others but aren't so different that it starts to really hurt. Brandon seemed just over the edge; I hesitated in comparing them and finally placed Brandon slightly above Adam. Charles showed signs of real giftedness; earlier in life he had effectively solved a problem that it originally took Euler to solve. Charles struck me as profoundly gifted. Finally, if Charles showed brilliant complexity, David showed a simplicity on the other side of complexity. ("I wouldn't give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I'd give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.") In my notes, I compared his communication to how Richard Feynman closed the O-ring debate: "Feynmann, after people enquiring into the Challenger disaster had spent days arguing whether it was too cold for the O-rings, took an O-ring, swirled it around in his icewater, and pinched it, snapping it." David struck me as not only profoundly gifted but at a higher plateau than Charles's dazzling performance. Trying to describe the spread, I said that if the lowest score were a 1 and the highest were an 8, then I would give Adam 1, Brandon 2, Charles 6, and David 8. (I guessed numbers at 150, 155, 165, and 185; I intentionally did not reconcile these two sets of numbers.) Then I opened their prior test scores.
Charles had scores of 140-151, which I regarded as ceiling scores which did not provide useful information beyond being ceiling scores. Adam, Brandon, and David had highest prior scores of 168, 172, and 174 respectively. (I am inclined to lend more credence to the higher scores as it is more plausible to say that someone properly rated around 170 hit his head on the ceiling and scored around 130 than someone properly rated at 130 accidently obtained a score around 170. I acknowledge that this could inflate my estimates.) After an hour or so of trying to convince myself I could interpret their scores so that they would say my test worked, I realised that my test found a significant difference where none was independently verified. Adam, Brandon, and David had highest scores well within measurement error of each other. Furthermore, Adam had consistently high scores: his lowest score was 156, while no one else had two scores above 155. Comparing with previous data, there was no positive correlation to prior test scores, and the person who looked best from previous scores was the person I'd ranked the lowest.
This does not necessarily mean my test is invalid. Four responses, three of which were within measurement error of each other, do not a norming make. Given that responses had appeared at a rate of about one per year, it's not clear how long it would take to obtain a basis for a solid anchor norming, and if I would still be alive when enough responses had been completed. I opened the responses more on an intuition than anything else, and what I have is not a norming but an understanding of why it might not have been helpful to wait for enough responses for a norming. Furthermore, the fact that previous test data does not distinguish between them does not mean that they are at the same level. All four normees are bright enough to get ceiling scores on standardized tests. That leaves open the possibility of significant differences between them, including the possibility that Charles and David are appreciably brighter than Adam and Brandon. However, I am speaking about what is possible and not about claims that my results support. My results do not say anything positive about my ability to discriminate between responses. If there is anything interesting obtained from my test, it is not between responses but the fact that people responded at all. My website, Jonathan's Corner (Sitemap), averages between 500 and 1000 unique visitors per day, with an average of two people reading the test per day. Only four people responded in three years, with all of the normees being brilliant. That seems significant, and I'm not sure what all it means. Apart from that, no ability to discriminate usefully between scores has been established in the usual fashion.
I would like to briefly describe the responses I received, both to provide an overall picture and to describe what I would single out in my evaluation. Here and elsewhere in the evaluation, I am intentionally using vague and generic descriptions rather than ones that are detailed and specific. This impoverishes the writing and gives a less valuable analysis, but I want to be cautious about confidence, and I expect that some of the people reading this will be quite good at connecting dots.
Adam's response was three pages long, seemed candid (as did the others), and included achievements at state level. His responses answered the questions, but did not have the florid, ornate, wheels within wheels quality I associate with someone brilliant who is speaking on a topic he finds interesting. The content of his responses strikes me as reflecting more intelligence than the writing style: it was well-written, but did not reflect the "mental overflow" I was looking for. His list of interests was relatively short (twelve), and included a few items that do not specifically reflect intelligence. Several of his choices suggest noteworthy social maturity; this, combined with my losing track of how he opened his responses, led me to assume that he was more gifted than profoundly gifted.
Brandon's response was also three pages long, and showed the pain of the social disconnect which many profoundly gifted experience. His list of interests was also short, but the activities themselves more distinctively suggest high intelligence. His general approach, in particular to society and authority, shows many of the signature traits David Kiersey (Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence, Buffalo: Prometheus, 1998) describes in profiling the NT "rational" temperament. (Three out of the four normees were NTs, and all of them were strongly intuitive.) He also has an uncanny knack for guessing certain kinds of information—which is an anomaly that I'm not sure what to do with. The examples, however, did not leave me wanting attack the anomaly by pointing him to Thomas Gilovich's How We Know What Isn't So (New York: Free Press reprint, 1993). He showed a desire to use his mind to transform society that seems to be common among very bright people.
Charles's response was twenty-seven pages of wheels within wheels. From the first page I was met with nuance that let me know I hadn't taken everything in on the first reading, despite it being well-written. He claimed not to have any distinctive achievements. This modest remark was followed by no fewer than eight pages of dense summaries of some of his theories. These theories were subtle. They had a logical and scientific character and a spark of something interesting that stretches outside the bounds of science. He used a nonstandard format that made their logical structure clearer—successfully modifying a familiar format to make an unfamiliar format that works better, which is difficult. In the pages of his response I met an edifice of thought which impressed me and which I knew I didn't understand. (I say this as someone who has put a lot of effort into understanding other people's belief systems.) His response to that question reminds me of a passage in my current novel:
The woman looked at me briefly. "What languages do you know?"
If anything, I sank further back into my chair. I wished the question would go away. When she continued to listen, I waited for sluggish thoughts to congeal. "I... Fish, Shroud, Inscription, and Shadow are all spoken around my island, and I speak all of them well. I speak Starlight badly, despite the fact that they trade with our village frequently. I do not speak Stream well at all, even though it is known to many races of voyagers. I once translated a book from Boulder to Pedestal, although that is hardly to be reckoned: it was obscure and technical, and it has nothing of the invisible subtlety of 'common' conversation. You know how—"
The man said, "Yes; something highly technical in a matter you understand is always easier to translate than children's talk. Go on."
"And—I created a special purpose language," I said, "to try to help a child who couldn't speak. I did my best, but it didn't work. I still don't understand why not. And I—" I tried to think, to remember if there were any languages I had omitted. Nothing returned to my mind.
I looked down and closed my eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm not very good with languages."
Charles listed approximately fifty different interests—which is less significant than it sounds, as he broke his interests down in more detail than the other normees, but the detailed breakdown strikes me as significant independent of its content. He was the one normee who answered the Myers-Briggs question in the mathematical format requested—which does not mean that he is the only normee who could do that task, but may suggest that he was the one person who didn't take a shortcut by "just using adjectives". I wrote the test to listen for a certain accent in how people respond, and his sense of humor showed that accent loud and strong.
He wrote a complete test which seemed to have a low ceiling, but was polished enough that I wouldn't be surprised to see something similar on the web, and he showed self-criticism in writing the test, acknowledging that it was culture-biased. The completeness and level of polish for that answer caught me off guard.
I was looking to be surprised in a certain way, and for reasons discussed above Charles gave me the kind of surprises I was looking for.
David's response was twenty pages. He provided an extended writing sample, and (to my surprise) a complete transcript of grades from childhood. His answers were by far the most polished; they give the impression of finding, out of a large space of things that could be said, a microcosmic gem that encapsulates the whole space. Most of his responses were short; the twenty pages stem from the length of his answers to a small number of questions.
Question 11, requesting Myers-Briggs personality type, contained a hidden question. I was interested in Myers-Briggs type, but most interested in whether the normee would question the test or talk about not fitting in the frame the Myers-Briggs test provides. David told his type en route to making a dismissive remark about the test. In other words, he was the one respondent who questioned the test. The most cherished creation he gave was one that showed a certain kind of mental fireworks, reminiscent of the dialogues in Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (New York: Basic Books reprint, 1999).
David also surprised me, and I heard an accent of brilliance.
What are the distinctive features of my test? I would like to describe them below.
The way Western culture is shaped means that psychology tries to know its subject-matter with the same kind of knowing as physics has of its subject-matter, in other words I-It rather than I-Thou knowing that is depersonalised and banishes tacit knowing as far as possible. (Banishing anthropomorphism is appropriate when you're studying rocks. It's more debatable in trying to understand people.) When I was thinking about how to write up the experiment, before I looked at prior scores, one of the things I intended to compare was writing samples. Brandon offered a clever placeholder in place of a "real" composition. Adam provided some poetry that reminded me of fifth grade English reading; I objectively recognized quality but felt no subjective emotional response. Charles provided poetry that I wasn't sure I understood but none the less felt like something powerful was washing over me, and I was sorry when it ended. David sent a fiction excerpt that filled me with despair. The tone of the writing was not despairing; I felt the despair of being shown writing so perfect that I despaired of ever attaining that standard.
Why am I talking about my subjective emotional reactions instead of objective assessment? That is why I chose this specific example, instead of examples of thought that would have more to justify them from the framework that understands knowledge in depersonalized and objective terms. I choose it because I paid attention to subjective emotional reactions. I believe that they are tied to tacit and personal ways of knowing: I experienced subjective emotional reactions because I was responding to different pieces of writing that were not of the same quality. Subjective emotional response is one of several things that can be a cue worth listening to.
(I am intentionally keeping the philosophy brief; the philosophical dimension involved in this topic is one that admits very long discussion.)
In most tests, there is a suite of questions meant to map out where a person's intelligence breaks down, and scoring is how many points total are earned. In this test, the questions do not represent a direct attempt to present difficulty in answering. The intent is rather to obtain a composite picture, and shed indirect light on how bright a person is. The assumption is that different levels of giftedness will leave a definite mark on a person, and that that definite mark is discernible through understanding the person. For one example, above a certain level, a person is so different from the majority of people that there is a social disconnect; children above IQ 170 tend to feel that they don't fit in anywhere. That kind of social disconnect was clearly discernible in all but one of the responses; Brandon clearly articulated it.
To some extent, that is corroborated by the data. I identified all of the normees as significantly gifted—which I had no reason to anticipate. The first norming of the Mega test had fewer than 10% of normees successfully answer any of the questions. (People who are emotionally insecure often attempt difficult tests to get an answer that may feel special; as the number of emotionally insecure people vastly outweighs the number of people at that level of giftedness, they "should" have been a small minority.) So I was able to recognize giftedness in all of the normees when I was not expecting it. That stated, the evidence does not warrant the conclusion that my test usefully discriminates among the normees.
As this test, or at least this norming, has been a failure, it's worth paying attention to what went wrong.
I have not done any real statistical analysis because there is no basis for analysis, and the statistics would only give a more precise quantification to the statement, "The measurement error exceeds the difference measured." Even if the four normees represented an optimal 120-140-160-180 spread, four points would be questionable. As is, the only conclusion I can confidently claim from prior test data is that all of the normees are at or above standardized test ceilings. In other words, data from previous tests do not provide a basis to claim that my test discriminates (and what correlation exists is negative).
Giftedness affects personality, but it is inadequate to simply say, "Giftedness is personality." There is diversity at each stratum of giftedness, and the normee pool did not permit the kind of two-dimensional analysis that would be needed to properly interpret responses (if there is a proper interpretation to be had).
This test is invasive. It's painful and offensive. There is probably a way to attempt a similar operation much more gently and delicately. My guess is that this, more than anything else, is why I only had four responses in three years. If this principle were put to serious use, it would have to be rethought so that it went about its aims with a far defter touch. (Or perhaps just remove certain questions.)
One question which I wonder is whether this offensiveness, which is partly an unedited form of giftedness, was the main reason why only brilliant men responded. The test's form may have been a powerful selector. So it would have put most people off. But that is not the whole story. Keep in mind that "reading" on a conscious or unconscious level is a two-way street, and the test reveals something significant about me as well as requesting revelation of the normee. A few very bright people, however, might be bothered by the invasiveness, but they recognize and respond to a voice that feels like home. It connects. That, at least, is speculation which seems plausible, but which I don't see how to support without writing a gentler test.
In one sense, this test was personal, too personal—it probed bluntly into things that are not polite to ask. In another sense, though, it related to the normees as objects to be studied, trying to dissect them as people but still dissecting them. It moves partway from I-It to I-Thou, but I believe it is possible to have a fuller I-Thou knowing, although I don't know what a fully I-Thou approach would be like. It could be argued that the questions are offensive because the test was not personal enough. In other words, the test reflected an attempt to understand people but not in a personal way. Furthermore, some of the philosophical merits to a personal approach may bear fruit if there were a more genuinely personal approach.
The attempt to be objective tries to strip out everything subjective as a means to strip out subjective bias. Ideally one would want to allow subjective strengths while using another form of rigor to mitigate subjective bias, but I am not sure what that other and more difficult rigor would be; I have not solved that problem.
I requested responses to questions and personal information separately, so I wouldn't know whose material I was working with until after I had ranked the results. There was one normee for whom this attempted anonymization failed—David, whom I know and I hold in awe. I'd like to say that I didn't let this influence my estimation, but that's not true. As it is now, Adam's responses struck me as simple because it seemed what he was saying wasn't very big, and David's responses struck me as simplicity on the other side of complexity—something big in an elegant nutshell. Charles's responses struck me as complex, in other words as simply being big. I'd like to say that I was unbiased, and I didn't think "David answered, and I'm terribly impressed with him, so I'll put him highest," but I simply followed the argument where it led. I'd like to say that, but I can't. Maybe I should have ranked Charles highest. I'm vulnerable to accusation of bias at least here. And this kind of bias may be present in the attempt to understand another person—recognition is a risk.
There's a reason why I asked about people's worst failures, and it's not because I like making people squirm.
Howard Gardner's Extraordinary Minds (New York: Basic Books reprint, 1998) is a multiple intelligence treatment of genius. One of the points that he talked about was failure—experiencing failures and being spurred on by them (120-123). Because of this, I was hoping to see discussion of trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and failing—like Edison's numerous failures en route to inventing a working light bulb. I believed that genius and those approaching genius not only are not immune to failure, but fail more often and more significantly than the vast majority of human beings.
This is a nice theory, and it may well be true, but the question based on it did not obtain informative answers for this purpose. I was expecting for normees at this level to see different degrees of failing in courageous projects (and in less glorious matters); I would not want to divulge what the normees shared, but if they did experience this pattern of life, I did not discern it in the replies. (This question should probably be removed in derivative work; the offensive questions seem less informative than I had expected.)
Another question was related to Leta Hollingworth's Children Above 180 IQ: Stanford-Binet Origin and Development (New York: Arno Press, 1975), in which Hollingworth claims that the children she studied were significantly above average size and weight for their age. I thought that the brighter respondents would share this distinctive physique. Only Brandon mentioned something along these lines, which means it might be useful as one piece of a large puzzle, but it was not the predictor I'd hoped. (There were other questions motivated by similar concerns.)
This test is a failure, or at very least my attempt to norm this test is a failure. Out of an estimated two thousand people that were aware of the test, only four responded, and the result is a statistically insignificant and negative correlation. I underestimated Adam in particular; if there is a lesson to be drawn from him, it is that it is possible to be brilliant while showing relatively few of the indirect traits this test sought to identify.
I was not looking forward to the prospect of writing delicate responses to a majority of normees who were insecure and of normal intelligence, and would approach difficult tests to have a big number that will make them feel OK about being human. That this did not happen touches on two reasons why I consider this an interesting failure:
Only brilliant normees responded. Therefore, while demonstrated ability to discriminate between answers is nonexistant, the fact of responding to the test is highly significant. There is an implicit hidden question: not, "What traits will distinguish your response?" but "Will you respond at all?"
I correctly identified all the respondents as significantly gifted. The lowest estimate I gave was a three sigma score. In other words, I correctly identified all respondents as being at or above the 99.9th percentile, even though this was contrary to my expectations.
This is also an interesting failure in that it attempts an inquiry that is based on a different principle. If it were not for confidence issues, I would likely publish the responses so that specific questions could be analyzed. It may be possible to make a hybrid test that combines traditional high-ceiling tests with this basic approach. The two approaches could be complementary.
Given that this is a first try, it may be better to label this approach as "Hasn't succeeded yet" than "Has failed." It would be surprising if this kind of distinctive approach succeeded on the first try. Furthermore, the way this norming failed suggests there's something in the approach.
There are several philosophical questions which admit interesting discussion. One of the more interesting questions is what alternatives to dealing with subjective bias exist besides trying to exclude all subjective elements (officially, at least: I suspect that good "objective" judgment has drawn on subjective strengths all along). Most of the philosophical aspects mentioned merit further inquiry.
I believe that Charlie and David are at a higher plateau than Adam and Brandon; data from other tests does not discriminate from them, but I have priveleged external information that would place David above Adam. If they were to contact a third party who could corroborate that Adam and Brandon are at one high plateau and Charlie and David at a higher plateau, that would be reason to take a second look at the results.
I believe that the responses give a much richer picture of the person than a standard test. Someone, instead of asking, "Does this compete with traditional tests?" might ask, "What interesting data does this give that traditional tests don't?"
So this test is a failure, but an interesting failure, and perhaps even a successful failure.
Miyamoto Musashi, 1584-1645, was the greatest swordman in Japanese history, perhaps in world history. A few weeks before his death, he left behind a book to one of his pupils, entitled, A Book of Five Rings. That book is now the canonical work on martial arts strategy.
Musashi writes in a way that is cryptic and deliberately designed to be obscure; the book is not a work for everyone. A Book of Five Rings is, however, a very deep book; it goes beyond details of technique to describing the warrior's do, something of sufficient profundity and applicability to be of far broader use than just martial arts. The book is used by many businessmen who have no direct interest in martial arts.
The Japanese word do, from the Chinese word Tao, is traditionally rendered as 'way' or 'Way'. A case could also be made for translating it as 'profession', 'religion', 'culture', 'art', 'manner of living', or 'logos' (as in bio-logy, theo-logy, geo-logy — these words mean the logia of life, God, and stones, respectively). It is one of those deep, rich words which is not too readily translated, but can be understood.
As I was reading from the Five Rings recently, I began to think of writing a response to Musashi. What kind of response? I was first thinking of something like a rebuttal, but that upon further reflection seemed inadequate. Then I came to a more nuanced understanding of what kind of response would be appropriate. Musashi describes a particular flavor of the warrior's Way. The response I thought of was to describe the way I walk, the way I think, the way I learn. (Don't worry if you haven't read Musashi — this document is sufficiently different that one could read it without realizing that its initial conception was as a response to Musashi.)
This book is intended for two audiences. One is for young people adults reading for themselves; the other is for parents reading for input in the formation, education, and guidance of their children. I hope that both may profit from it.
I have some hesitancies in writing this. In some sense, writing a book like this could be construed as a claim to be a giant equal to Musashi. I don't want that. Another doubt may be expressed by saying that I have not in an obvious sense fashioned or followed a distinctive Way (comparable to what Musashi did) that would justify writing a book. Someone with a mind to do so could probably think of other, more pungent reasons why this book should not be written or read. With all of these doubts taken into account, I remembered thinking at a previous time that I wished some people whom I intellectually respect would leave behind a book on how they think — but most of them didn't.
Theophane the Monk, in Tales of a Magic Monastery, tells the following story (partly paraphrased):
I write in the hope that perhaps, in these pages, I will encounter the book that I wished others had written.
Up there everyone gets what he asks for. I came there a wounded man, sorely hurt by my brothers. So I said, "Solitude!"
Wonderful, for a time. But then I began to think about the life and example of Christ. Was it really right, I wondered, to spend so much time by myself? So I shouted, "Community!"
Wonderful again. I asked for this thing and that, and at one point I got so distressed that I said, "Death!"
Aah, what a relief. No more striving, no more pain. But then I began to want life again — if you're alive, you can at least move around. If you're dead, you're just — dead.
But I couldn't go up to the Well, and no one would go up for me. They just passed me by. How could they be so thoughtless? How could they be so cruel?
Finally, someone said it. "Life for my brother!" he said into the Well. And I was alive, gloriously alive.
I wanted to meet him, to thank him. So I went around and asked, "Did you see the one who called into the Well and gave me life?" The replies came: "Nobody does that!" "You call down into the well for yourself, not for someone else. I went searching, searching, long and hard before it occurred to me that someone else might want to be brought back to life. So I ran back to the well, and shouted, "Life for my brothers and my sisters!"
There, reflected in the waters at the base of the well, I saw the face of the one who had called me back from the dead.
This writing represents in one sense a departure from most of what I write. Most of what I write is intended for a general audience; parts might be better understood by someone who's bright and knows a lot, but it is written in the hope that almost anyone who would want to read it would learn at least something from it. This writing is not. It is intended for a small minority of readers with special needs, and (after having set down the project) I am picking it up again with one specific person in mind, a person whom I am mentoring. Anyone is welcome to read it — I am not trying to write a Nag Hammandi library of Gnostic apocrypha, and any reader is welcome to take whatever of value he may learn from such a writing — but this is written for a group of people who think and learn very, very differently from the mainstream.
The specific minority I am writing for — and many of you may not know who you are; if you're in this minority, you've probably gotten mediocre or lower grades, possibly had people comment on how stupid you are, and almost certainly have dealt with labels such as 'odd' and 'underachiever' — are the astronomically intelligent. As I write, I am probably causing a degree of culture shock, in that your intelligence is in American culture treated like a social disease, in that it's not one of the things you talk about in polite company. Why am I writing about this, if smart people are better than average at figuring things out and the smartest should least of all need a book to congratulate them on how smart they are? Well, the perspective embodied in that question embodies a few problems, and a proper answer to that question would fill a book. (An excellent one has been written, incidentally, entitled Guiding the Gifted Child, by James T. Webb, Elizabeth A. Meckstroth, and Stephanie S. Tolen. The book is a lot broader than its title might suggest, and it is well worth reading by any gifted adult who does not have a thorough grounding in the issues surrounding giftedness.) I would like to offer a brief synopsis of an answer. To wit:
First, there has been posited a range of optimum intelligence — IQ scores (which I would take as a quick and dirty approximation, a rough gauge of intelligence that's usually right — most definitely not an absolute and perfect evaluation of every aspect of human intelligence) in the range of 125-145 between which people are smart and function well in society. Beyond that, there come certain difficulties in adaptation — roughly, the same sort of problems which would be faced by a person of average intelligence growing up in a world of people where most individuals had an IQ in the range of 55-60. There are frustrations which come when, for example, the adults who you look up to seem incapable of perceiving what appears obvious to you. Furthermore, the higher IQ scores go, the more a person ceases to have simply more of the intelligence most people possess, and instead has a different kind of intelligence than most people possess. For example, speaking within America, you might say that a person of IQ 100 possesses a reasonable command of the English language, a person of IQ 130 possesses a very good command of the English language, and a person of IQ 160 possesses a stellar command of French alongside a halting command of the English language. Can you see how this would cause problems? People with an IQ of 170+ tend to feel that they don't fit in anywhere. (I might only half-jokingly suggest that Michael Valentine Smith in Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, given his apparent IQ range, would almost as much have been a stranger in a strange land had he been raised on Earth instead of Mars.) (Second note: One of the signs that suggests a child might be rather bright is an unusual sense of humor. Guiding the Gifted Child opened, very appropriately in my estimation, by telling of a nine year old girl who was asked, "What is the difference between a fish and a submarine?" and thought a moment before answering, "A submarine has lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise, while a fish only has tartar sauce.") Exceptional intelligence brings with it significant difficulties in adaptation, and on that score I would commend the absolutely brilliant portrayal of an astronomically intelligent six year old boy in Madeleine l'Engle's A Wind in the Door.
This book is written to a special needs population with a legitimate distinguishing feature — and it is written to provide something that those special needs people won't get in a world that is geared without particularly much consideration for their needs.
In talking about the difficulties faced by brilliant minds in education, one person made an analogy with a track that has markings on it for where to put your feet in order to run. This structure is useful and beneficial for the vast majority of students, who can barely walk, and need great assistance in the difficult task of running. Suppose, though, that a natural athlete comes along with running in his bones. If he is just placed on a track and allowed to run, he will do so. If, however, he is made to slow down and put his feet exactly along the markings, it will severely disrupt his rhythm. He will trip, he will fall down, and people who are watching him will think he has no talent whatsoever. This is why, for instance, Einstein failed at math and was told by his teacher that he would never be any good at it.
This is a book written about the way I have discovered to run, written in the hope that someone will read it and learn to fly.