Remaking Our Brains

BLOG #15, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
REMAKING OUR BRAINS
April 15, 2015

This was the weekend of our annual Conifer Kiwanis Reading Celebration for the third-graders who attend six mountain elementary schools here in the Colorado Rockies. Also for a large consortium of homeschoolers.

Before we honored the kids for their reading improvement, I gathered close to 90 third-graders on the floor around me, and urged them to make reading central to their lives. Since I poured thirty years of observation and research into my 1992 book, TV on Trial, and one of my main doctoral concentrations had to do with the relationship between reading and writing, and since those areas have remained central to me during my entire academic teaching career, I felt this occasion offered me a golden opportunity to plant seeds in these young minds.

I pointed out to them that there are two ways they can feed their brains: Reading and Electronic Imagery. Reading has been with us clear back to ancient times, but most significantly since the advent of printing, some six centuries ago. Electronic imagery is much more recent: around the turn of the twentieth century with the advent of moving pictures.

Today, electronic imagery has become so ubiquitous it increasingly has pushed reading onto the ropes, with some even questioning whether it can survive at all.

So, I pointed out to the third-graders that there are two significant differences between reading and electronic media: Reading is a creative process; electronic imagery tends to be creative only for those who create it. Reading is connotative. In other words, every time a person opens a book and begins reading, something exciting happens: that person’s brain shifts into its creative gear as the reader cranks out non-stop inner imagery that has the potential to actually change the brain into a powerhouse.

I introduced two contrasting word processes: “denotative” and “connotative.” Denotative has to do with the dictionary definition of a word. Let’s take, for instance, the word “father”; the dictionary definition is “a man who has begotten a child.” That’s all there is to it.

But the connotative process is so explosive it borders on the mind-numbing, for it has the potential, over time, to remake the brain. I pointed out that as you read the word “father,” if you have a loving father you adore, the mental image you create will tend to mirror that; but what if you have an abusive father? That would contribute to a much darker mental image. And no two readers ever create exactly the same mental imagery from the same words! For each individual is one-of-a-kind. That is why cloning would be such a terrible thing. As a person reads, word after word after word triggers the creation of mental imagery in the reader’s brain. So much so that just one book has the potential to create seismic differences in the reader’s outlook on life. But that’s not all, by any means. Each author writes in a different way from other authors; this is why Google enables teachers to catch plagiarists so easily, and why it borders on the impossible that an anonymous writer can long remain anonymous. The reader reads works by Alcott, Tolkien, Blume, Milne, Seuss, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Twain, or Martin Luther King, Jr.—; those stylistic differences are stored in inner templates, each of which may be drawn from when the reader begins to write herself/himself.

Depending upon whether the reader reads from a wide variety of books, stories, essays, etc. written by authors worth reading as opposed to stalling out on mental pablum; the former is likely to develop into a powerhouse and the latter into straitjacketed narrowism.

* * *

But what if individuals read no books and little of anything else, and instead feed the mind with electronic imagery (the norm for untold millions today), what happens to their minds? When one is watching television, cinema, video, or other electronic genres, whether one person is watching a given source or a billion people are watching it, every last one is internalizing the same picture! Reason being that the receiver’s brain has had nothing to do with the image’s creation—someone else did that. In fact, the receiver’s brain is completely bypassed: BAM! The image is blasted into the receiver’s brain. But it is not internalized for it is a foreign object. It is a self-standing entity that just sits there. Over time, as these foreign objects take up more and more space in the receiver’s brain, that person all but loses the creative potential that individual was born with.

In the collegiate freshman composition classes I’ve taught over the years, I’ve seen replayed the two species again, again, and again. When I tell a class, “Take out a blank piece of paper. We are going to write. . . . Now write!” It matters little whether I give them a subject to write about or let them choose, the results are the same each time: the reader, having all the internalized imagery of many authors’ books and stories synthesized into the memory banks, stylistic templates too, can hardly wait to start writing—and then the pen races across the page. The non-reader, almost invariably, just sits there glassy-eyed, like Bambi on ice. Since there is precious little in their brains that wasn’t created by someone else, there isn’t much they can draw from. And since they don’t read, they don’t know how to write either. Structurally, they are equally at sea. Since electronic imagery explodes at them from all directions, little of it structured, their thought-processes tend to be equally unstructured and disjointed. This is also true when they speak in public.

Furthermore, even in the business world, non-readers are handicapped. Studies have shown that when employing CEOs test them to see which applicant would be the best fit for a job, they are often given a task composed of, say five, steps in which to reach desired completion. Deliberately and unannounced, the CEO leaves out a step. So a reader moves from step to step: A to B, B to C, C to D, D to E, and E to F—only D to E is left out. The reader reaches this abyss, is puzzled , but doesn’t give up. Since the reader has developed a part of the brain scholars call the “library,” in which the brain talks to itself, the applicant, much like a spider, launches filaments out into the void, seeking for a terminus on the other side. Sooner or later, one of the filaments touches solid ground; the applicant now bridges to the other side and moves from E to F, and completes the task. The non-reader never can complete the task. Even when both applicants are college graduates with 4-point grade A averages, the results are still the same. A neighbor of mine, an executive himself, and a veteran administrator and employer, when I shared this study with him, explained, “So that’s it! I’ve long wondered why some top graduates could problem-solve and others failed so dismally. It makes sense!”

* * * * *

Sadly, our society has yet to recognize just how essential reading is to life and career success, even in areas that are not generally considered as demanding a reading background.

WHAT ARE WE TEACHING OUR KIDS?

BLOG #15, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WHAT ARE WE TEACHING OUR KIDS?
April 10, 2013

Recently, in an organization I regularly attend, one of our members, with an uncharacteristically grave expression on his face, silenced us by a statement followed by a question.

In essence, here is what he said: “Our daughter came home from school yesterday afternoon deeply disturbed, confused, and bordering on tears.”

By this time, there was total silence in the room.

After pausing a moment, he continued, “Our daughter, her voice quivering, said, “Daddy, our teacher today told us that we live in a wicked nation, that we committed genocide against the Indian people—is that true?”

Continuing, he told us that he tried to explain to her the complex story of the last four-hundred years. Then he asked her what else the teacher had been saying about America. And what next came out of his little girl’s mouth stunned him and his wife, for it was clear that the teacher had been undermining all the positive things in our history generations have died to protect. He continued, saying, “We’re appalled! And are wondering whether or not to pull her out of school now—or wait until later. . . . Quite candidly, we’re at sea. We need counsel. What do you think we ought to do?”

For the rest of our meeting, little else was talked about. Reason being that, even those of us older than he, were so flabbergasted by the dilemma he and his wife faced that I’m afraid we weren’t much help.

But I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Not long afterwards my attention was caught by a Wall Street Journal headline: “The Golf Shot Heard Round the World,” a column written by David Feith (issue of April 6-7).

The story began with a 2010 golf game during which philanthropist Thomas Klingenstein got acquainted with Barry Mills, the president of the highly respected liberal arts Bowdoin College in Maine. During their far-ranging discussion, the subject of “diversity” came up. In a later article for the Claremont Review of Books, Klingenstein wrote, “I explained my disapproval of ‘diversity’ as it has generally been implemented on college campuses: too much celebration of racial and ethnic difference,” coupled with “not enough celebration of our common American identity.”

For this, wrote Mr. Klingenstein, Bowdoin’s president insinuated he was a racist, and the debate heated up from that point on. It so happened that Mr. Klingenstein was now curious enough about what was being taught at Bowdoin to commission, at his own expense, researchers from the National Association of Scholars to dig deeply into the matter. So deep that only now, a year and a half and hundreds of pages of documentation later, the report is out. The data was distilled from speeches by Bowdoin presidents and deans, formal statements of the college’s principles, official faculty reports and notes of faculty meetings, academic course lists and syllabi, books and articles by professors, the archive of the Bowdoin Orient newspaper, and more. “They analyzed the school’s history back to its founding in 1794, focusing on the past 45 years—during which, they argued, Bowdoin’s character changed dramatically for the worse.”

This report, according to David Feith, “demonstrates how Bowdoin has become an intellectual monoculture dedicated above all to identity politics.”

“The school’s ideological pillars would likely be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to American higher education lately. There’s the obsession with race, class, gender and sexuality as the essential forces of history and markers of political identity. There’s the dedication to ‘sustainability,’ or saving the planet from its imminent destruction by the forces of capitalism. And there are the paeans to ‘global citizenship,’ or loving all countries except one’s own.”

“The Klingenstein report also offers specifics: Bowdoin ‘has no curricular requirements that center on the American founding or the history of the nation.’ Even history majors aren’t required to take a single course in American history. In the History Department, no course is devoted to American political, military, diplomatic, or intellectual history—the only ones available are organized around some aspect of race, class, gender or sexuality.

“One of the few requirements is that Bowdoin students take a year long freshman seminar. Some of the 37 seminars offered this year: ‘Affirmative Action and U.S. Society,’ ‘Fictions of Freedom,” ‘Racism,’ ‘Queer Gardens (which examine the works of gay and lesbian gardeners and traces how marginal identities find expression in specific garden spaces,’), sexual life of Colonialism,’ and ‘Modern Western Prostitutes.’

“Regarding Bowdoin professors, the report estimates that ‘four or five out of approximately 182 full-time faculty members might be described as politically conservative. In the 2012 election cycle, 100% of faculty donations went to President Obama.”

* * *

There’s more. But, considering that Bowdoin represents the norm rather than the exception to the rule in higher education today, I can offer little consolation to the distraught member of my service club.

What I can’t get over is being able to graduate from a prestigious liberal arts college, earning a degree in history, without taking so much as one course in American history!

IN CONCLUSION

But, let’s return to the beginning of this blog, and the heartbreaking question that father posed to us—how should I have answered him? How would you have answered him?