When I read about school committees cutting music, art, sports, and skill-building programs to make room for more math and science classes, I groan inwardly at the thought of how we teach our kids to live conceptual lives in a conceptualized world, as if the world of detailed sensory-motor experience didn’t matter or even exist. As if test scores and right answers are the measures of a good education, not experience, engagement, fascination, or enjoyment.

We teach our kids to “know” what a small, select segment of the adult population already knows, not to lead their own lives and draw their own conclusions from their streams of unique experience. We train for entry-level jobs in favored industries as if we could tell the future, not for leading a life in unpredictable times, which would be closer to what is likely to happen. As once we trained farm girls to tend whirling spindles in textile mills through New England, jobs that no longer exist because we have automated them and shipped them overseas.

This is exactly parallel to our reaching out to new experience from the vantage of where we’ve already been, rather than taking pains to explore what is presently before us. Projecting our remembrances onto the now, seeing in terms of the past—how does that serve as adequate preparation for welcoming a future we cannot predict in advance?

We know that Steve Jobs would have been a misfit in the days of James Watt, Thomas Edison, or Henry Ford. We need to help our children live in a world we cannot see from where we stand today. The task facing every generation is to learn to be open to possibilities raised by novel situations, today and forever.

If we insist on clamping what we already know now onto the minds of the young, condemning them to relive the lives their teachers have already lived, how are they going to find the essential freedom, imagination, skills, and curiosity to lead lives of their own in their own times?

In truth, education must allow for a high degree of uncertainty in how it is to be put to use. Its goal must ever be teaching the young to experience and to think for themselves in the many unknown situations they will surely face. Some of those situations will be similar to the ones we have known, but they will also differ in many respects.

Heading into the unknown with resources that can be brought to bear no matter what, that is the gift of the true education we owe to our children. Making them into copies of employees we need today in our workplaces—that condemns them to a life of frustration and inadequacy in falling short of becoming their own unique selves.

 

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In novel situations, we lack preparation for what we are likely to perceive, so lack the proper orientation for making sense of what is to follow. We can be slow to catch on to what’s happening because perception has to start cold without a boost from memory providing glimpses of likely situations.

When Pierre Monteux premiered Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on a French ballet program in 1913, the audience had never heard anything remotely like it, so was famously outraged at having sounds and rhythms they were not prepared for thrust upon them. They had no way of engaging such music, so rebelled against it because their expectations were thwarted and few could find a way into it, or let it into them. Now, a hundred years later, audiences seek out that same music because they find it so exciting.

We may be expert at seeing what we are trained or accustomed to see, but seeing the novel and unexpected means having to learn our way through solving problems by extensive training or trial and error, which takes careful attention, scrutiny, and double-checking our surmises. If we are lucky, we have been prepared by experience to be cautious in just such situations, to put ourselves out so we can take our environments in. Institutions and situations that prepare us for doing that make up the bulk of our educational and job-training systems.

 

“Reification” is a five-dollar word that means turning an idea in the mind into a material thing. The verbs “specify,” “objectify,” “incorporate,” “substantiate,” “materialize,” or “realize” might serve as well (though that’s not how we typically use them). In the case of misidentifying Fred, what I did in my mind was reify, “impersonate,” “incarnate,” “or embody” a stranger as my friend.

Watching plays, films, and TV serials, we believe in the characters so much that we forget they are actors playing roles scripted in advance. We are completely taken in, or rather, take ourselves in, wanting to believe in the plot as an actual event unfolding before our eyes. The reification of God from being a concept in the human mind to the so-called creator, prime mover, and ruler of the universe serves as the archest example of the elevation of an idea from subjective to objective status in the history of the world, which exhibits the power of the human imagination in believing what it chooses to believe.

We do not simply look at a scene and see what is laid out before our eyes. Perception is a creative act, a fitting-together of details into a pattern we are prepared to recognize. Prepared by having seen it before many times or accompanied by strong emotion so that we build pathways in our brains by strengthening the synapses that link them together to form a route blazed with recognizable features (color, size, shape, contour, motion, texture, location, etc.). If a particular array of features can be recalled as a unit, then we are likely to remember it when we meet it again. Expecting to see something in a certain locale, we open our minds to just that thing so we are more likely to see it when we come across something that might resemble it.

The key point is to have something in mind before we come across it, in mind as a particular structure within our neural network of interconnected neurons and cortical columns. Expectancy gives priority and ready access to just that mental structure, saving a huge amount of time and effort in suiting ourselves to our worldly environment and, conversely, that environment to us.

 

356. Believing Is Seeing

November 12, 2014

When my family moved to Seattle in late August of 1947, I was eager to see the Rocky Mountains for the first time. As we drove west through flatlands in eastern Colorado, I expectantly peered from the back seat through the windshield, but saw only low clouds blocking my view of any mountains. The clouds grew taller as we approached, and for half-an-hour I grew more desperate to view the Rockies. At last, when I began seeing trees and valleys among the clouds, I realized that I had seen the Rockies all along, but their being snow-covered in late August prevented me from recognizing what I was looking at. Had it been winter, I would have seen them sooner. My summer expectations got in the way of my seeing.

It’s not so much that seeing is believing as just the reverse: believing is seeing (or hearing). “It’s true if you think so,” says Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello. We see “what our prejudices presume to be there,” says Thoreau. Travelers on Cape Cod once reported a black man holding a white man at knifepoint by the side of the road, a scene that turned out to be a reporter from a local radio station holding a microphone to the lips of a man he was interviewing. In going through old National Geographics from the nineteen-teens and twenties, I have come across photographs of bare-breasted African women nursing babies under the title, “Black Madonna,” suggesting a verbal veil of social acceptability to make the image suitable for a prudish and mostly White middle-class readership.

While once taking dishes out of the drainer and putting them away, I stepped back to get around an open cupboard door—and heard the yeowl of an angry cat accusing me of stepping on its tail, and “saw” that very cat, gray, calm, and unaccusing, looking up at me from the floor for several minutes after the event, when, in fact, I hadn’t lived with a cat for over twenty years, had no cat at the time, and had merely brushed the cupboard door so that a hinge, which had never made a sound, squeaked at me, which I immediately interpreted as the yeowl I had heard, the entire event being a fiction created in the instant on the basis of the activation of a pathway in my brain that had been laid down years ago when I had in fact stepped on several real cats, none of which had been gray, long gone but apparently not forgotten as patterns of sight and sound lodged in my brain.

(I wrote that in one sentence because in my mind it is all one continuous incident.)

 

I have lived in my current apartment for fifteen years, so have a lot of experience looking down at the linoleum floor in the bathroom, laid down to look like ceramic tiles featuring swirling, abstract patterns in three shades of brown. Over the years, I have acquired a repertory of figures I recognize in those tiles, mostly faces, bodies, and animals. My favorite looks like a clown wearing a three-cornered hat, reminding me of one of the Three Musketeers, who looks up at me while I am sitting on the toilet. I never see it as twice the same, but it is always based on the same pattern of swirls in light, medium, and dark brown linoleum within one particular four-inch square. The pattern is there on the floor to see, but the familiar figure I make of it is mine alone. I see it not as a mere pattern but as a living clown. Clearly my own creation, a figment within the portion of my neural network activated when a signal spurred by that particular pattern is routed through my visual cortex. I see the clown as emerging from the floor while it is actually a projection of a pattern confined to my brain. As angels, butterflies, and bare breasts emerge from inkblots, and profiles of the Virgin Mary emerge from stained stucco, and grotesque faces presented themselves to Leonardo da Vinci’s sharp eye from stained walls he scrutinized during the Renaissance.

If we claim such figures to be there in the patterns before us, we are profoundly mistaken. The figures are what we make of them in our minds, what we take them to be, what we project upon them in seeing them as something they obviously are not. I have written about seeing my friend Fred walking ahead of me up Fifth Avenue in New York, of pursuing him at a rapid pace, sure from the gait, raglan overcoat, heavy cordovan shoes, woven scarf, that it was my friend from high school days—to discover when I came abreast of him and was about to clap him on the back that I had been chasing an impostor, a man whose face looked nothing like the Fred I knew at all. Stunned, I stood on the busy sidewalk amid the passing horde, lost in a reverie about how sad I was to have made such a mistake.

My understanding of my own mind rests on committing my mental resources to working through the run of situations that arise and evolve in daily life. That commitment is what I mean by engaging the world beyond the limits of my bodily envelope.

Baseball offers one such medium of engagement based on the commitment to engage another team by playing a certain role both offensively as a batter and defensively as pitcher, catcher, infielder, or outfielder in a manner that conforms to the rules of the game.

Jazz offers another medium of engagement for playing a particular instrument in rehearsing and performing in a certain traditional style or idiom of music. Ballet is a third medium, and so on through a host of others including poetry, literature, theater, film, art, gardening, politics, religion, finance, science, technology, education, and so on. All opening me to various ways of performing in my daily engagement with the world, and so surviving the best I can as the sort of person I am.

All media are disciplined ways of being conscious in the world, and of engaging accordingly, perceiving in certain ways, judging in certain ways, performing in certain ways. What all such media of being conscious share in common is the commitment to and expression of mental situations as they arise and evolve. Those situations themselves are largely shaped by the medium chosen for their apt expression. Some situations are appropriate to ballet, jazz, or baseball, respectively. Others require treatment in media offering other disciplined ways of being oneself.

Fueled by a range of emotion, memories, biological values, understandings, imaginings, impressions, beliefs, and other dimensions of personal experience, our situated intelligence—what we gloss as our inner selves—guides and coordinates our judgments, actions, and perception in engaging the world in a manner we find personally appropriate, meaningful, and satisfying (or to some degree not).

We are as we engage, and engage as we discover ourselves situated within the dimensions of our lifelong intelligence, training, and experience. That’s life. The adventure, journey, odyssey we commit ourselves to for precisely one lifetime.

The flow of situations through the mind makes up what we call a story, complete with beginning, middle, and end. Each baseball player in a given game lives his own story from the perspective of his defensive position on the field and offensive turns at bat. The story of the game as a whole is a compilation of the stories lived by the individual players (characters) as woven into a coherent narrative binding the high points of separate plays into a pattern making up the flow of collective experience from first to last inning.

The basic organization (plot) of the 2014 World Series as played out in Kansas City (beginning and end) and San Francisco (middle) is based on the conflicting motivations of two teams from different regions each dedicated to defeating the other. Conflict between worthy adversaries is at the heart of every game of baseball (football, basketball, soccer, cricket, chess, bridge, etc.) That is, each game is meant to display the similarities and differences between two teams playing by the same rules under identical circumstances, the score giving a measure of their relative strengths and weaknesses on a particular occasion.

Which is a gross generalization when put into words, while each game of baseball is based on specific comparisons played out on the field: strike or ball, fair or foul, safe or out, left or right, on or off, fast or slow, stop or go, ahead or behind, win or lose. Each game is told by its experiential specifics at the time of play, not its watered-down statistics after the fact.

The drama is in the setting up, enacting, and fulfillment of one play after another in the stream of each player’s consciousness. The game exists in the subjective experience of all in attendance, not in the record books which are dry summaries stacked on shelves.

What we notice at the time are the contrasts that test our expectancies for better or worse, falling short in disappointment or exceeding in joy at the way thing turn out. That’s where the excitement and adventure lie—in the difference between what we expect and what happens on the field. Every play sprouts from the soil prepared by preceding plays. Each game is organic, not factual or statistical. It lives in the minds of those who witness it. Those fully present to each play as it unfolds.

Baseball plays right into the arms of consciousness, which thrives on contrasts, differences, oppositions, disparities, and surprises. Pea soup is an apt metaphor for fog because it’s the same all around us, masking the beacons and landmarks we need to navigate by. Baseball wakes us up. It is nothing but landmarks for navigating the bases, infield, outfield. Keep your eye on the ball and act accordingly. Singles, doubles, triples, home runs—these are the outstanding features of baseball, along with pitches, catches, throws, swings, hits, misses, walks, bunts, stolen bases, outs, and errors. You never know what the next pitch will bring.

In game 7, Mike Moustakas’ triple with two out in the bottom of the ninth sent an electric jolt through every mind in the park. As Pablo Sandoval’s catch a few heartbeats later gave an even bigger jolt, clinching a year of champion pride for the Giants, a year of regretful determination for the Royals.

Those jolts are what baseball is all about. Showing what you can do. Playing to make a difference. Distinguishing yourself in a field of worthy rivals. That is the essential story of our living our lives on this Earth. Not eliminating the competition as in warfare, but bringing it up to your level so you can both do your best, even if at the moment one comes in first and the other second.