Friday, October 16, 2009

Are teachers too sensitive?

~From Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham, page 154:

The positive comments [on another teacher’s teaching] should outnumber the negative ones.  I know that principle seems corny, because when listening to positive comments a teacher can’t help but think, “He is saying that only because he knows he is supposed to say something positive.”  Even so, positive comments remind the teacher that she is doing a log of things right, and those things should be acknowledged and reinforced.

In this section of the book, the author is talking about how teachers can improve their teaching by recording themselves, viewing the recordings with other teachers, and commenting on other teachers’ teaching.

I find this paragraph, and the paragraphs surrounding it, to be pretty corny, as the author says they might.  But I think the author is just trying to defend teachers (after all, the book’s target audience is teachers).  There are, in my experience, plenty of teachers who do very little right.  (And some who do nothing right.)

But what I really don’t like about the paragraphs is how sensitive they make teachers seem.  The teachers will get the same amount of money on their paycheck no matter how many students hate them.  They don’t get graded, and they don’t get assigned homework by students in subject areas that don’t interest them.  I’m not saying that teaching is one of the easiest jobs in the world, but in a teacher-student relationship, I think being on the teacher side is the easier side.  Disclaimer: I am not, have never been, and doubt I ever will be a teacher.  But I have plenty of experience being a miserable student.

So this whole “be more positive than negative” message just makes me think “oh please, gimme a break!”  Would you say that teachers should be more positive than negative in feedback to their students, even when they completely fail a test?


Experience is not practice

~From Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham, page 149:

Until now, I have been a bit casual in how I have talked about practice.  I have made it sound synonymous with experience.  It is not.  Experience means you are simply engaged in the activity.  Practice means you are trying to improve your performance.  For example, I’m not an especially good driver, even though I’ve been driving for about thirty years.  Like most people my age, I’m experienced—that is, I’ve done a lot of driving—but I’m not well practiced, because for almost all of that thirty years I didn’t try to improve.

Just a good thing to keep in mind.


AI: American Intelligence

~From Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham, page 131:

Americans, like other Westerners, view intelligence as a fixed attribute, like eye color.  If you win the genetic lottery, you’re smart; but if you lose, you’re not.  This notion of intelligence as fixed by genetics has implications for school and work.  One implication is that smart people shouldn’t need to work hard in order to get good grades—after all, they are smart.  As a corollary, if you work hard, that must mean you’re not smart.  The destructive cycle is obvious: students want to get good grades so that they look smart, but they can’t study to do so because that marks them as dumb.  In China, Japan, and other Eastern countries, intelligence is more often viewed as malleable.

I don’t really like that generalization of how “Americans view intelligence” especially since I’m sure a lot of Americans don’t view it that way at all.  When I was in school, I knew the reason I didn’t get perfect grades was because I didn’t study quite enough (because I didn’t care that much about getting the best grades, and I certainly didn’t care about some of the material).  And it was kind of liberating to know this, since it meant my grades didn’t necessarily reflect on my “intelligence” ... they reflected how much I studied, which reflected how much I really cared about getting a good grade.  If I wanted awesome grades, I could work for them and get them.  But it wouldn’t really be worth it for me.  (Similarly, that I can’t play the piano doesn’t really bother me because I know I could learn if I wanted to put in the work and practice.  And someday I might...)

So, while I agree with the view that intelligence is malleable, I don’t think realizing this necessarily leads students to better grades, especially if they don’t care about “looking smart,” as I certainly didn’t.  (To a degree, at least.)

In fact, perhaps more students than the author realizes share the view that intelligence is malleable.  Sometimes when students say “I’m not going to study, it’s a sign that I’m dumb!” is really just an excuse to not study because it’s hard uninteresting work, and “looking smart” is just not worth it.  Easier to accept the label of “dumb” and just not work as hard.  Lowers everyone’s expectations too.


Everyone’s special ... and smart

~From Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham, page 127:

I am willing to bet you have heard someone say, “Every student is intelligent in some way,” or ask students to identify “What kind of smart are you?”  I think teachers say this in an effort to communicate an egalitarian attitude to students: everyone is good at something.  But there are a couple of reasons to be leery of this attitude.  First, this sort of statement rubs me the wrong way because it implies that intelligence brings value.  Every child is unique and valuable, whether or not they are intelligent or have much in the way of mental ability.


Third, for reasons I describe in the next chapter, it is never smart to tell a child that she’s smart.  Believe it or not, doing so makes her less smart.  Really.

I’m not sure telling a child they are smart necessarily makes them dumber, but I can definitely understand how someone telling you that you’re smart can have an effect on how you compare your intelligence to everyone else’s, as if it can indeed be measured and compared, as if that measure has value, and as if you have some appearance of intelligence that you should uphold.

So ... and I definitely agree with this quote, and I think it’s a good thing to remember.


Cognitive equipment to compose music

~From Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham, page 109:

A music class may well emphasize practice and proper technique, but it may also encourage students to compose their own works simply because the students would find it fun and interesting.  Is such practice necessary or useful in order for students to think like musicians?  Probably not.  Beginning students do not yet have the cognitive equipment in place to compose, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have a great time doing so, and that may well be reason enough.

I think there’s this notion that playing music on an instrument (violin, piano, whatever) and composing are more similar than they truly are.  Yes, they both have to do with music, and they both require thinking about music in a certain way, but performing on an instrument is much more of a motor skill.  Composing music never makes you a better performer.  And performing doesn’t necessarily make you a better composer (though I think it can help you recognize patterns in music that already exists, which can help).

I have met some performers who don’t compose at all, and I know there are composers out there like me who can’t really play an instrument.

“Teaching music” is a bit ambiguous.  Composing, performing, and music theory are all different aspects.


Irrelevance is irrelevant

~From Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham, page 65:

Is the Epic of Gilgamesh relevant to students in a way they can understand right now?  Is trigonometry?  Making these topics relevant to students’ lives will be a strain, and students will probably think it’s phony.  Second, if I can’t convince students that some material is relevant, does that mean I shouldn’t teach it?  If I’m continually trying to build bridges between students’ daily lives and their school subjects, the students may get the message that school is always about them, whereas I think there is value, interest, and beauty in learning about things that don’t have much to do with me.

And you wonder “Why Don’t Students Like School”?  If you find “value, interest, and beauty” in learning about things that don’t have much to do with you, doesn’t that “value, interest, and beauty” MAKE IT HAVE TO DO WITH YOU?!  If students don’t find any “value, interest, and beauty” in subjects they will never use, it’s just too bad for them, because you do?  And, what, is school not always about students?  When is it about something else?  Is it for teachers, who get paid instead of graded?

It’s the author once again not wanting to face the ultimate criticism of modern day education: that a lot of the crap taught just isn’t important.  So he says “well, I’m certainly interested in subjects that I don’t necessarily use everyday.”  Well, whoop-a-dee-doo-da!  You’re going to force everyone else to spend time with those subjects for that reason?


The Importance of Knowledge

~From Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham, page 35:

I began this chapter with a quotation from Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”  I hope you are now persuaded that Einstein was wrong.  Knowledge is more important, because it’s a prerequisite for imagination, or at least for the sort of imagination that leads to problem solving, decision making, and creativity.


I don’t know why some great thinkers (who undoubtedly knew many facts) took delight in denigrating schools, often depicting them as factories for useless memorization of information.  I suppose we are to take these remarks as ironic, or at least interesting, but I for one don’t need brilliant, highly capable minds telling me (and my children) how silly it is to know things.

I think the author is missing the point of these quotes.  These “brilliant minds” are not saying that knowledge is completely unimportant, as the author seems to be inferring.  How did these thinkers gain the knowledge that was important to them?  They sought it out themselves.  Yes, knowledge may be a requirement for imagination to work well, but that doesn’t mean just shoving any old facts into your head is necessarily going to help.  Imagination, creativity, decision making ... these processes will lead you to knowledge that will be useful.

Now, obviously some material taught in schools is important to everyone, such as knowing basic math, how to read, how to communicate within our traditional rules of grammar, etc.  But over the years, society has collectively shoved more and more information into schools, information that can be both of no interest or use to students.  Teachers, and perhaps this author, might argue “well, students might use it one day!”  So what?  You could say that about a lot of material that isn’t being taught in schools.

I can’t get into the minds of Einstein and Mark Twain and such and defend what they really meant when they spoke about their thoughts on schooling, but rather than viewing their quotes as “denigrating the importance of factual knowledge” (as the author thinks), I view them as defending the notion that not all knowledge is useful knowledge, and the idea of forcing students to learn a specific amount of knowledge for little reason (or just because they might use it someday) is simply stupid.  Knowledge is more useful, easier to gain, and more worthwhile gaining when the student has interest and purpose in gaining it.  Force-feeding calculus and chemistry and history and physics to minds that will only forget it with disuse is a complete waste of time.

I like to think that that’s why some “brilliant minds” are not so enthusiastic about schooling.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Google books might be evil

~From What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis, pages 143:

Publishers treat Google as an enemy for scanning books and making them searchable (though you can't read them all cover-to-cover at Instead, publishers should embrace Google and the internet, for now via search and links more readers can discover authors and what they say and develop relationships and perhaps buy their books. Authors can reach the huge audience that never goes into a bookstore. Publishers and authors can find new ways to bring books into the conversation. Books can live longer and spread their messages wider. I don't have the answers to books' challenges. But I know we must be willing to reinvent the form. The internet won't destory books. It will improve them. Take Coelho's advice to publishers and authors: "Don't be afraid."

For some reason, I'm not so comfortable with what Google is doing with books here. Some problems I see:

1) Am I allowed to go into a library or bookstore and just start scanning, copying, and saving books, even if just for my own personal use? Isn't that against copyright? Why should Google get to do it if we all don't get to do it?

2) If I write or publish a book, why should Google make any money off of it? Just because they have the audiences and the search tools? All right, that might not be a bad deal, but again, if Google gets to do it, do we all?


How innovation is made

~From What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis, page 113:

In 2008, I joined a seminar on innovation at the World Economic Forum at Davos. It was a highly formatted hour, with the entire room sitting in a circle (making the moderator dizzy). They had us write down the technology we loved most. Then we compared notes with a neighbor and came up with some neat invention out of this mashup. We heard a few cute ideas and then, thank goodness, a scientist in the room put a stop to it. This, he said, is not how innovation is made. Scientists start with a problem and then try to find a solution.

I agree that that is not how innovation is made. But I don't think it necessarily starts with a problem either. I think it starts off with someone saying "Wouldn't it be cool if ..." That might solve a problem, but it might just be something someone thinks would be cool, neat, fun. Then it can solve problems people didn't even know they had as new ways to behave emerge.

That said, "innovation" alone doesn't automatically lead to success, but I suppose that's a different topic. Don't innovate merely for the sake of innovation. Innovate because you think "it'd be cool if..." something.


Mistakes aren't good

~From What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis, page 91:

We are ashamed to make mistakes--as well we should be, yes? It's our job to get things right, right? So, when we make mistakes, our instinct is to shrink into a ball and wish them away. Correcting errors, though necessary, is embarrassing.

But the truth about truth is itself counterintuitive: Corrections do not diminish credibility. Corrections enhance credibility. Standing up and admitting your errors makes you more believable; it gives your audience faith that you will right your future wrongs. When companies apologize for bad performance--as JetBlue did after keeping passengers on tarmacs for hours--that tells us that they know their performance wasn't up to their standard, and we have a better idea of the standard we should expect.

Yeah... um... no. I think it's important for individuals to admit mistakes to themselves and get past any personal pride. It can also sound ridiculous when you hear someone who you know was wrong make excuses ("well, what I really meant was blah blah blah" ... "well, I don't know, it wasn't like that for me, blah blah blah" *cough* you know who you are *cough*). But the point isn't to admit mistakes, it's to not make them. If (or when) you make them, it's best to hide them, if you can. If it's already very obvious you made a mistake, the damage to your reputation is already done. Trying to make excuses or not admitting the mistake when it's obvious only damages your reputation further.

However, sometimes whether or not something was a mistake is a subjective thing. Was it a mistake to go to war with Iraq? Some say yes, and then they say that it should be admitted by everybody. Well, no! Some people honestly don't believe that. And when people are arguing over whether or not something was a mistake, admitting it was is a stupid thing to do. If you admit a mistake, your opponents won't say "Well, at least you're honest!" ... no, they say "Aha! Even you admit it, you mistake-making loser!" ... and if you don't admit it, all they can do is continue to disagree with you.

So . . . whether or not it's wise to admit a mistake I believe depends on the circumstances. Do others all agree that you made a mistake? Is there anyone you can effectively blame? Are there any excuses that might work? Do not just let "admitting the mistake" be the first thing you do. The situation and the possible consequences must be considered.

In the more personal realm, unless you know everything, you are definitely wrong about a lot of things. Admitting your incomplete knowledge to yourself is always a good thing. After all, it's usually not admitting your incomplete knowledge to yourself that gets you in to making mistakes in the first place.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Consciousness makes no sense

~From Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique by Michael S. Gazzaniga, pages 320-321:

I was recently asked by a Time magazine reporter, "If we could build a robot or an android that duplicated the processes behind human consciousness, would it actually be conscious?"


Underlying this question is the assumption that consciousness reflects some kind of process that brings all of our zillions of thoughts into a special energy and reality called personal or phenomenal consciousness. That is not how it works. Consciousness is an emergent property and not a process in and of itself. When one tastes salt, for example, the consciousness of taste an emergent property of the sensory system, not the combination of elements that make up table salt. Our cognitive capacities, memories, dreams, and so on reflect distributed processes throughout the brain, and each of those entities produces its own emergent states of consciousness.

In closing, remember this one fact. A split-brain patient, a human who has had the two halves of his brain disconnected from each other, does not find one side of the brain missing the other.

Some people theorize that any sort of feedback loop at all is conscious. I'm really not sure about that, but this twist on how we think about consciousness is still hard to wrap the mind around. Splitting the brain does not split consciousness, and I think that's confusing in and of itself. What if we split the brain even more? Well, that'd probably kill people... but there is not one part of the brain that is the "conscious" part. Consciousness arises from a bunch of other systems. And, if you really get down to it, isn't consciousness just atoms moving around? It really makes no sense.


Apples and oranges

~From Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique by Michael S. Gazzaniga, pages 250-251:

Harvard researchers Alfonso Caramazza and Jennifer Shelton claim that there are domain-specific knowledge systems for animate and inanimate categories that have distinct neural mechanisms. Indeed, there are patients with brain damage who are very poor at recognizing animals but not man-made artifacts, and vice versa. If you have a lesion in one spot, you can't tell a tiger from an Airedale, and if it is in another spot, the telephone becomes mysterious object. There are even people with brain lesions that make them specifically unable to recognize fruit.

For such people, the expression "apples and oranges" means nothing!

Interesting stuff... and weird...


People don't think

~From Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique by Michael S. Gazzaniga, pages 141-142:

Even when we are trying to think rationally, we may not be. Research has shown that people will use the first argument that satisfies their opinion and then stop thinking. David Perkins, a Harvard psychologist, calls this the "makes sense" rule. However, what people consider makes sense varies widely. It is the difference between anecdotal evidence (an isolated story that presumes a cause and effect) and factual evidence (a proven cause and effect). For instance, a woman may believe birth control pills will make her sterile, because her aunt took birth control pills in the past, and now she can't get pregnant. Anecdotal evidence, one story, was all she needed to support her opinion, and it made sense. ... Predominantly, people use anecdotal evidence.

I think it was in Taleb's book called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable that Taleb mentions confirmation bias. When people have an argument, they tend to only consider evidence that supports their belief. Instead, people should always be trying to prove themselves wrong. If you do that, you have admit all the times you're wrong (at least to yourself), but you'll become right more often! Or at least you won't be believing wrong things.

I think Taleb also mentioned that this sort of thought is needed to play chess. When you think about your next move, you have to consider all the moves your component could do that could ruin your plans. If you just moved without thinking about how your opponent could ruin you, you'd be ruined pretty quickly, unless your opponent was just as dumb as you.


Men are naturally better

~From Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique by Michael S. Gazzaniga, page 69:

Wrangham [professor of biological anthropology at Harvard] reports that observational studies have found chimps to be patriarchal. Males are dominant, inherent territory, raid and kill their neighbors, and gain the spoils (not only increased foraging, but neighboring females), but they also are killed if they lose their territory. Females, however, gain a different advantage. They can remain in their territory and continue to forage by simply changing allegiance to the conquering band. They remain alive to reproduce again, whereas the male is killed. OK, so chimps are patrilineal, but what about humans?

Wrangham reviews the ethnographic records, studies of modern-day primitive peoples, and archeological finds to show that humans are, and always have been, a patrilineal society, regardless of what some feminist organizations assert. ... It has been argued that this patriarchy is a cultural invention, but a new field of study, branded evolutionary feminism, views patriarchy as a part of human biology.

So there.

Though this makes sense, as I don't recall knowing about any matriarchal societies, besides made-up ones. I often hear that Jesus called God "the Father" because the society he lived in was patriarchal. Maybe it would be more accurate to say the humans species was, and still is.

But perhaps humans are better at psychologically reversing this natural emergent property by simply being conscious of it and making a mental effort to do so. But I imagine that would be pretty hard unless the society was comprised entirely of females. The farthest we could get is to create a completely equal society that was neither patriarchal nor matriarchal. I imagine that would still be pretty difficult though.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009


~From Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely, page 140:

And in the case of our kids, we give up their time and ours--and the chance that they could become really good at one activity--in trying to give them some experience in a large range of activities. In running back and forth among the things that might be important, we forget to spend enough time on what really is important. It's a fool's game, and one we are remarkably adept at playing.

Yes, it's a good point! I agree! I even think this is one of the problems with education: it tries to teach too much. I once met someone on our school board who was just this blindly stupid. He seemed to think that the more classes one can stuff in a school, the more "well-rounded" a student is, the better off he'll be. Well... NO! Okay, "well-rounded" is good, but I think forcing students to take too many classes in too many subjects just makes them "poorly-rounded" and that doesn't help. It helps to have focus. FOCUS! Don't just try to take in everything. You can't. Focus on something.


Monday, February 23, 2009

Forcing kids to learn

~From Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely, pages 85-86:

So how can we improve the educational system? We should probably first rethink school curricula, and link them in more obvious ways to social goals (elimination of poverty and crime, elevation of human rights, etc.), technological goals (boosting energy conservation, space exploration, nanotechnology, etc.), and medical goals (cures for cancer, diabetes, obesity, etc.) that we care about as a society. This way the students, teachers, and parents might see the larger point in education and become more enthusiastic and motivated about it. We should also work hard on making education a goal in itself, and stop confusing the number of hours students spend in school with the quality of the education they get. Kids can get excited about many things (baseball, for example), and it is our challenge as a society to make them want to know as much about Nobel laureates as they now know about baseball players. I am not suggesting that igniting social passion for education is simple; but if we succeed in doing so, the value could be immense.

While I'm not sure "making education a goal in itself" makes much sense, I do overall agree with this statement. I think this sort of goes with the quote I posted right below this one, about how when we're forced to do things they don't seem quite as nice. So much of school seems like "forcing kids to learn" and as a result they don't like it. I think a lot of parents and teachers don't even question it; they had to go to school, so it must be a good thing. But I believe there are quite a few ways that can make a child be more interested in his or her own education, such as giving them more control over what they're learning, getting rid of so much strict testing, and getting rid of the strict-grading system which obscures the real reasons behind learning. It's like when a child asks his parents "why do I have to do such-and-such?" and the parent says "because I said so!" That is a DUMB nonsense reason, and any parent who says that is a BAD parent, for that moment at least. Have a REAL reason and be honest; let's not be stupid!

On a side note, I think the "moodiness" of teenagers is caused almost entirely by being forced to do things all the time that don't matter them: go to school, do your homework, do your chores, go to bed. If parents and teachers lived in the same restrictive environment teenagers do and were forced to go to school, do homework, etc., they'd be just as moody! It has nothing to do with hormones and changing brains and all that crap. But I think teenagers grow up, become adults, and forget the real reasons they were miserable, continuing the cycle. :-(


Enjoying work?

~From Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely, pages 42-43:

Of course, Mark Twain came to the same conclusions: "If Tom had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do." Mark Twain further observed: "There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line in the summer because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work, and then they would resign."

This is more of a quote within a quote, because my post here is really in response to what Mark Twain said. I don't think what he said implies that a price can be stuck on anything at all and people will then be willing to pay for it; humans are not absolute complete idiots. However, how we view what we do is affected by why we think we're doing it. I've observed this first-hand with some of my hobbies, especially computer programming. I enjoy the act of programming when I feel that I'm in control, when I feel that I'm programming something for my own self-interest. But when I know I'm doing it for homework, as an assignment, it instantly becomes dreadful work that I hate doing. It makes no sense, I'm doing the same dang thing, why oh why do I suddenly begin hating it? I've observed it, but it seems there's really nothing I can do to change what I feel. Even though I know it's all psychology, I just can't trick myself into enjoying it if I feel like I don't have a choice. I wish there was a way I could but I haven't discovered it. And this goes for even something like cleaning my room. If I decided to clean my room, the task didn't make me very angry, but if my parents then commanded me to clean my room, it turned into a chore, and I began hating it in the middle of doing it. That really makes no sense if you think about it, but that's how my psychology works, and I can't think of any way to change it. :-(


Saturday, March 1, 2008

Society is not Newtonian physics

~From Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Anotherby Philip Ball, page 30:

There are few political thinkers who have defined a social model with the logical precision of Hobbes, and none who have carried those precepts through to their conclusions in a truly scientific, rather than suppositional way. This is not by any means to denigrate such models; rather, it is simply to say that their approach is different. Political theorists tend to concern themselves with what they think ought to be; scientists concentrate on the way things are. The same is true of the new physics of society: it seeks to find descriptions of observed social phenomena and to understand how they might arise from simple assumptions.

Whoa, don't give Hobbes's lame attempt too much credit... trying to be scientific is not the same as being scientific. If Hobbes started off with such silly and scientifically baseless axioms as "people remain in motion," then he's really being no more "scientific" than anyone else. Isn't he still concerning himself with what ought to be the axioms?


Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hobbes the fool

~From Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Anotherby Philip Ball, page 17:

On meeting the great man [Galileo], Hobbes became convinced that [intertia] must be the axiom he was seeking [to form a fundemental hypothesis about human behavior]. Constant motion was the natural state of all things, including people. All human sensations and emotions, he concluded, were the result of motion. From this basic principle Hobbes would work upward to a theory of society.

I didn't know Hobbes was that foolish... to take the physical property of inertia and just decide it must apply to human thought?! Where in the world does that axiom come from?! I can understand how the human mind is like a computer, a very simple notion nowadays, and the notion that it "remains in motion" might have some merit, but it's Hobbes's logic that I find surprising... he learns something about physics and just decides to apply it humans in way that its meaning changes so much its basis in physics is almost meaningless. Give me a break, Hobbes, you fool!


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Fairy Tales

~From The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Storiesby Christopher Booker, page 11:

Over the past 100 years innumerable attempts have been made to interpret myths, folk tales and other stories in this way, from Ernest Jones's essay analysing Hamlet as another example of the Oedipal triangle to Dr Bruno Bettelheim's The Use of Enchantment analysing the reasons for the appeal and value of the old fairy tales to the children of today.

Kind of in an unrelated point, I don't think "children of today" have any particular craving for one type of story or another; what types of stories they hear are largely decided by adults. A best-selling children's picture book does not imply that children love that book the most, it's sales are determined by parents who decide to buy the book! Similarly, Shakespeare's continued popularity is, I believe, in large part due its continued teaching in school. Hamlet sales would plummet if high school students suddenly no longer had to write essays on it. It would be wrong to conclude that there's something special about Shakespeare's work just because of book sales and the fact that every high schooler has heard of him.

In other words, popularity is an emergent property that does not necessarily correlate with the presence of specific recognizable attributes. (It might, it might not.)