Education and Genius: Boredom and Learning

If you are having a conversation with someone and you find yourself struck with boredom, chances are it is not a failure on your part, not a result of your mere laziness. I would bet that the failure rests with the person your speaking to, your interlocutor. I’m under the opinion that there no boring ideas. Just boring people.

After all, we’re sensual creatures. We thrive on stimulation. Nearly all of communication is nonverbal (Knapp). Sight and sound comprise 94% of our sensory inputs, 84% and 11% respectively. The American educator Marva Collins said that “The essence of teaching is to make learning contagious, to have one idea spark another.” I couldn’t agree more. I believe that at the heart of this contagion is a resonating passion, an enthusiasm that generates a visceral reaction, a mutually shared connection with another person.

Regarding education, why do we find that the responsibility for learning and adequate understanding rests with the student? Assuming that students have a vested interest in gaining knowledge of the material, why would we dismiss them as merely lazy or unmotivated when they find it unbearably difficult to fight through boredom and apprehend a classroom lecture?

When a student enters a classroom prepared to learn new material, they begin without a context. Even when reading the text is a prerequisite to coming to class, there is still an absence of ultimate relevant context: why should a student be expected to understand the relevancy and relationships within the context being presented? They shouldn’t. But this is the prevailing attitude maintained by formal education.

The result of an attitude insisting that the better part of learning rests in the hands of the student rather than with the teacher is a system of education where disengaged teachers instruct and lecture to students who are discouraged to engage in critical, mutually beneficial dialog, but sit as semi-passive observers to be inculcated with remote, vague ideas devoid of a context that is immediately relevant to the schema they bring with them to the classroom.

What kind of thinking does this promote? I would bet that the direct manifest of this classroom emphasis produces analytic, auditory-sequential thinking. This type of thinking is rote, routine, automatic, and poor in relevant context necessary for robust comprehension. Outside of what meaning is directly issued by the dictated insistence of the educator, there is no meaning. As a result students know all the words to all the questions, but they fail to ever develop a comprehensive semantic web that poises all the questions, and therefore lack the capacity to critically inquire, to ask original questions, for themselves. The contrary of analytic, auditory-sequential thinking is nonsequential, visuo-spatial thinking characteristic of geometric visions of reality.

I recommend reading Two Ways of Knowing for a preliminary elaboration on the virtues of auditory-sequential learning (left brain hemisphere) versus visuo-spatial learning (right brain hemisphere). To briefly note, highly gifted individuals utilized visuo-spatial thinking, exhibiting greater brain activity in the right brain hemisphere. But allow me to continue this line of thought a little further down. (Also another interesting article on Temporary and Spatial Processing)

Wonder. This word encompasses the attitude of children— model geniuses in their own right. They are absorbed with curiosity, captured with wonder, and intensely interested in the prismatic, multifaceted world around them. Children learn at exponential rates, partly due to their physiological development, but even more importantly, due their excitement for discovering novel experiences and the process of knitting new understandings regarding how these experiences work.

But what happens to that childlike wonder? Where does it go in age? In the past psychologists speculated that the brain is programmed for critical periods of development that allows for exceedingly fast neural growth in childhood that eventually tapers off with age. They posited that brain plasticity and cognitive fluidity wanes as knowledge becomes more crystallized with age. Due to recent research dispelling notions that brain plasticity declines and ceases with the onset of adulthood, and due to my own experience with learning, I do not embrace this paradigm.

Instead I would like to introduce a paradigm that explains how sparkling wonder for the world fades as individuals become more enculturated, as their questions about the world are met with more of the same answers, the same flat predictable responses. The corollary? They grow more desensitized, their brain is starved of stimulation, and their minds slowly harden and calcify into a crystallized understanding of the same old  phenomenon they find themselves routinely bombarded with.

In effect, the loss of childlike wonder, the lack of curiosity for the world and all its treasured enthusiasms for understanding, is a result of mental oppression. Sounds harsh, right? While this may sound like an overt plot by big brother, I assure you it is not. Rather it is the natural progression of culture.

Allow me to digress momentarily and introduce my thoughts on the sociological philosophies of Bourdieu and Althusser.

Bourdieu discusses the phenomenal progression of enculturation that begins before we are born, beginning with a room and crib and name and clothes assigned to us by our parents. As we emerge from the womb and into this world with an open mind, tabula rasa, we adopt the world that has been carved out for us. Aside from the aforementioned articles, our parents may even have an idea of what kind of person we’ll be, what personality and character they believe we should possess, what religion we’ll practice, and maybe even what job they envision us to have one day, perhaps as a doctor, or lawyer, or entrepreneur.  As we grow older, we learn the various cultural conventions that should govern our behavior appropriately within the context of our given family practices, within school, within church, or within the public domain, such as how to think, how to speak, how to act. We are corrected whenever we venture outside the realms of customary convention, such as when we use foul language in certain public settings, and are reprimanded and corrected, otherwise censured.

This external censure slowly becomes adopted and internalized by individuals until they no longer need external ques for regulating inappropriate and appropriate behavior. In a sense, we learn to censure ourselves. We learn the act (or art) of self- censorship. The proper behaviors we adopt are cultural capital endemic to the social or cultural context in which we find ourselves most exposed to and influenced by.

Bourdieu describes this as the habitus, or the set of socially learned dispositions, skills and ways of acting that operate unconsciously without our awareness. When we do become aware of this habitus, it is often when we find ourselves in a foreign or unknown context that allows us to recognize the incongruencies in behavior, say when a well groomed wealthy elite finds herself at a barbecue in the deep south.

I apologize for the digression but the point I’m making is all important, so allow me to state it plainly: the education system of today fosters a habitus that discourages self-guided open-ended critical inquiry in favor of directed, closed, routine memorization. I am speaking in absolute abstracts, of course, but if you take time to draw parallels to your experiences with formal education I am sure your true conclusions will be the same as mine. The reason why this is the case falls with the aim of education: to produce a work force proficient at undertaking assigned orders, finding answers to given questions, and completing a set of tasks dolled out by superiors. If you look at the hierarchical structure of the classroom as a training ground for the hierarchical structure of the workplace, this doesn’t seem like such a preposterous explanation of education’s existing state.

The individuals proposing and influencing education policies, the wealthy elite, can only think in terms of their own self-guided interests. What benefit would it serve them to have a free thinking, critically minded, independently motivated work force? While I would argue that it would do our nation a great service in terms of creation, innovation, and invention, from an executive’s perspective I can’t see how that’s the most desirable employee. On the contrary, they want workers who work quietly and do the exact job they are given. More precisely: to passively accept what they are told and perform accordingly to expectations.

But in my opinion that’s an outdated paradigm organizational and labor systems. Societies are organisms, like cells or animals, where every part of the whole is as important and valuable as the next for operating at maximum efficiency and effectiveness. To deny the capacity to openly challenge and critically think about work processes is a form of self-sabotage. Fortunately there are organizations such as Google and 3M that employ the practice of critical and creative thought in their workplace.

But again, I digress. And allow me to clarify a point: I am not diminishing the role of intelligence in formal education and the work place either. In fact, it is the only facet or trait of an individual of any worth in contemporary education. What is intelligence? Does it differ from problem solving? Let’s explore these questions.

In the mainstream sense, intelligence is the ability to arrive at correct answers. Sounds good enough. In Greek, intelligence translates as intelligere which means to “select among” from inter meaning “among” and legere meaning “to gather”. More precisely, intelligence is a convergent style of reasoning that utilized deduction to arrive at conclusions. It is analytic and sequential. Does it differ from problem solving? Not if the problem is defined among a given set of premises or facts.

But what if a problem exists as open, without any apparent premises or facts with which to reason from? What if the questions are not given? This is where the utility of intelligence breaks down and an indication that some other important element necessary for problem solving begins gaining apparency.

Allow me to cite Leonardo de Vinci’s response when asked of the secret of his creative genius: saper vedere. In Latin this translates as “to know how to see.” From this brief phrase we can draw some tentative conclusions about what he might have meant, namely that creative genius, or rather problem solving, is the ability to formulate a novel perspective, an original point of view, that rearranges and reprioritizes the saliency and valuations of phenomenon, of facts, within the context of a given problem. This is where visuo-spatial thinking is paramount.

It would seem that the ability to gain the proper perspective necessary for solving open-ended problems rests with the ability to think divergently through a visuo-spatial context of thought. That is, to diversify and differentiate different modes of thought, perhaps through analogy or metaphor, in order to gain an alternative and, ideally, an original point of view.

So I must ask: What type of thinking does our contemporary formal education system encourage? One that deviates from the “norm”? One that tests various processes of reasoning through problems? One that explores alternative solutions to a given problem? Or how about the most striking question of all: Does contemporary education encourage independent thought or novel perspective in the classroom?

If I were to generalize all my experiences in education, and even defer to the data regarding increases in standardized testing, my answer to all these questions would be a resounding no.  Is more standardization, more conformity and uniform perspective the answer? No and no again.

What we need are better teachers who are more adequately equipped to facilitate open discussion and lead critical thinking. In addition, we could do away with rigid, inflexible curriculum’s and standardized tests, as well as the stifling behavioral expectations of structured class settings. We also need to toss out this notion that intelligence— the ability to utilize deductive reasoning to converge at correct answers from a set of given premises— is not the only measure of value, and that other critical thinking skills— such as those that produce an ability to transcend bias, create new perspective, and generate novel questions and original solutions— are being totally overlooked and underutilized.

Social Mobility: Language, Influence, Power

You said it, my good knight! There ought to be laws to
protect the body of acquired knowledge.
Take one of our good pupils, for example: modest
and diligent, from his earliest grammar classes he’s
kept a little notebook full of phrases.
After hanging on the lips of his teachers for twenty
years, he’s managed to build up an intellectual stock in
trade; doesn’t it belong to him as if it were a house, or
Paul Claudel, Le soulier de satin, Day III, Scene ii


Communication. I can’t stop thinking about communication. It’s everywhere. You can’t help it. You are conditioned to adopt certain norms and customs. The interpellation that causes identity formation through subjectification and submission to authority. Bear with me while I get this all out. It might get a little cerebral.

Pierre Bourdieu described the habitus of language. Habits form our character, our ideological world view, our identity as a subject. Using language makes you apart of a normative group whoever and whatever that might represent.

We are creatures of habits. The habituation of ideologies shapes our view of the world. Through habituation we come to embody certain symbols that mark out our ideology as a result of the environmental influences we were born and conditioned into. These habits elucidate the societal structures we find ourselves belonging to. Each societal structure contains distinct linguistic capital that defines a linguistic market or social group.  The linguistic capital we use has symbolic power or symbolic imposition. The greater linguistic capital a person possesses, the more mobile that person is within and between different linguistic markets. The accretion of habits that form linguistic capital are instrumental for the formation of identity.

The language and gestures that forms a person’s linguistic capital contains explicit or implicit symbolic power that are used to define the world.  The symbolic power of language takes the form of subliminal and non-verbal insinuations. Posture, eye contact, intonation, definitions, conventional phrases, and mannerisms all play a role in the insinuation of symbolic power.

The formation of a person’s identity arises from censorship. Ideological influences in society- family, religion, school- all facilitate this censorship. Eventually the external influences of censorship become internalized and act as self-censorship.

When we were young our parents molded our ideology by pruning our habits through assent or dissent. The process that habituates the internalization of censorship and forms the ideology that becomes our identity looks something like this:

As a child we may use the word ‘fat’ to describe someone who’s overweight, or ‘bitch’ to describe someone who’s mean. To show their disapproval of the ideology our parents initially rebuke us with a reproachful look and say “Michael, do not use that language.” In this was they are actively censoring the language that doesn’t fit into their conceptions of accepted ideology.  The next time we use that word our parents may need only say “Michael, language.” The next time only “Michael.” The next time only the reproachful look. The next time only their presence is needed to censor our language. Soon enough, as we become habituated and internalize this censorship as self-censorship,  nothing is needed to prompt our censorship.  A persons subjectivity is shaped first through language which gives rise to a subject or self.

This process habituates a complicit reaction to the symbolic domination taking place. The force of our language, the symbolic power within linguistic capital, imposes itself onto the world and others. It forms a persons identity through their subjectification. This subjectification is a result of the symbolic imposition characterizing the symbolic power of a linguistic capital.

The linguistic capital that composes a linguistic market is deemed a legitimate language. The formation of the legitimate language characterizing a linguistic market involves the consolidation of a language. This consolidation is the accumulation of distinct linguistic markers or signs that compromise the markets linguistic capital. The coalescing or consolidation of language into linguistic capital gives rise to a community. This community formation is the linguistic market in which the symbolic power and force of the linguistic capital is exchanged. In this way the community contributes to the process of forming particular individuals. This is the perpetuation of tradition, customs, trends, as a result of the communities ideological influence on the individual through censorship.

Censorship, in another name, is none other than the idea of ‘instruction’ or ‘discipline’. This occurs anytime an ideology is being imposed on an individual, be it a child, student, employee, citizen, and the like.

This emphasizes the subject-object relationship within ideologies.

It is interesting to look at the implication of this paradigm.

When someone uses a language, or employs linguistic capital, that falls outside our ideology or linguistic market, there is a misunderstanding or miscommunication, a conflict of ideologies.

The notion of ‘control’ characterizes the stability of our ‘identity’.  Our identity defines us, and we control our identity by endorsing ideologies that manifest through symbols (gestures, language, accessories that fill our life: clothes, house, and other tokens or bibelots). When someone interacts with us through a explicit, direct, conscious interpellation that conflicts with the ideology that forms our identity, there is a loss of control. This lack of control leaves one vulnerable.  These vulnerabilities are felt according to the past histories of an individual subject.

All this being said, I want to emphasize the importance of understanding this paradigm. It is life. You are shaped by your environment: family, society, education, peers. There is no way around it. You are born into a world with a space waiting for you. The moment there is knowledge that you wil be born you parents begin creating this space filled with expectations for the kind of person they wish you to be: boy or girl, smart, hardworking, handsome, polite. The extent that their ideology allows them to  understand exactly what these words or expectations mean is dictated by the linguistic capital within the linguistic market they are apart. Or, simply stated, the language they use is determined by the societal structure they willfully or unwillfully find themselves in. They censor you, discipline and instruct, according to the parameters of the symbolic force within the ideology of their language.

Leverage language. Leverage the symbolic power of linguistic capital, the semantic force of language. Leverage your identity in this way. Leverage your social mobility by being much more understanding of different ideologies and learning to adopt contrary or conflicting world views.

Do not let others impose their ideology on you. Seek to create an awareness of the influencing ideologies that shaped your current conception of self. Consider its limitations, its failures. Form a pure conception of self. While it is near impossible to escape the influences totally, you can be aware of an ideologies symbolic power and force that imposes itself on the world.

Do not be concerned with the ‘Things’ of the world. Be concerned with the ‘beliefs’ or ‘methods of interpellation’ that categorize and define the world. If you are concerned with the ‘things’ or the markers and symbols within the linguistic capital comprising your ideology, and not the underlying interpellation or beliefs, you run the risk of operating outside your ideology. This jeopardizes the control over your identity and leaves you vulnerable. This lack of control, or vulnerability, leaves one resistant to agree or engage.

When engaging with people, look at their beliefs and talk, not in terms of the right or wrongness of their language and terms and definitions, but in terms of the ideology that has formed their conceptions of that language. Look at why they use the language they use and where the symbolic force of their language lies. Adopt their language and talk as if you operated from their ideology.

It is not about being right or wrong, it is about understanding. Leaders leverage a diverse array and large quantity of linguistic capital. This allows for incredible adaptivity, influence, and social mobility within social structures and groups- linguistic markets. They are the weak ties that bind solitary communities together.

Language is capital. It is as good as gold. Actually, it is much more valuable than gold. If you possess the right language, you can do and be anything.