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December 06, 2003
Denis Dutton a learning experience

Last Wednesday I began a Samizdata posting thus:

Denis Dutton is a new name to me, but I have the strong feeling that this says a whole lot more about me than it does about Denis Dutton.

I never blogged a truer sentence.

As Michael Jennings pointed out in a comment, Dutton is the editor of Arts & Letters Daily, to which I have been linking a lot lately, and in a simultaneous personal email to me he expressed surprise that I hadn't taken in who Dutton is, what with me reading and linking to 2 Blowhards such a lot. They've linked to Dutton, and quoted from Dutton, while naming him, as Denis Dutton, and generally made a fuss of the man, Denis Dutton, a lot. So why hadn't I noticed?

Further evidence that I should have known about Dutton is that he figures prominently in the chapter about "The Arts" at the end of Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, which I've also written about and quoted from.

Yet it was only when I read this article by Dutton that I began to focus seriously on this man and his writings and place in the world.

So, shouldn't I be drawing a veil over this embarrassing episode?

I choose not to. I think that it has an educational lesson, maybe not for us all (I'll get to that because that's basically the lesson), but at least for some.

Unlike people, say, four hundred years ago, we early twenty first centurions live in an information rich, as it is often called, environment. I would prefer, though, to call it "message" rich, because "information" implies truth and accuracy, and a lot of the messages we are now surrounded by are anything but true or accurate. (There's probably a mismatch here between how "information theory" uses the word "information" and how the rest of us use it. For the information theories, information is one thing and truth something else again; for the rest of us there's an implied overlap.

Anyway, surrounded as we all are by all this information, all these messages, most of us inhabit a mental world in which there is a huge gap between what we actually do know, and what you might think we would know, given what we've experienced and given all that has been said to us and aimed at us. I assume that there are parts of the brain whose entire purpose is (a) to ignore things and (b) to forget things, a function which I for one often find myself dominated by three seconds after I'm told someone's name for the first time. Almost invariably, I have to ask it again, and have got into the habit of saying, as so many do, that "I'm sorry but I didn't catch your name". Catch. In truth, I probably did "catch" it, but then in a reflex action I threw it away. It's almost as if my subconscious is asking: have I heard this name before at least twice in any other connections of interest? And if it's no, smack, out it goes.

My point is that "learning" consists not just of charging out there and hoovering up information, but also of rejecting lots of information as not germane to whatever seems to be the immediate and central issue at hand. Learning is like the growth of a plant, and plants don't make use of all the material in their vicinity, only of some. A lot, they reject.

I only paid serious attention to Denis Dutton, as I say, when I read that article by him (which he had helpfully linked to from Arts & Letters Daily) about piano playing. I thought it a wonderfully good piece, and for the first time, I found myself asking: who is this guy? At which point all the reasons why I might have asked that question a year or two sooner came tumbling down on top of me. I was re-reading Pinker's Arts chapter, and there he was, with a huge and important quote, and then several more. I scrolled down to the bottom of Arts & Letters, and there he was also. Editor: Denis Dutton.

Yet it was only when read something by Dutton which said extremely helpful and useful things on one of the subjects which is now of central interest to me, namely the immediate future of "classical" music whatever classical now means exactly, hence the quotes, that being all part of the question that Dutton went from being a name I spat out (smack) after three seconds of knowing it, to a name I really took in and held on to. At which point all kinds of things which had before been only semi-interesting about the man suddenly became interesting enough also to take in.

So, although I at first felt a distinct twinge of embarrassment about this episode, on reflection, I now believe that I need not feel all that embarrassed, and instead of apologising, I regard this Dutton episode as a fine example of how learning actually happens.

Are you a teacher of children, in some capacity or other? Be patient. From where you sit, the kid has just learned about 7, and he ought to be ready for 8. Yes? This seems like the logical next step. But instead of being interested in 8, and despite having been told about it 88 times, with big cards, pointings, repetitions, assemblages of 8 objects, 88888 he's not interested. In comes the information, but smack, out it immediately goes again. Why? Because just for now, the issue that matters is why 7 sometimes has a horizontal cross in the middle of it, but mostly not. What's that about? Or something. But not: what comes after 7? That just isn't of interest right now.

However, my conclusion is not that you should forget about 8. By all means continue to mention 8, if you think 8 is important, as most of us do. Don't stop with the 8 message. Many conclude from the temporary rejection of the 8 message that the whole subject of 8 should be abandoned. Wrong. The point is, don't be hurt if this message gets rejected a lot, smack smack smack. Don't take it personally, or start a fight about it. Just accept that there is this huge gap between what teachers think it's worth the kid learning, and what the kid actually learns next. It's natural. It's not a problem. You don't try to solve this non-problem either by forcing the kid to learn everything you think he should learn, or by sterilising the learning environment of stuff which he is now mostly rejecting, but which he may later suddenly get excited about. He can handle excessive and temporarily irrelevant information. Surround him with the stuff. It's nice. Just be ready for him to ignore it for a month or two. And then suddenly to start asking: 8 what's 8? And what connection does 8 have to eight? 8eight8eight8eight8 gimme gimme gimme. Hey, two 0s on top of each other, how about that? Etc. And he can't register 8 if you have purged it from the world, like Stalin scrubbing a murdered minion from the history books, merely because two months ago he wasn't interested.

Take my case. Would it have helped me if the Denis Dutton meme had been purged from my learning environment perhaps by some impatient software programme desperate to get my attention with everything it says to me merely because I had not been giving it the attention which, I now realise, it all along deserved? Certainly not. That would have been no help at all. In fact it would have been downright pernicious.

Teaching means dangling a mass of possible paths in front of the pupil, and most of them being rejected, and the teacher relaxing, and just carrying on with the dangling.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:13 PM
Category: How the human mind works

I had a similar experience recently about the filmmaker Stephen Frears. FIlmography here


A mixture of British and American films, independent and studio, and a very diverse mix of genre.

His work contains a number of films that I admire, but I had never somehow put it together that they were all made by the same person, even though I must have seen "Directed by Stephen Frears" in the context of all the different movies. Obviously the fact that he is so versatile makes him more impressive rather than less, but this same fact had prevented me from seeing his work as a single body, and realising how impressive.

Comment by: Michael Jennings on December 8, 2003 11:13 AM
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