We have discussed complex systems in general through much of this work, but we need to look at one particular system, the human brain, in much greater detail if we are to understand art and literature. There has been a great deal of debate, particularly among philosophers, regarding whether or not humans have a basic nature. This argument has historically been religious in nature, and, in the European tradition the argument has been used to justify both the creation of rigid social hierarchies and the inherent superiority of the rulers of the time. Princes often inherited their kingdoms from their fathers, so they and the church that supported them made a connection between ability to rule and genetic inheritance (not to mention the creation of such ideas as the divine right of kings). Rulers were seen as having heritable intelligence, heritable traits that made them inherently better able to rule. This is why John Locke, in arguing for government by, of, and for the people, made the argument for the blank slate – tabula rasa. This would eliminate the argument that one has any inherent ability to rule. If, Locke argued, we were born blank slates, it was the facts of our social situation and education that made us who we are, meaning anybody could be educated into becoming a good ruler. Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate, does raise the question of how literal Locke meant us to take his tabula rasa model, but there is little question about how seriously we can take Rousseau when he advocates the blank slate – or of subsequent thinkers, including many postmodernists, when they advocate it. Although Locke saw the blank slate theory as a way to eliminate any argument for tyranny, since Rousseau the argument has been made that if we are blank slates, we are infinitely malleable. And if we are completely constructed by our society, culture, language, and/or history, we can simply educate the people to accept any form of government we want – including tyranny. But whether it is used as a way to argue for or against tyranny, the question still remains as to whether or not it is an accurate model for how the human mind works.
More recent arguments for a blank slate view have taken the brain into consideration, and have involved the idea of neural plasticity. The idea is that neurons can wire and rewire to such an extent that the brain is effectively a blank slate. However, recent research by Kawakami et al shows differences in the subunits (1, 1, and 2) of NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) receptors affect neural plasticity. “Because the four subunits differ in distribution and development in the brain, the subunit compositions of the NMDA receptors also differ depending on the brain regions and developmental states,” which is important since “NMDA receptors with distinct subunit combinations differ in physiological and pharmacological properties. Recent studies suggested the possibility that NMDA receptors with distinct properties are distributed to the synapses in an input-selective manner” (Science 9 May 2003, 990).
In early postnatal animals . . . the expression of 1 subunits in the hippocampus is still absent or low, whereas the 2 and 1 subunits are already expressed at a high level. In this case, the asymmetrical allocation of 2 subunits may produce distinct numbers of NMDA receptors in these synapses, resulting in differential ability to express synaptic plasticity. Hippocampal pyramidal neurons, thus, might regulate the development of synaptic plasticity in a side-selective manner by controlling the synaptic allocation of 2 subunits.
The left-right asymmetry is a fundamental concept of brain science. . . . the brian can involve asymmetries not only at a microscopic level of left and right hemispheres but also at microscopic levels of neurons and synapses. (994)
Relative levels of plasticity exist in the brain in different regions, for particular neurons, and even particular sides of neurons. That being the case, plasticity is no argument for a blank slate. Plasticity simply allows for relative levels of flexibility around our strange-attractor instincts – as opposed to the relative rigidity of instincts in most other animals.
Animals have instincts; they allow animals to rapidly adapt in their behavior to the world. If there is a blank slate, one has to learn about the world starting from nothing. It would be like giving someone who has never played or even seen a game of chess – or a similar board, as we have in checkers – all the pieces and the board and telling them to play chess. This person may do any number of things with the board and the pieces – but playing a game of chess will not be one of them. But if we were to tell him the rules of chess (which, while certainly man-made, do now exist independent of any particular human being, as a meme), and show him how, and train him in the proper way to play chess, the best ways to play chess, etc., what we will get will be a person who is capable of playing a truly astronomical number of games of chess. The same would be true of any instinct. No two lions hunt in exactly the same way – but they all hunt.
Consider language (which Pinker argues is an instinct in the appropriately titled The Language Instinct). Without some sort of inherent, inherited brain structure for grammar, all we could have at best is a series of disconnected words. We could not have language. And we certainly could not have children who learn language as quickly as they do. If we took the most optimistic approach, what we would have to do is explain to our children each element of grammar, how sentences are put together, what words mean – before they would be able to use them. But then, how could we explain these things, since we would have to explain it in language, and they would not be able to understand what we were saying to them until they knew language? Perhaps, one could argue, we simply have prodigious memories. But then, how would we be able to generate new sentences? Or understand a sentence’s meaning? If it were just memory, all we could do is mindlessly regurgitate what we heard. Any proposed mechanism to derive general principles from learned language would suggest an inherent trait, and the blank slate model would have to be discarded anyway – and a less accurate model adopted. So the blank slate simply cannot work for learning language. What we have instead are children whose brains have structures that create the ability to map vocally-produced sounds onto narrative structure (something I will get into in much greater detail in the chapter on language). The brain has structures already built into it to accept information from the environment. The environment provides information to the brain, which is able to fine-tune the language centers of the brain so the child learning the new language will be able to use the language being used around him or her. As the child uses the language correctly, they will receive encouragement from the environment (in smiles from relatives, in getting exactly what they want, etc.), further reinforcing those particular language structures in the child’s brain.
If the brain is not a blank slate, we must raise the question of how the human brain is structured, and how the genes and the environment work together to create the brain’s minding function. The latter is an important issue, as those who believe in the blank slate believe we are created by our environment alone – and they tend to accuse those who believe there is a genetic element to behavior of believing behavior is 100% genetically determined. But genes do not act in a vacuum. They must act in an environment every bit as much as the environment needs structures (including genes) to influence. What we actually have with the genes’ relation to the brain is:
one information processing machine (the genome) has spawned another (the brain). Furthermore it has created a machine that can process information in new and different ways, the most striking of which is the difference in the rate of processing. The slow genome has, over millions of years, given birth to the rapid brain. (Bonner, 30)
There is a parallel between the two in that they are both dynamic parallel-processing systems:
The brain processes thoughts, movements, immediate reactions to the environment, in sum all the activities we associate with animals. The genome processes genes by replication, and the genes are responsible for making specific proteins that in turn are required to build the structure of the organism through its entire life cycle. The basic similarity between the two is that they both take in, store, and give out information; the difference between the two is not only that the information differs, but that they are on a different time scale. Reactions of the brain and the nervous system are rapid, while those of the genome are, by comparison, exceedingly slow. (Bonner, 30)
It is the rapidity of the brain’s work relative to the work done by genome that has perhaps led people to consider the brain a system which could not possibly be related to the genome that coded for it. Thus such ideas as mind-body dualism and the blank slate. But both the genetic system and the brain are closely related in that both are dissipative systems, and all dissipative systems “take in, store, and give out information.”
Genes affect the brain in two directly related ways: one is by brain structure and the other is by the direct inheritance of patterns of behavior. These structure-based patterns are sometimes called instinctive or innate; they stand in clear contrast to those behavior patterns that are flexible and, as one goes up the scale of organisms of increasing brain capacity, ultimately lead to learning and inventing. (Bonner, 34)
If we are to understand the minding functions of the brain, including the production and appreciation of art, we need to learn more about how the brain itself works, its biological foundations, how it is structured, and how it is educatable. To understand this, we have to understand how the brain develops, the interactions between genes and environment – with the environment understood both as the chemical environment of the brain and as the organisms’ external environment, which, if we look at the environment in the most basic way, is really nothing more than molecules, light waves, sound waves, temperature differences, and textures. These are what our senses (our sensory nerves) take in (detect) and pass on, through nerve transmissions, to the brain for processing. So we can take appropriate action. “The brain [is] the obligatory intermediate between genotype and behavior” (Dean Hamer, Science 4 Oct 2002, 71). If we are to begin to understand all of this, we have to start with early brain development, how the brain cells are first laid out, influenced by regulatory genes such as the homeobox genes.
The homeobox is a section of many regulatory proteins, sixty amino acids in length, which is strongly conserved among animals, from fruit flies to worms to mice and people. The proteins with the homeobox are used to lay out the animal’s segmented regions as it develops. This is clearest in fruit flies, which are clearly segmented, and which express the homeobox genes in clearly segmented ways. In vertebrates, where the segmentation is less obvious, we see more overlap between and among segments. A good example is in the expression of homeobox genes in the human brain. Deacon shows on 186 how four homeobox genes are expressed over the brain. The Otx1 gene is expressed over the entirety of the brain, Otx2 is expressed over a slightly less extensive area, excluding the hindbrain, Emx2 is expressed over much of the cortex, excluding the midbrain, and Emx1 is expressed exclusively in the frontal cortex.
We share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees, including the genes coding for our brain. However, the genes for the human brain are five times more active than the same genes in chimpanzees. It is likely this regulatory increase was either generated by a change in Emx1, which could generate rapid growth in the human frontal cortex, or in regulatory genes that affect Emx1 and other genes important for brain-gene regulation. Since it is generally known that 1/3 of our genes code for proteins expressed exclusively in the brain, there are a wide variety of possibilities regarding which gene(s) were changed. The regulatory genes are easily manipulable (McCrone). If longer legs are needed, animals with longer legs rapidly evolve. In a population of giraffes, there will be a natural variation in genes regulating leg length – some in the population will have slightly longer legs than others. If there is some environmental pressure – leaves lower down being eaten by other animals, for example – then those with more active regulatory genes, resulting in longer legs, will receive more nourishment, survive longer, be healthier, and give birth to more offspring, passing on those more active and therefore longer-leg regulatory genes. While the gene-binding regions of the homeobox and other regulatory genes are highly conserved, the regions that interact with other proteins, with regulatory chemicals, and/or are sensitive to ion concentrations are somewhat more variable and more sensitive to the environment – and it is these sections that are most important for evolution, as they are responsible for truly regulating gene expression, due to changes in structure, which make them more or less effective at binding the DNA, thus regulating the genes they are responsible for regulating.
Most homeobox genes are responsible for broader elements of development, including length and shape of limbs, and broad sections of the brain, such as Emx1's regulation of the frontal cortex, the stimulation of which could be responsible for the massive size of the human frontal cortex, making possible the processing of language, and thus of the full development of more complex culture and of the minding function of the brain. But such broad regulatory effects, while interesting as a way of understanding how the human brain developed as it did beyond those of its more chimpanzee-like ancestors, really do not help us to understand the more nuanced elements of how the brain works, for it to give us such complex behaviors as advanced culture, including the production and appreciation of literature and the arts.
Part of the answer lies in our understanding the rest of the estimated 10,000 or so genes that code for brain proteins – which means there is still a great deal of work to be done by developmental and neuro-geneticists – and their interactions with their environments. Let me give an example of a complex behavior and how it is affected by the brain: left-handedness. This is something I have been interested in for a long time, being a left-handed person. Handedness is not taught – exclusively. Certainly, one’s natural tendency to use one hand over another can be overcome, as history shows us. For centuries, left-handers were seen as “sinister,” and children who used their left hands to write were often punished. Typically teachers would tie their left hand behind their backs in order to force them to use their right hand. As we can see, through behaviorist methods, one’s behavior can be changed – but both the abusive methods used and the unintended consequences (forcing a child to switch hands has been shown to slow learning and further brain development) show us the negative consequences of doing so. But how does this tendency to use a certain hand arise in the first place? Right-handedness appears to be associated with the general uneven distribution of functions in the brain, with language much more localized in the left side than in the right. Since a great deal of the way we think is through language, this would create a tendency to favor the right hand when acting, beyond even the limited handedness seen in some primates -- who we should not be surprised to find handedness in considering the parallels between purposeful sequential action and purposeful sequential language. After the development of writing, such language-affected handedness as which hand to write with would certainly favor the right hand. So where does left-handedness come from? There appears to be two sources of left-handedness – both environmental. One way one can get left-handedness is through birth trauma affecting the brain. As a child is born, the head has to squeeze through an opening slightly smaller than the head. Evolution has solved this problem by making the skull soft and not entirely closed together. During birth, the skull presses in on the brain, increasing the probability that brain damage can occur. Fortunately, the human brain is highly plastic while developing, so the brain can, upon registering damage, redirect brain functions to other areas for further development there, since brain development is incomplete at birth anyway. An easy way to do this is to switch the most important brain functions – including language functions – to the other side of the brain, transmitting this information across the corpus callosum connecting the two hemispheres. Both the brain damage itself and the switching can generate problems, so there is a high percentage of left-handers with learning disabilities and who are mentally disabled. It is approximated that 10% of all births are traumatic in this way, and if the genetic propensity for left-handedness affects 10% of the population, and birth trauma generates switching in 10%, we would expect 18% of the population to be left handed – which we do find.
These percentages do raise a question about genetics and behavior. How can something inherited only have an expression of 10%? We learn in basic biology that we get a gene from each parent, that one gene tends to be dominant, the other recessive, and that, if there is not something specifically selecting against left-handers, we should expect 25% of the population to be genetic left-handers. That is a simplified version that works for only very few traits, and not at all with behavior (or most other inherited traits). Our behavior is affected by the interaction of literally thousands of genes, creating tendencies in behavior, not 100% certainty. We get genetic left-handers not because there is a gene for handedness, but because the development of the brain is affected by the levels of certain hormones – including testosterone. If there is a surge of testosterone production during certain stages of the fetus’ development, the growth of the left hemisphere of the brain will be temporarily arrested. The brain’s right hemisphere, whose growth is somehow unaffected by testosterone levels (perhaps due to a hemispheric difference in testosterone receptors), continues growing, sometimes to the same size (which could create ambidexterity), but more often surpassing the left hemisphere in size, creating more space for brain functions, including language, to develop in. Once the testosterone levels subside, the left hemisphere gets back on track, and continues growing until it reaches its appropriate size. This switch in dominant hemispheres causes the redistribution of functions, and this information must pass across the corpus callosum. This increased activity across the corpus callosum results in it being 50% larger in left-handers than in right-handers, since active neurons are selected for, and inactive neurons are selected against, and die off. In men, this ironically creates brains more closely resembling, proportionally, women’s brains, as women’s brains are more even in size and have a larger corpus callosum. So there is a chemical-environmental cue for left-handedness, though the tendency to create this chemical environment during fetal development is itself inherited – as the high percentage of left-handers in my own family shows.
In developmental terms, the fetus is programmed to create higher-than-average levels of testosterone. The testosterone enters the fetus’ blood stream and is transported to the brain. The brain has testosterone-binding proteins which result in other genes being turned on and off. Many of these genes regulate growth (testosterone is known to regulate growth and affect behavior later in development, especially during male puberty). In this case some brain development pauses for a short period, while other parts (in this case, a whole hemisphere) continue to develop. In a species with hemispheric specialization and an emphasis on one particular brain function found in the larger hemisphere, with more even, or a hemispheric switch in, development, one would expect a redistribution in brain function. If redistribution from one hemisphere to the other occurs, one would expect the retention of a large corpus callosum, since the continued use of brain cells results in their retention (lack of use results in massive cell death in the brain, of those cells not used during brain development, typically after the first five or six years, strongly suggesting when most learning does and should occur). This is indeed what we see, both in women, who already have more evenly developed brains, and in left-handed men. Our brain has structures built into it – especially at certain stages of development – but it is also plastic enough to develop these structures in alternative locations if necessary. What we do not get is the complete loss of a function or tendency. We would expect the necessity of moving functions around to also change the brain’s structures. And if there is a difference in brain structure, one would then expect it to affect behavior. With the stronger connection between the brain hemispheres, and the more even distribution of behaviors between both hemispheres, one would expect to see a tendency among left-handers to be better able to integrate the specializations of each hemisphere – logic with emotion, verbal with visual, etc. In other words, one would expect to see a large percentage of artists, creative writers, and scientists among left-handers. As it turns out, while only 18% of the population is left-handed, about 40% of artists, writers, and scientists are left-handed. In The Left-Hander’s Syndrome, Cohen sites a study that found that among art majors at Boston University, “47 percent were left-handed or mixed-handed, while only 22 percent of the more general students were” (131). He also cites a study that found there was a high percentage of left-handers among players of chess and the Asian game go, as well as among musicians.
Now, nearly half of the art students in an art department being left-handed when only 18% of the general population is left-handed certainly suggests a connection between handedness and behavior – and we have seen the connection between handedness and brain development. This suggests, then, that the propensity for creating art has a neurological basis (though we cannot make the inverse claim that artistic or scientific genius is found only or even primarily in lefties – genius has other elements as well). The increased hemispheric connectivity would make the person more able to perceive the interconnectedness of things in the world, which is precisely the skill needed to be a poet, to create music, or to develop scientific experiments. Left-handers are also known to have better spatial skills (which explains the increased skills in art and chess). These increased abilities would result in increased praise by their parents, teachers, and peers for those abilities, resulting in a feedback loop of encouragement. The natural abilities would get praise, which would make them practice more, making them better, getting them more praise, etc. This is the soul of education.
Education helps us increase our own brain’s complexity. If each student has genetically-based propensities for certain abilities and skills, the best thing for these students is to have the teachers be able to identify these abilities, and encourage them. Let us say we have a student with good spatial abilities. They love to draw. Many teachers discourage their students from “wasting their time” drawing or being creative. Instead, teachers should be encouraging a student’s natural abilities and interests, which could be transferred to other areas. There is a spatial element to music one could transfer from the visual to the audio realm. So the teacher could encourage the student to learn a musical instrument. It is well-established that students who learn to play a musical instrument do better in math. By having a student who likes to draw (because they have good spatial skills) learn a musical instrument, we have indirectly helped them with their math skills too. There is no reason to think this could not also work in the opposite direction, with good math skills leading to better spatial skills through learning a musical instrument. One could also teach students how to read better using these same skill-transfer methods. By emphasizing music, one could transfer this musical skill to the reading of poetry, which has musicality in its rhythmicity. These same skills then get transferred into language skills, as rhythmic poetry could lead to less rhythmic poetry, and, then, to reading prose. If we have a student who has good language skills, the teacher can introduce the student to poetry, and, again, move the student through music, into math and artistic/spatial skills.
Once we have down the basic skills of math, art, and reading, the rest of education becomes much easier, as it is all learned through reading, visuals, and mathematical/abstract thinking. It may seem strange to suggest music is the gateway to learning, until we realize that much of what humans do has a certain musicality to it, specifically in rhythm. Music, poetry, dance, and rituals (both the most profoundly sacred, and the most mundane, as our daily morning rituals) all are rhythmical. Our brains, too, contain rhythms, including circadian rhythms, which affect the daily cycles of most (perhaps all) animals, including us. Our rhythmic brains are designed to pick up rhythms – the rhythms of the seasons, of migrations, of the cycles of the moon, of day passing into night, of menstruation, etc. Any brain thus designed to be rhythmical and to pick up rhythms would be better adapted than one that does not. Further, the harmonies of music approach the Golden Ratio (1:1.618), meaning they are fractals (Doczi, 8-9), since the Golden Ratio is the simplest fractal (as we see in the Fibonacci spiral). Harmonies join (harmony comes from the Greek harmos, to join), and one must join facts to truly have knowledge – and one must join knowledge to have wisdom. All art too should be harmonious – the parts unified. By learning musical harmony, students would become more in tune with the fractal geometry of the universe, and would therefore be more capable of picking up on the fractal geometry of the universe – meaning they would be better able to learn.
The development of rituals, music, and dance (not to mention the combination of these three) work to emphasize our brain’s rhythms, and our ability to pick up patterns and rhythms – and, just as importantly, to notice when rhythms are broken. A breeze causing the grass to wave in beautiful rhythmic (fractal) patterns is comforting. But if there is something breaking that rhythm – such as, say, a large cat that could eat us – we notice it, and focus on where the rhythm has been broken, making it more likely we will see the predator attempting to stalk us. Those who are more in tune with noticing rhythms will be more likely to notice a break in the rhythm, and notice predators soon enough to escape them. Rhythmic rituals, dance, and music are evolutionarily adaptive, as they heighten our ability to notice patterns. So those who create patterns, especially fractal patterns, through the creation of new rituals, dance, and music, would be very useful to a society, as they would add more rhythms to the society, and keeping the rhythms new and fresh, avoid boredom, which could lead to the abandonment of the rituals that were keeping the members of the group alive. The rhythms of poetry and the patterns in paintings would act in the same way. This is one of the reasons artists, musicians and poets arose in the first place – they would have given any tribe they were members of a distinct adaptive advantage. This advantage has not left us, though we have left the savannahs. The world we live in now is full of patterns and rhythms, which art, music, and literature could help us recognize – and help us recognize when those patterns are broken. There are economic patterns – stock trends, business cycles, etc. There are political patterns, behavior patterns – the universe, including the human universe, is full of patterns. The arts help us see the patterns of the universe, by condensing them, emphasizing them, and thus acting as a microcosm (self-similar and scalar) of the universe. By being trained to recognize patterns, we will also be better able to notice things that do not fit into patterns. Art, then, should also emphasize pattern-breaking. This emphasis is why Marquez’ magical realist images, which break the familiar patterns, are so effective and memorable. But they can only do so in the context of art’s pattern-emphasizing qualities.
Anything that emphasizes rhythms is more easily learned, since it patterns on the natural rhythms of the brain. A “rhythmic” education would be the best education we could give a child – the information would be more easily learned and more easily retained (it is easier to remember a song than a piece of prose information one read in a book, particularly as a whole). This is precisely why and how music acts as the gateway to the rest of education.
But these conclusions can only be reached and understood if we have an understanding of the humanities as a product of the human brain and its functions. A strong grounding in the arts and humanities can help us learn better and easier things such as math and, through better reading skills, things like history, philosophy, and the sciences. But this information is itself only understood through a scientific understanding of how the brain works and learns and thinks, of the genetic basis of this, and the various interactions it has with the environment. The issue is not nature or nurture, but nature and environment, in the broadest sense of the word. The brain is genetically programmed to create and notice rhythms – which makes us behave in rhythms – which, because repeated, create memory and meaning – which feeds back into the brain to emphasize the rhythmicity of the brain itself. This natural rhythmicity ends up in a feedback loop. An environment that emphasized rhythm would create more rhythms in the brain, encouraging the production of more rhythmical activity, while an environment with fewer rhythmical elements would act to dampen the brain’s rhythmicity, creating a more “prosaic” culture from the interactions of more prosaic brains.
This brain rhythmicity is a higher-order reflection of the rhythmicity of genetic regulation. I already noted that homeobox genes are segmentally expressed (i.e., in patterns). But they are also rhythmically expressed. Regulatory proteins have to be expressed, not just in the right place, but at the right time. There is a rhythm of development. This helps to create the segmentedness of the body plan – including bones and joints, but also of the brain. The brain itself is segmentally laid out – with a spinal cord leading to a hindbrain, on top of which is built a midbrain, on top of which is built the cerebral cortex, giving us different, hierarchically nested, brain functions. And each of these segments is coded for by very particular combinations (or lack of combinations) of homeobox genes. We get increasing separation – in a literal, physical sense – from our deepest drives (which are found in the hindbrain) and emotions, as more and more is added to the cortex. Language is processed in one location, emotions in another – but the overall processing of a piece of information gets distributed throughout the brain, to make sure it matches up with everything it can match up with, including emotions and memories, making it easier for the brain to remember and create meaning for the new piece of information, if it has something related to it the brain can relate it to. This, again, is suggestive of how one can best learn – through the building of mental networks, emphasizing commonality, and building on emotional connections to what is learned. Learning is facilitated by associating pleasure and other positive emotions to learning, and negative emotions to not learning – a carrot and stick approach. To do this, praise and other forms of positive reinforcement should be used to encourage learning. This is different from many current approaches to make learning “fun,” but which in fact amount to little more than frivolity, and often try to increase “self-esteem,” even when no self has been developed to esteem.
If the brain too fits into this (meta)physical model I have been developing, being hierarchical and scalar, with fractal geometry created by strange attractors, which act as rules for the brain’s layout and functions, and deeply interconnected, then a model of education is suggested. Emphasizing connectivity among information helps us retain knowledge, and creates more triggers for the access of that knowledge, including emotional triggers. What we teach should be hierarchical. One has to build a solid foundation before one can erect the remaining edifices of knowledge. One has to build on first principles, on the way the brain works, on the way we think and believe (we cannot just ignore faith and belief, discarding them as simply irrational, as such disdain for one of the ways our brains mind only cuts us off from educating ourselves). Thus the emphasis on music, on a rhythmic education. But this education must also be scalar. Which is more important: poetry or math, science or music, history or art? What ridiculous questions! Each of these, and many more, including language – foreign and native – philosophy, government, comparative religion and culture, psychology, sociology, economics, business, etc. are vital if we are to have truly educated children and adults. If this seems a great deal to teach our children, you are right – and wrong. Students can learn all of these things, “it is only a question of degrees and quantities. All men [and women] are artistic, philosophical, scientific, etc.” (Nietzsche, PT 65). In the United States, children’s abilities are constantly and grossly underestimated, leading to legions of bored (not to mention undereducated) children, who then get into trouble because they are bored (or find themselves embarrassed as adults on Jaywalking). Children’s abilities are underestimated because of ill-informed theories of child mental development, supported by an education system made up of grossly undereducated teachers, who could not actually teach students what is required if we actually challenged students. The first step in granting children real educations would be to abolish education as a college major. Majoring in weaving would provide a person with more relevant skills to teach children than does an education major. Rather than having future teachers major in education, they should be given a thorough general education so they can actually know something in order to actually teach children something. One cannot teach if one is ignorant.
While this may seem off-topic, it is not. This theory of education through emphasis on rhythm would require a complete deconstruction of our educational system – reconstructed on what we have learned about how the brain thinks and learns. It is time we gave children and adults both fully human educations. To do this, we have to show that what we teach is relevant. It is not uncommon for children to blow off entire subjects because they see them as “irrelevant.” As a grade school student, I blew off math as irrelevant. I saw no reason to learn it, no connection of math to anything I was interested in, no connection of it to the real world. This from a child who was interested in science. The fault was both my teachers’ and my textbooks’. Neither could show me what use there was for math. What did I care about trains going north and south at different speeds? So, despite the fact that 8th grade math taught me nothing new, I failed it (one has to do homework to pass a class). It was not until I took Introduction to Chemistry in high school that I learned the relevance of math. And it was in this class where I was finally able to understand fractions – since they were connected to something real. The problem was that math was taught first as an abstract, then connected (but never in a math class) to the real world. We may be born with an innate sense of counting, and in this sense, number, and of relationships among elements, but we are not born knowing specific arithmetic, geometry, algebra, etc. We cannot go too far in our attributing innate understandings of certain aspects of the world or we will make the mistake of believing in a full repertoire of Platonic Forms (not Plato’s idea of the Forms – the Platonic idea of the Forms – since it seems increasingly unlikely Plato himself believed in Forms, which he certainly undermines in both the Socratic method, where the Form of the thing cannot be found, and in the structure of Phaedrus, while it is the Platonists after him who believed in the Forms). It seems the Platonic idea of the idea giving rise to the perceived world is still in force in elementary education. This is how out of date our educational system is. Since concepts are formed subsequent to observing many similar objects, and remembering the similarities while forgetting the dissimilarities, we can see that this approach is backwards. Perceiving a series of tables gives rise to the concept of table, not vice versa.
Issues of relevance are connected to the issue of perception and concept formation. This is why in my Freshman Rhetoric classes I have my students write an essay in the first few days of class explaining to me the relevance of rhetoric to their majors. Once they see the connection – bringing us to the issue of the interconnectedness of knowledge – they are more interested in the class. Interested students are educatable students. I can then teach my students a wide variety of things relevant to rhetoric, but not always entirely relevant to their major per se, and they will remain interested and educatable. Since I began having my students write this one essay, interest in the class has noticeably increased.
But what about starting with music? We see the relevance as educators, but can we really explain this sort of thing to five- and six-year-olds? Of course not. But fortunately, music provides us with the other element that should be present in education: pleasure. Everyone finds pleasure in music – in rhythms and patterns in general – and the pleasure in music is the draw it has for students. Not only can music lead us into other disciplines, it can also introduce us to different cultures and subcultures. It is the gateway to both knowledge and understanding – if properly used and taught. Combining the fact that knowing music makes math easier to learn with showing students the relevance of math would drastically reverse the terrible situation we find in American students’ math education.
If we can connect the sort of pleasure we get from music and the other arts to learning other subjects, we will see considerably more eagerness from students to learn. We remember well those things with which we have positive associations. “Whether thinking proceeds with pleasure or with displeasure is an essential distinction: the person who finds thinking genuinely difficult is certainly less likely to apply himself to it and will also probably not get as far. He forces himself, which is useless in this realm” (Nietzsche, PT 67). Memory is connected to emotion, and thus learning is connected to memory (but not memorization – memorization is not learning, but the ability to regurgitate equally the meaningless with the meaningful). If we have negative emotions connected to learning, we will avoid it. If we have positive emotions connected to learning, we will seek it out. If we see emotions as strange attractors, memories as strange attractors, and the purpose of education as making the connections which create the complex fractal system around these strange attractors, the issue becomes what kind of complex fractal system we want to create in our children’s minds – if we want to create one that is simple or complex, that has negative or positive emotional associations. One of the roles of the arts – music, art, and literature – would be to create more complex fractal learning systems, with positive emotional connections, from the pleasure we get from rhythm, and the other pleasures afforded us by art. Art, music, and literature should provide us with much of our emotional educations. And things that are rhythmic and fractal would also be much easier to learn, being as they are patterned on the way the brain itself works. One may wonder if this means our elementary school science and history textbooks should be written in something like blank verse. It does only if we want to truly maximize learning.
We can still learn the world’s rhythms through receiving a thorough education in art and literature, which are rooted in rhythmicity (being products of the brain, and the brain, as stated, being rhythmical, one would expect the creations of the brain to also be rhythmical). An arts education will both give us emotional educations – something we have lost in the past century – and help us to see the rhythms and patterns of the world, and thus become more in tune with the world as a whole. Patterns are very important in the composition of a work of art, as they help to bring together the visual elements of the visual art piece, bringing them together in a beautiful harmonious whole. Education should strive to do the same thing. Education should strive to be beautiful, and to create beautiful minds.