Musings on Literacy – 2 – Endangered/GMO Minds

Why Michael Phelps came out of retirement in 2013 for 2016 Olympics

I remember in the 2008 Olympic games when they would do certain features on Michael Phelps. One of the key things they mentioned about Phelps was how his body was somehow specifically designed to swim. They talked about his torso length, the size of his hands, the tapered structure of his body. To some extent, he catered a life surrounded by…well…water. But on the other hand they wanted to make clear that Phelps also had a genetic predisposition to swim.

As I have been reading Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It as an entry into thinking about literacy in the 21st Century, I could not help but think about the alternatives to her first chapters. This is one of two books I have used in a two tract method for uncovering whether a problem in our current era of literacy exists. The other tract is wondering what exactly reading is, what it does in the mind, and what are some of its neurological effects.

Healy’s book is very much a “kids these days” book, where it attempts to make a catch-all system of problems. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem very convincing. On the one hand, she laments in the lowering of test scores in verbal reasoning, even when test makers have been dumbing down the content of the reading passages for years, and in the same chapter will also suggest that these tests do not accurately assess the mind and we should take these results “with a huge grain of salt.”

Her following chapter discusses many of the “tainting” elements of the world that warp or distort children’s minds while in development. Anything from lead to arsenic to strapping headphones playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to a woman’s belly is brought up. It’s clear that Healy is willing to follow any path of thinking in order to get what she wants: substantial evidence that there is something wrong with children.

She may be right, but she is clearly not following the right path. She mentions gains by the poor minorities across the United States, while also mention a bottoming out of many of the middle class. This tracks perfectly with income inequality changes in the United States since the 1970s, where dire poverty has been greatly alleviated, while the middle class has drawn closer to the poor in test scores and wealth. Sometimes educational outcomes have nothing to do with traditional education standards, and sometimes has nothing to do with the brain. Money talks.

But her discussion on the malleability of the brain as an excuse to talk about lead disturbed me. She seemed to be under the impression that there was some “natural” way that we should be giving birth and raising children. Many people somehow believe in the word “natural” as if it represents some high pure bar of what should be the case, when clearly the whole point of human existence and cultural evolution has been to go against the concept of “nature” in order to make a flourishing society. If we really trusted in nature, monogamy as a stable outcome would simply be thrown out the window, and I would be constantly on the prowl for the next lay. Just because I have natural desires doesn’t mean acting on them is the next logical step. For more on this, I would highly encourage you to read Richard Dawkins when he discusses how natural selection and evolution can in fact be quite ugly and unintuitive in order to disprove the existence of some intelligent designer.

Okay, back to Phelps.

So on the one hand, we have a concern that brains can be so affected by genetics and environment, what we call Neuroplasticity. Healy is worried that we have stunted our children. But I took this in the exact opposite direction. What if we took this concept and instead used it to leverage children from birth to be the best possible student they could be based on genetic underpinnings?

Imagine this scenario. It’s the future, and you or your partner have become pregnant. Congratulations! You schedule an appointment with a geneticist, who takes a look at the developing embryo, and they make some predictions.

“This baby,” the geneticist says, “Has developed quite a few abnormalities during the gestation process. It’s recommended that you abort this child. Otherwise, it will be nonverbal, in a wheelchair, with severe cognitive disabilities.”

It would be crazy, highly illogical, for you to start or continue a family with this information. The amount of suffering this particular person would face, knowing that they were simply the repository of bad luck, would be very great.

The concept of a special education department in the future of teaching may be unlikely to remain the same given this level of attention before the child is born.

Now, on the other hand.

Imagine this scenario. It’s the future, and you or your partner have become pregnant. Congratulations! You schedule an appointment with a geneticist, who takes a look at the developing embryo, and they make some predictions.

“This child,” the geneticist says, “Has a predisposition towards object-oriented learning and is very gifted in spatial reasoning and higher order thinking. We recommend that this child pursues architecture as a career, or some other structurally based field.”

Now, knowing that, of course you would wonder if the child enjoys architecture. Usually, but not always, children develop passions for gifts or what they believe they are good at. Of course, what a child thinks they are good at and what they are actually good at may not be the same. Many people abandon roles given to them to pursue artistic careers. That choice remains with them.

But it would also be very hard for a family to ignore this kind of information. As they saw their child play with blocks with other kids, and suddenly he becomes a leader in designing something, a dedication to play that the other kids follow because they see this talent in the child as he or she makes an enviable structure, it will be impossible for them to avoid the sage advice of the geneticist.

There could be a whole slew of Michael Phelps learners out there, knowing full well what they are gifted towards a career, and they pursue that field of inquiry until it becomes a passion.

This inside-out education, rather than outside-in, flips current ideas of school on its head.

And it has interesting applications for skills like reading, writing, and arithmetic.

These are democratic skills, which means they are skills that we teach all students in the hope that it promotes greater social cohesion. Yet as fields and sciences become more and more complex, and as we require more and more time to reach the bleeding edge to make discoveries, it’s clear we are at some breaking point. It takes people a third of their lives to get to the point of specialty, and that is simply not acceptable. The United States is going in the opposite direction in life expectancy, and without some form of bioengineering or life extending drug, we need not just skills that build social cohesion, we need faster teaching to get people where they need to go sooner.

Is literacy a necessary skill?

Suppose this architect, spatially-oriented as a child may be, becomes a savant of designing builds. Is it possible for this child to design and communicate his findings without having to learn how to read?

My position has a fallacy, that literacy only provides literacy, when the truth is that literacy is an exponential skill that helps so many other aspects of learning.

But did Michael Phelps read books on how to swim? Or did he, you know, learn how to swim?

Surely the coach is the one who learned how to read? That way he had the knowledge to better coach Michael Phelps to access that predisposition?

Maybe there is a future in which a geneticist tells a set of expectant parents, “Your child is going to be a language professional. Look at the parts of the brain here that affect linguistic skills. I would recommend you put a book into your child’s hand as soon as possible.”

Reading may become a specialized skill like any other, and the goal of reading people would be to give attention to the methods of communication in the form of technical writing. Their methods of communication would be greatly sought to handle issues of the law, education, technical expertise, disputes, and so on.

In one sense, we sort of already have this idea in miniature. We have lawyers who are able to parse out the law. Right now, AI is disrupting the track of lawyers, as they work to develop better programs than paralegals can compete with. But until we find truer mathematical arrangements for arranging disputes, someone will need to do the legwork of understanding how the laws are applied in society. We need professional readers.

The greater problem remains. It can’t be helped: there is simply too much knowledge out there for everyone to learn about organic chemistry while also reading Wuthering Heights.

Just don’t ask Michael Phelps to deliberate on the passions of Catherine and Heathcliff.

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