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July 18, 2018


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Good, informative post, Anthony. Thank you for bringing this to our attention!

Scott Fruehwald

This is certainly correct, but there is much more to it. How does the brain learn (the neurobiology of learning)? How can we use the neurobiology of learning to better educate our students? What learning techniques work well and which ones don't? I explain this in detail in Bringing Legal Education Reform into the First Year: A New Type of Torts Text,50 John Marshall L. Rev. 713 (2018).

P.S. Writing is essential to the learning process because it is active learning.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

For a brain “to learn,” it would need, among other things, to be able “to think,” and brains do no such thing (and ‘the mind’ is not reducible to, that is, identical with, the brain). Human beings learn, but neither brains nor machines (extravagant claims about AI notwithstanding) are capable of “learning.” Indeed, neurobiology cannot tell us anything of value about learning as such:

“The brain does not _do_ anything that could possibly count as manifesting thought. It does not engage in thoughtful performances of Hamlet nor does it play a subtle game of tennis. It does not speak thoughtfully or thoughtlessly, it does not argue intelligently, nor yet stupidly—since there is no such thing as a brain arguing [or learning, for that matter]. [….] Brains do not conceive of this or that, since brains do not conceive of anything, and brains do not suffer from misconception since they do not have conceptions. Nothing in the behavioural repertoire of a brain could satisfy the criteria for thinking something, since brains have no behavioral repertoire.”

The above is from P.M.S. Hacker’s The Intellectual Powers: A Study of Human Nature (John Wiley & Sons, 2013). See too, among other works (for instance, by Raymond Tallis, Hilary Putnam …) M.R. Bennett and P.M.S. Hacker, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (Blackwell, 2003), and Michael S. Pardo and Dennis Patterson, Minds, Brains and Law: Conceptual Foundations of Law and Neuroscience (2013).

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Re: “[A]s you teach to a group of young people, you realize there are things you still don’t know enough about how to teach credibly, to teach fully, and so on. That drives you back to additional reading.”

This differs descriptively a tad from my own teaching experience, as I—for better and worse perhaps—never doubted my ability “to teach credibly, to teach fully,” although I did come to better appreciate the extent of my ignorance. In other words, the experience called to mind a quote from Albert Einstein that Jon Elster is fond of: “As the circle of light increases, so does the circumference of darkness around it.”

And as I began to read more, I came up against what might be called “disciplinary insularity” or more generously or impartially, the academic division of cognitive or intellectual labor. In effect, this found me wanting if not needing to explore material outside my area of formal training and specialization, an experience that was (and still is) exasperating for my dear wife, for she knew this was a portent of not only more visits to the library, but also more trips to the bookstore and thus a dent in the family budget. Incidentally, this accounts for my avocational passion for composing bibliographies, at least the genetic motivating reason, as my current reasons are, I believe, less selfish: I wanted to get some systematic grip on the breadth and depth of the relevant literature, even if I knew I would never be able to master same in the manner of those who spend most of their lives in a particular field of study. To date I have composed 88 such lists (of varying length: from less than ten pages to over one hundred) and am often asked if I’ve read every title in these bibliographies: of course not! But it has fueled my ardent passion for reading and served as a perpetual reminder of the ever-expanding scope of my ignorance (much in the manner that our highest ideals recede from us as we deliberately and sincerely pursue them).

One spillover or by-product effect of this rather inordinate reading habit is that I became interested in the so-called “methodologies” of the natural and especially the social sciences, coming to see the folly of practitioners in the latter domain trying to slavishly emulate the various methods honed over time in the former. At the same time and relatedly, I became sensitive to the limitations or constraints, some of which are conspicuous shortcomings, of the methods in the social sciences. I won’t go into that topic here but it does bring me ‘round to some thoughts by Nicholas Rescher on the aforementioned intellectual division of labor vis-à-vis the “information revolution” of our time and place, thoughts he intended largely for the natural sciences but I suspect are equally apt for the social sciences:

“The ongoing refinement in the division of cognitive labour that an information explosion necessitates issues in a literal disintegration of knowledge. The progress of knowledge is marked by an ever-continuing proliferation of ever more restructured specialties marked by the unavoidable circumstance that any given specialty cell cannot know exactly what is going on even next door—let alone at a significant remove. Understanding matters outside one’s immediate bailiwick is bound to become superficial. At one base one knows the details, nearby one has an understanding of generalities, but at a greater remove one can be no more than an informed amateur. [….]

The emergence of new disciplines, branches and is manifest everywhere [think, for example, of the various neurosciences (neuro- this or that); of the emergence of “law and economics,” “behavioural economics,” “cultural economics,” “institutional economics;” specialized cognitive sciences; AI coupled with this, that, and the other thing; ecological and environmental sciences; specialized fields in ethics: metaethics, applied ethics, bioethics, neuroethics, computer or machine ethics, animal ethics; … and so forth and so on]. And as though to negate this tendency and maintain unity, one finds an ongoing evolution of interdisciplinary syntheses—physical chemistry, astrophysics, biochemistry, [sociobiology is a more germane example in our case, as is the rather implausible or even impossible field of “neuro-aesthetics”], etc. The very attempt to counteract fragmentation produces new fragments. [….] An ever larger number of ever more refined specialties have made it more and more difficult for experts in a given branch of science to achieve a thorough understanding about what is going on even in the specialty next door. [….]

Yet complexity is not an unqualified negative. It is an unavoidable concomitant of progress. We could not extend our cognitive or our practical grasp of the world without coming to terms with its complexification. Throughout the realm of human artifice—cognitive artifice included—further complexity is part and parcel of extending the frontiers of progress.”

Hence the enormous if not intimidating task of teachers who come to be intimately apprised of and thus properly motivated by this “cognitive complexity” in the course of their vocation. At least it should provide some assurance that those who teach must remain lifelong students (or ‘learners’) of a kind as well.

So, teaching is rather difficult (this is said primarily for the sake of those on the outside looking in), and that difficulty has, alas, been transformed into something damn near impossible (at least outside the more privileged or elite halls of education, but this should be understood as applicable to both formal pedagogical practices and the more informal education we’ve learned to be indispensable to a well-formed democratic civil society) by another recent phenomenon, well-summarized here by Daniel R. DeNicola in his recent book, Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Don’t Know (MIT Press, 2017):

The sort of ignorance ubiquitous “in [our] ‘knowledge society’ during the Information Age,” “is what might be termed public ignorance, by which [is meant] widespread, reprehensible ignorance of matters that are significant for our lives together. Functional illiteracy and innumeracy are examples. Such ignorance might [have once been] explained, if not excused, by lack of educational opportunity; but that seems obtuse when applied to countries with rich educational resources. [And yet, these educational resources may be subject, as they are in times of increasing socio-economic inequality, to grossly unequal distribution for reasons having to do with, say, class or race (and sometimes gender), so lack of opportunity, correctly understood, is not always and everywhere an “obtuse” explanation.*] Besides, the rate of functional illiteracy may be higher in today’s America than it was in colonial New England [a note by DeNicola qualifying this claim speaks to the precise meaning of “functional illiteracy”]. Stubbornly high rates of illiteracy and innumeracy are a public shame, no doubt. This is remedial ignorance, the need is for learning—except that many such forms of ignorance thrive despite years of schooling [that fact alone may go some way in explaining the many Americans who voted for Trump].”

* And of course the question of “educational resources” does not address let alone remedy obdurate problems or obstacles common to regnant “philosophies” of education in this country, including specific educational strategies and methods, as a close reading of works by the philosopher (and democratic theorist par excellence) John Dewey or even those penned by comparatively neglected anarchist philosophers who speak to this subject remind us.

Anthony Gaughan

Thank you, anon!

Anthony Gaughan

I agree entirely, Scott, and thank you for the cite to your new article, which looks great.

Anthony Gaughan

Patrick, I love that Einstein quotation. The ancient Greeks had a similar saying, which basically was that "the more you know about a subject, the more you realize how much you don't know about it."

Donald Rumsfeld captured a related idea with his famous warning that the "unknown unknowns" (that is, our ignorance of our own ignorance) constitute the most dangerous form of ignorance, especially in the policymaking sphere but in other areas of life as well, including the classroom.

The bottom line is we can't really begin to understand a subject until we figure out what we don't know about it. So a spirit of intellectual humility should always inform our pursuit of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. I think that is what Professor Gaddis was getting at, and I certainly agree with him.

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