How useful thy fiction?

This weekend was my 20 year high school reunion, and for whatever reason — be it nostalgia or morbid curiosity — I decided to attend.  Despite the long drive (I was raised near NYC), it was an interesting experience, even rewarding at times.  And it gave me the impetus to finally file an article that I’ve been meaning to write for some time.

I got the idea last September, when I was reviewing my daughter’s elementary curriculum for the year, and got to the unit on The Five Senses.  I asked her if she knew what they were, and she responded affirmatively, naming sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.  (Disappointingly, she failed to identify Aristotle as the source of this cannon.  I knew I should have stumped for private school).

I then asked her to stand on one leg and recite them.  Eager for any excuse to stand on one leg, she eagerly complied, and while she did, I got up and gave her a slight nudge.  She wobbled a bit, and I asked her if she could feel herself lose and regain her balance, which of course she could.  I then explained how we have far more than 5 senses, and one of the ones she didn’t learn about in school was our sense of balance, which is controlled by sensors in our inner ear.  We then talked about several other senses — motion, heat, pain — resulting not only in her better understanding just what a sense was, but also how important it was to question what you learn in school

Or at least that’s the way I wish I had handled it.  What I actually did was rant for an hour about how the schools are lying to her — and the continuing influence of 2000-year-dead Greeks — until she was both bored with me and terrified I might say something to her teacher.  This is life in the Davis household.

My wife’s perspective on the subject was somewhat different from mine — she regarded the 5 Senses merely as a useful fiction — an intentional simplification that captures the essence without all the complexity.  And in the end, I partly conceded her point, admitting that “sight” was useful enough to convey the point without decomposing it into rods (which sense light intensity) and cones (which sense colour).  Similarly, “touch” is useful enough to cover the various sensors in the skin, including those for heat, cold, pain, itching, and pressure.  However, I do think the fiction would be more useful if it included some of our internal sensors like balance and motion, which are not obviously subsumed into one of the five, yet are still easy enough for a child to understand.

The incident also got me thinking about some of the other bits of misinformation I had learned in school, and wondering whether I’ve been too hard on my teachers.  Were they merely useful fictions, or did I actually have the grievance against the New York State Department of Education that I’ve always thought I did?

Continental Divide

Let’s start here: in grade school I learned that a continent is a very large landmass surrounded by water.  I also learned that there were seven of them: North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica.  Now, even if the Panama Canal had never been built, I think I’d concede the useful fiction of calling North and South America separate continents.  The strip between them is very small — the canal is only 77km, hardly longer than the famous palindrome. I could probably be sold on the same argument in the Suez.  But Europe and Asia are separate continents?  Seriously?  It bothers me to this day that it didn’t produce sufficient cognitive dissonance in a single student to force the teacher to proffer an explanation.

The explanation, of course, is that the term “continent” is as much a political distinction as a geographic one (in fact, geographers don’t really use it).  Asians look different from Europeans, and their languages have different origins.  They haven’t been easily accessible to one another for most of recorded history, and those that did make contact (largely traders) faced obstacles ranging from  mountains and steppes to and Huns and Mongols.  And so in a New York state elementary class in the early 1980’s, a sort of metonymic transfer took place where the “otherness” of Asia attached itself to its geography.

In fact, politics often intervenes in education, and when it does, the usefulness of the fiction can become seriously stretched.  Being schooled in the Rambo-drenched 80’s, Vietnam loomed large, and different parts of the country learned different endings to that war.  But even in fairly liberal places like suburban NYC, where it was strongly hinted that the outcome wasn’t ideal, we learned that the U.S. had never lost a war until Vietnam.

So imagine my surprise, upon arrival at the University of Toronto a decade later, to find out that there were a bunch of deluded Canadians who thought they won the War of 1812.  And by a bunch, I mean all of them, because that’s what they learned in grade school.  I quickly dropped the NY accent, took my citizenship test, and adopted the Canadian particle — if only to avoid my dorm-mates’ arsonist tendencies.

In fact, most historians agree that the war of 1812 was a tie…a negotiated settlement that left things basically the same as they were before the war.  What grade school students learn on both sides of the border is political fiction, and most definitely not useful.

Somewhat more gray is the fiction that Columbus discovered America.  Even in grade school, we knew there were people here before (we still called them Indians as we beat our hands against our mouths), and that they weren’t always here.  And of course we learned about Vikings and their journeys.  So it’s not like anyone was trying to fully conceal the truth, or the perspective from which it the statement was made — it was clearly the European view of things.  Any balanced history would be remiss if it accepted the triumphalism often attached to that view in the face of the destruction of life and culture that it wrought.  But considering how catalyzing an event it was for the next 500 years of American (in the multi-continental sense) history, it would be hard to say that the statement isn’t useful either.

And Woo, Too
Two other incidents stand out for me.  The first is a unit we did in elementary school about ESP — I recall sitting opposite a fellow student, with a screen between us, trying to imagine the picture he was holding on a flash card.  It’s a Bosc pear.  No wait, a Datsun.

Rather than make this a teaching moment, tallying up the results and putting them in the context of the broader lack of evidence for such miraculous powers, we were told that some people had ESP and some didn’t.  I was clearly in the latter, which is why I drive a Honda and avoid fruit to this day.

The other bit that stands out was actually in my junior English class, where we took a break from Hawthorne to learn about subliminal advertising.  We sat around trying to find naked woman in the ice cubes in ads for Harveys Bristol Cream and Mateus — and unlike the ESP experiments, nearly everyone found something.

Now I don’t take objection to the discussion itself — advertisers had toyed with subliminal advertising since the 1950’s, and may still do so.  Media awareness was nearly non-existent in schools at that time, so it could be considered enlightened to have been talking about this at all.

Still, I recall the tone of the discussion as being more conspiratorial than analytical.  Nowhere did we learn that the psych research had already shown subliminal advertising to be of, at best, marginal effectiveness — casting doubt on how much of it was likely still going on.  Perhaps more critically, there was no discussion of how pareidolia might have impacted our in-class findings.  Stare at the ice long enough, you’re bound to see a body part — it’s just how the brain works.

Rhymin’ Simon Says

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder I can think at all

- Paul Simon

I guess I’m a bit more sanguine than Paul.  Despite the fact that most of these examples don’t strike me as particularly useful fictions, I do think I got a pretty good education in the NY public school system.  But there certainly were places where it fell down, and no doubt that’s true in most schools.  I’d love to hear your own educational horror stories in the comments.

3 Responses to “How useful thy fiction?”

  1. infophile says:

    This reminds me of the concept of “lies-to-children,” formalized in the Science of Discworld novels. In essence, a lie-to-children is a lie in that it’s not the exact truth, but it’s closer to the truth than what they previously knew (for instance, teaching that gravity is 9.8 m/s^2 instead of GM/r^2, or GM/r^2 instead of the solution to G_(mu nu) + Lamba g_(mu nu) = 8piG/c^2 * T_(mu nu)). You often have to understand the lie-to-children before you can come close to understanding the truth (or at least, our best approximation of the truth).

    Now, the fiction that Christopher Columbus discovered America might fall under this, as might simplifications about the results of the war of 1812 (I prefer the Canadian version, myself – America was the aggressor, and when the war ends with them having failed to achieve their goals, they’ve lost) or the simplification of the five senses. The other examples, not so much. Some of them are the common knowledge of the day, or what people think is the common knowledge.

    But even when you sort out the lies-to-children from the plain falsehoods, there’s still a big element missing here. Too many people go their entire lives thinking that these lies-to-children are the actual truth. They never to learn to question what they learned in school. And those that become teachers go on to pass these falsehoods down as facts. I don’t think the schools are going to be fixing this on their own anytime soon, so it’s up to the parents to make sure their children are properly skeptical of what they learn in school, so that as their lives go on, they can sort it all out into true, closer-to-the-truth-than-what-I-previously-thought, and false.

  2. Teshi says:

    Not so much a useful fiction as an outright oops, but I remember sitting in class as an eight or seven year old and counting down from eight to measure eight seconds. We were informed that the light that had left the sun when we started counting had now reached us.

    I was enthralled and it took me until at least my mid-teenage years for someone to contradict this notion and the mistake the teacher had made became apparent– mistaking minutes for seconds.

    I’m not sure which is worse: the initial ‘oops’ or the fact I didn’t realise I had been mislead until I was double the age than I had been initially.

  3. C says:

    I’ve got to go with infophile’s argument wrt the War of 1812; If you try to invade a place and the end result is that the border doesn’t change, you’ve lost, and thus, by definition, the defenders won.

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  • Erik Davis

    Erik is a technology professional based in Toronto, focused on the intersection of the internet and the traditional media and telecommunications sectors. A reluctant blogger, he was inspired by the great work Skeptic North has done to combat misinformation and shoddy science reporting in the Canadian media, and in the public at large. Erik has a particular interest in critical reasoning, and in understanding why there’s so little of it in the public discourse. You can follow Erik's occasional 140 character musings @erikjdavis