Sunday, November 22, 2009

Reading the World

I'd like to continue here with the discussion of William Cronon's list of qualities of a liberally educated.

The second quality of a liberally educated person:  They read and they understand.

One would, it seems, have to have been beaten with the idiot stick to even question the presence of this item on the list, and Cronon admits as much (see the excerpt below).  However, and this is why Cronon bears a wider audience than I think this piece has received (and I would urge every school district administrator in the nation to read/reread this piece), he makes it clear that he is not speaking merely of the ability to read words.  He believes liberally educated people apply skills similar to those employed in reading words to how they look at and move through the world.  In a sense, liberally educated people read the world and construct their own understanding of it.  Here's Cronon:

They read and they understand:
This too is ridiculously simple to say but very difficult to achieve, since there are so many ways of reading in our world. Educated people can appreciate not only the front page of the New York Times but also the arts section, the sports section, the business section, the science section, and the editorials. They can gain insight from not only THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR and the New York Review of Books but also from Scientific American, the Economist, the National Enquirer, Vogue, and Reader’s Digest. They can enjoy John Milton and John Grisham. But skilled readers know how to read far more than just words. They are moved by what they see in a great art museum and what they hear in a concert hall. They recognize extraordinary athletic achievements; they are engaged by classic and contemporary works of theater and cinema; they find in television a valuable window on popular culture. When they wander through a forest or a wetland or a desert, they can identify the wildlife and interpret the lay of the land. They can glance at a farmer’s field and tell the difference between soy beans and alfalfa. They recognize fine craftsmanship, whether by a cabinetmaker or an auto mechanic. And they can surf the World Wide Web. All of these are ways in which the eyes and the ears are attuned to the wonders that make up the human and the natural worlds. None of us can possibly master all these forms of “reading,” but educated people should be competent in many of them and curious about all of them.

Certainly reading books and the printed word is key to academic and life success.  But look at how Cronon extends those skills.  This is "reading the world" and it is a full body experience.  Thus, the liberally educated person uses all her senses to experience the world.  What Conon is suggesting is that liberally educated people live fully conscious lives, that they are the embodiments of Plato's statement:  "The unexamined life is not worth living."  To read the world as Cronon suggests, one must continuously ask questions, must search for patterns, must understand different standards of quality and be able to identify them within the world's many texts.  All of this, and more, all good teachers model for their students.


symbot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
symbot said...

(Made a little revision to the comment, since it stopped making sense in the middle.)

I agree with the sentiment here, but the way it's phrased implies a reverse claim: when you say that liberally-educated people "read the world," you imply that there are people who DON'T read the world. Perhaps he's suggesting the alternative that some people merely react to the world (see Bergson, who claims that "intelligence" is merely a longer delay between sense impression and reaction).

I'd be careful about this... can you honestly claim that there are people out there who don't construct some sort of "reading" of their world? I think you could argue that not only do all people create "readings" of the world at all times, but that even some animals and objects create such "readings" when it's necessary to their functioning. i.e. I think we can assume that certain animals, like monkeys, create world-views and symbolic systems that count as "readings," and in some cases, such as their sense of danger read from their surroundings, these readings may be more sensitive than any possessed by a liberally-educated Westerner.

However, looked at in light of some other theories, I guess it makes sense... the Bergson, above, or some theory of symbol-manipulation as the fundamental human function, like the Strong Symbol System Hypothesis. Looked at in this light, I suppose Cronon may be advocating for an education that allows us to be as skilled as possible at symbol-manipulation. Maybe it's a tautology that the more symbols we can process and account for simultaneously, the better-educated we are, and the happier we're liable to be.

Garreth said...


I mean "reading" in the sense of "symbol manipulation," as you note in your third paragraph, not in a more general sense of merely making meaning from incoming stimuli. And I mean it in the sense that not only are they familiar with symbols of different types (visual symbols, auditory/musical symbols, figurative and literal symbols (linguistically speaking)), but they understand how to construct meaning in such systems. Toward that interpretation, then, the more widely educated a person, the more symbol systems he she is, theoretically, exposed to. As liberal educations offer one of the widest ranging curricula, I'm sticking to that interpretation. Additionally, symbol manipulation is a process, and learning various such processes is one of the ends of a liberal education. However, LIberal Educations generally provide a broader scope of "content knowledge" than more focused educations. As reading well not only calls upon being able to enact the processes that make connections between what is already known and the new information/symbols encountered through the senses but also the ability to access a broad body of knowledge, the more broadly educated a person, the greater the opportunity for reading the world because their content knowledge is (again, generally) broader.

Thus, because liberally educated people generally have more practice in symbol manipulations of all types and because liberal educations provide, curricularly speaking, the broadest education (see the medieval model of a liberal education: The trivium--logic, rhetoric, grammar; and the quadrivium--arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, music) and therefore the broadest content exposure, they also provide the best prerequisites for reading.

I understand your caveat about coming off as a liberal (ly educated) snob in that all people have some type of "reading" they do of the world, but as I note, I'm suggesting Cronon is going beyond that.

This is awfully redundant 'cause I'm awfully tired.

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