Saturday, September 1, 2012

Annotations: Proust and the Squid (part 2)


Chapter 3: The Birth of an Alphabet and Socrates' Protests

p. 58
What distinguished our ancestors in ancient Greece from us was the great value the Greeks placed on oral culture and memory. Just as Socrates probed his students' understanding in dialogue after dialogue, educated Greeks honed their rhetorical and elocutionary skills, and prized above all almost everything else the ability to wield spoken words with knowledge and power. The astounding memory capacities of our Greek ancestors are one result.

p. 60
Various influential twentieth-century scholars have argued that the alphabet represents the apex of all writing and that, consequently, alphabet readers "think differently."

...three claims about supposedly unique contributions of the alphabet...
(1) the alphabet's increased efficiency over other systems;
(2)the alphabet's facilitation of novel thoughts, never before articulated; 
(3) the novice readers' ease in acquiring an alphabetic system through their increased awareness of the sounds of speech.

p. 66
[point 2]
Every child, [whether using an alphabet, hieroglyph, or other, "nonalphabetic logosyllabary"], who learns to read someone else's thoughts and writer his or her own repeats this cyclical, germinating relationship between written language and new thought, never before imagined.

From a cognitive perspective, therefore, it is again not that the alphabet uniquely contributed to the production of novel thought, but rather that the increased efficiency brought by the alphabetic and syllabary systems made novel thought more accessible for more people.

[point 3]
The Greek alphabet did differ dramatically from previous writing systems in its incorporation of highly sophisticated linguistic insights into human speech. The ancient Greeks discovered that the entire speech system of oral language could be analyzed and systematically segmented into individual sounds.

Socrates' Protests, Plato's Quiet Rebellion, and Aristotle's Habit
p. 70
I regard the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, when Socrates and Plato taught, as a window through which our culture can observe a different but no less remarkable culture making an uncertain transition from one dominant form of communication to another. Few thinkers could be as capable of helping us examine the place of oral and written communication in the twenty-first century as the "gadfly" and his pupils. 

Socrates passionately decried the uncontrolled spread of written language; Plato was ambivalent, but used it to record arguably the most important spoken dialogues in written history; and as a youth Aristotle was already immersed in "the habit of reading."

p. 71
Socrates taught students to questions the words and concepts conveyed by spoken language so they could see what beliefs and assumptions lay beneath them. Socrates demanded that everything be questioned...

Socrates’ objections to written language
[1] First, Socrates posited that oral and written words play very different roles in an individual's intellectual life;
[2] second, he regarded the new--and much less stringent--requirements that written language placed on both memory and the internalization of knowledge as catastrophic; and
[3] third, he passionately advocated the unique role that oral language plays in the development of morality and virtue in a society. (71-72)

p. 73
Underlying the Socratic method lies a particular view of words--as teeming, living things that can, with guidance, be linked to a search for truth, goodness, and virtue. Socrates believed that unlike the "dead discourse" of written speech, oral words, or "living speech," represented dynamic entities--full of meanings, sounds, melody, stress, intonation, and rhythms--ready to be uncovered layer by layer through examination and dialogue. By contrast, written words could not speak back. The inflexible muteness of written words doomed the dialogic process Socrates saw as the heart of education.

In his classic work Thought and Language, Vygotsky described the intensely generative relationships between word and thought and between teacher and learner. Like Socrates, Vygotsky held that social interaction plays a pivotal role in developing a child's ever deepening relationships between words and concepts.

p. 74
A more subtle concern for Socrates is that written words can be mistaken for reality; their seeming impermeability masks their essentially illusory nature. Because they "seem... as though they were intelligent" and, therefore, closer to the reality of a thing, words can delude people, Socrates feared, into a superficial, false sense that they understood something when they have only just begun to understand it. 

[second objection: Memory Destruction]
p. 75
By committing to memory and examining huge amounts of orally transmitted material, young educated Greek citizens both preserved the extant cultural memory of their society and increased personal and social knowledge.

...Socrates held this entire system in esteem not so much for a concern for preserving tradition as from the belief that only the arduous process of memorization was sufficiently rigorous enough to form the basis of personal knowledge that could then be refined in dialogue with a teacher. From this larger interconnected view of language, memory, and knowledge, Socrates concluded that written language was not a "recipe" for memory, but a potential agent of its destruction.

[third objection: Loss of Control over language]
p. 77
Underneath his ever-present humor and seasoned irony lies a profound fear that literacy without guidance of a teacher or of a society permits dangerous access to knowledge. Reading presented Socrates with a new version of Pandora's box: once written language was released there would be no accounting for what would be written, who could read it, or how readers might interpret it.

p. 78
Socrates' enemy never really was the writing down of words, as Plato realized. Rather, Socrates fought against the failures to examine the protean capacities of our language and to use them with all our intelligence.

Annotations: Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf (part 1)

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain outlines the history of mankind's attempt to learn to read, from using tokens and marks as a record keeping system, to hieroglyphics and cuneiform, to the Greek alphabet; it covers the development of reading in the life of the individual and how that process can become short-circuited; and it covers how reading disabilities prevent the usual development of reading ability. In my reading I am more interested in the first two sections.


Part 1: How the Brain Learned to Read

Chapter 1: Reading Lessons from Proust and the Squid

p. 1
We were never born to read. human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species. Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences.

p. 5
Within the constraints of our genetic legacy, our brain presents a beautiful example of of open architecture. Thanks to its design, we come into the world programmed with the capacity to change what is given to us by nature, so that we can go beyond it.

p. 7
While reading, we can leave our own consciousness, and pass over into the consciousness of another person, another age, another culture. 'Passing over,' a term  used by the theologian John Dunne, describes the process through which reading enables us to try on, identify with, and ultimately enter for a brief time the wholly different perspective of another person's consciousness.

p. 9
...the brain doesn't find just one simple meaning for a word; instead it stimulates a veritable treasure trove of knowledge about that word and the many words related to it. The richness of this semantic dimension of reading depends on the riches we have already stored, a fact with important and sometimes devastating developmental implications for our children.

p. 11
Unlike its component parts such as vision and speech, which are genetically organized, reading has no direct genetic program passing it on to future generations.

p. 15
What happens between our first exposure to letters and expert reading is very important to scientists because it offers a unique opportunity to watch the orderly development of a cognitive process. The various features that characterize the visual system--enlisting older genetically programmed structures, recognizing patters, creating discrete working groups of specialized neurons for particular representations, making circuit connections with great versatility, and achieving fluency through practice--are similar in all the other major cognitive and linguistic systems involved in reading.

p. 16
Reading is a neuronally and intellectually circuitous act, enriched as much by unpredictable indirections of a reader's inferences and thoughts, as by the direct message to the eye from the text.

p. 17
...the generative capacity of reading parallels the fundamental plasticity in the circuit wiring of our brains: both permit us to go beyond the particulars of the given. The rich associations, inferences, and insights emerging form this capacity allow, and indeed invite, us to reach beyond the specific content of what we read to form new thoughts. In this sense, reading both reflects and reenacts the brain's capacity for cognitive breakthroughs.

p. 17 [Quoting Proust:]
We feel quite truly that our wisdom begins where that of the author ends, and we would like him give us answers, while all he can do is give us desires. And these desires he can arouse in us only by making us contemplate the supreme beauty which the last effort of his art has permitted him to reach. But by... a law which perhaps signifies that we can receive the truth from nobody, and that we must create it ourselves, that which is the end of their wisdom appears to us but the beginning of ours.

p. 19
As the cognitive scientist eloquently remarked, "Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on." To acquire this unnatural process, children need instructional environments that support all the circuit parts that need bolting for the brain to read. Such a perspective largely departs from current teaching methods that focus largely on only one or two major components of reading.

Chapter 2: How the Brain Adapted itself to Read: The First Writing Systems

p. 27
["Tokens" are clay pieces with markings used to account for physical goods; they are also the earliest discovered attempts at writing.]
A lovely irony of our species' cognitive growth is that the world of letters may have begun as an envelope for the world of numbers.

p. 28
...along with cave drawings like those in France and Spain, tokens reflected the emergence of a new human ability: the use of a form of symbolic representation, in which objects could be symbolized by marks for the eye.

p. 37
The act of teaching not only requires a firm knowledge of the subject, but also forces the teacher to analyze what goes into the learning of a particular content. Moreover, good teaching renders the multiple dimensions of the subject to be taught more visible..."

p. 38
A major contribution of early Sumerian writing is the way that teaching methods promoted conceptual development. Requiring Sumerian pupils or any other children to learn semantically and phonetically related words helped them recall words more efficiently, increase their vocabulary, and increase their overall conceptual knowledge. In current terms, the Sumerians used the first known metacognitive strategy to teach reading. That is, Sumerian teachers gave their pupils tools that made explicit how to learn something, and how to remember it.

p. 42
The English language is... a historical mishmash of homage and pragmatism. We include Greek, Latin, French, Old English, and many other roots, at a cost know to every first- and second-grader. Linguists classify English as a morphophonemic writing system because it represents both morphemes (units of meaning) and phonemes (units of sound) in its spelling, a major source of bewilderment to many new readers if they don;t understand the historical reasons.