Rational Religion

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What Kind of Brain Do You Have?  And isn't Brawn better?


There are at least two different kinds of "intelligence" in the human cognitive system.


As a student and teacher, I came to define them, simplistically, as "math heads" and "word heads."


Any professional teacher will understand what I mean without further explanation.  For those who have not been forced by their employment to pay attention to such subtleties, I elaborate.


Some people, from their earliest educational experiences, seem more comfortable dealing with words than with numbers; and vice versa.  In its most mutually exclusive forms, this mental dichotomy is so profound that people in one camp have trouble simply communicating with one another much beyond a mundane discussion of the weather.


This becomes an impediment in the teaching profession when a profound word-head is called upon to explain a difficult abstract concept to someone who thinks best in numbers and formulae.  Or when a math-head must communicate postulates and theorems to a hopeless "wordie," without any vocabulary beyond algebra.


Word people are used to  "thinking fuzzy."  They know, from experience or intuitively, that vocabulary is by nature inexact.  Therefore they are used to verbally surrounding a concept and simply cornering it:  by figuring what it might be and trying it on for size; by eliminating what is isn't and homing in on what's left.


They are comfortable with analogy and approximation and consensus.


To a true math-head, especially a young one, this looks like a colossal waste of time leading to an extremely dubious result. 


Let it be understood that young people, whatever their cranial proclivity, tend to see things in pretty digital terms.  That is, like a computer, or a true-false test, they operate on a "go-no-go" level.  For grade school word-heads, the words they know actually mean something and it's pretty immutable.   They tend to get impatient with long dictionary entries full of alternative meanings. 


But because they are verbal, they soon catch on that defining any word is like catching oxygen in a bottle.  (You can do it, pretty easily, but if you want it isolated you've got a lot of work ahead of you; and a hell of a lot of nitrogen to get rid of.)


Meanwhile, the math-heads simply rebel against the whole process.  Their best thinking tools are much more definable and dependable.  Two plus two is four squared is sixteen: always and without room for discussion. 


By the time your typical math-head finds out that this is no truer nor less debatable than the grade school definitions of good and bad, he or she has become so ingrained into thinking in mathematical terms that even the inevitable paradoxes of human existence are best confronted in those terms. 


And, once again, because word-heads tend to communicate best verbally and math-heads do so numerically or algebraically, teachers from either camp tend to have trouble teaching students from the opposite persuasion. 


This is one of the things that is fundamentally wrong with basic education.  The rich (in whichever mental facility) get richer and richer as their education progresses; and the poor get (comparatively) poorer. (Actually they simply stay in one place and progress not at all.)


Ideally, at least for elementary school instruction, some of the math teachers should be word-heads who have subjected themselves to the discipline of understanding basic mathematical concepts. 


Because they, themselves, understand the difficulty of crossing the conceptual barrier they will tend to be better at explaining math to other word-heads; and because they have had to put a lot of their math into verbal concepts in order to understand it themselves, they can demonstrate to their math-head students that the Great Divide is not an unbridgeable chasm.


Conversely, math-head instructors who have forced themselves to become verbal will communicate math better with the hopeless word-heads in their classes, and might even be able to teach such verbal concepts as sentence diagramming and logical syntax better than most word-heads.


Of course, this is all extremely simplistic.  Few intelligences are so exclusively word or number oriented that they can't comfortably converse with one another.  But in the young a pronounced proclivity for one or the other thought pattern - coupled with an innate human tendency to take the path of least resistance - produces in a school environment a definite and demonstrable dichotomy.


Without a school environment a lot of this divergence would not happen.  Because we - in "advanced" cultures - tend to formally educate our young; and because formal education takes certain formulaic paths; we create an artificial, strictly culture-specific environment which defines our children - or forces them to define themselves - in terms which are not always ideal or beneficial to their welfare.


Typically, a profoundly math-oriented young grade-schooler may often be identified as a "slow learner" because she does not read early or well.  If the child accepts this definition of herself, and it is perpetuated within that particular school system, it may turn into a self-fulfilling obstacle in her educational path, even should she later discover her special facility with numbers and mathematical concepts.


If she is fortunate, she may by junior high school figure out that all those people who have been treating her like an idiot are the real idiots because she can think rings around them as long as there aren't any messy words to get in the way.


Unfortunately, this often leads to an overreaction in which the newly enfranchised math-head can become pretty contemptuous of the poor word-heads around her who can't even extract a square root.


And even more unfortunately, too many of these overreacting souls become math teachers. 


My son (whose later Merit Scholar PSAT scores were identical in math and verbal skills) had a junior high school math instructor who was famous for producing real mathematicians.  He was also infamous for terrorizing and confusing anybody who couldn't speak algebra by age 12.  He and my son, who has his own suite of intolerance for idiots, did not get on well. 


As a college composition instructor at one point in my own teaching career, I found myself trying - in the space of a single semester - to make cogent writers out of a number of math-heads who were going to be math teachers, but who had put off fulfilling their English Comp requirement until they were juniors, or even seniors in college. 


I'm afraid I gave them a lot of grief; asking how the hell they were ever going to be able to teach math to somebody like me if they couldn't communicate in the English language.  (Out of fairness, I graded on achieved progress, not on absolute ability, so nobody got educationally blackballed; but I did give them grief.)


And I have been carrying on, lo these many paragraphs, as though there were only these two types of human intelligence....which is obviously a crock, in the first place.


How about all those poor kids whose talent; perhaps genius; is primarily visual?  Words and numbers both fail them.  There simply aren't any words for what they see and feel, and any attempt to reduce their vision to arithmetic or syntax both frustrates them and inhibits that vision.


And there are the ones who are innately musical.


And so on. 


If any of these divergent intelligences happen also to have a high IQ (or whatever it takes to integrate their special gifts with the rest of the intelligences around them) then they have a chance of escaping the tyranny of elementary school education; emerging perhaps from the 12th grade with their abilities and their self-image sufficiently intact to become a functional adult.   


A lot of the less-balanced or simply less brainy ones fall by the wayside, into chemical dependence or minimum-wage employment.


Does anyone now not understand the phenomenon of school-yard athletic prowess? 


It's whatever earns you some respect.  Strength, aggressiveness and good reflexes are easier to come by than intellectual facility, of any description.


Of course, unless they are truly remarkable, they won't carry you as far down the road of adult life; but they will do when you and everybody whose opinion matters are still under the age of 18.