Friday, April 17, 2015

The pen as a magic wand

I have had the sense over recent years that some of our young adults (and adults) are increasingly disengaged from reality but I have always ascribed that thought to simple agism. They aren't like I was, they must be doing it wrong seems an age old attitude.

This sense of magical thinking has been fed by direct interaction with the young adults and arises from their job expectations (focusing on what an employer can do for them rather the value they can bring to the employer), how they go about their education (seemingly expecting excellent marks for excellent effort rather than excellent results), how they calibrate their expected income (my income should cover what I want to buy rather than I should only buy what my income can accommodate), etc. It shows up also in a reluctance to accept the reality of trade-offs. I want my cake and eat it too and it is somehow unjust that I can't have that.

I have also ascribed this inclination (which may not be real, only perceived to be real) to general prosperity (which reduces the need for hard either/or choices), to laxer school standards where effort is sometimes a major part of the grade, and to other trends.

John Althouse Cohen has an observation that might suggest a different cause. I don't think he has anything more than a stimulating idea but it is an intriguing one. From What are we doing when we teach fiction to kids?
I want to make an observation I’ve never heard anyone make before. I’d be interested to know if anyone has expressed the same thing. If not, I’d be shocked, since this is something that’s right under our noses. Here it is:

When we teach children fiction — reading it, writing it, understanding it, loving it — as important as those teachings are, I think they also have a negative side effect. By teaching fiction so often and beginning at such an early age, we condition children to expect the “just right” results to flow inexorably from the writing of those who are good and bright.

Before kids learn about economics or law, politics or psychology, they learn that we’re supposed to treasure writing not primarily based on how well it corresponds to reality, but primarily based on whether it makes us feel good. And I intend the double meaning of “good” as in both “contented” and “moral.”

This could explain why well-educated, intelligent people, all across the political spectrum, so often make the unspoken assumption that good intentions and well-crafted words are sufficient for making good public policy.
In an increasingly dynamic, multi-causal non-linear chaotic complex system (the modern world and the modern economy) which is constantly evolving at a rapid pace in unpredictable ways, we are slowly being forced to adjust our preferred (and historically immensely productive) form of thinking which tends to be linear (Inputs A,B, and C will, with great probability, lead to desired outcomes X, Y, and Z) to a more systems thinking approach to the world. Systems thinking takes into account that in complex, dynamic, non-linear multi-causal systems there is no guaranty that A leads to Z. All you can do is undertake to make changes that are more likely to yield the desired outcome but with a high level of uncertainty.

But as Cohen points out, fiction lends itself to a linear form of thinking. We get to set all the rules in a fictional account so that the stage we set leads to the denouement we wish as an author. We are in control. We have a magical power with the pen that is our wand.

Effective communication and imagination are undeniably important. But I wonder if Cohen might have a thought that is worth exploring. Perhaps children ought to learn a little more about the world before they practice controlling it with the pen.

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