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Improvisation: Learning and the Improvisation of the Senses

The development of perceptual acuity is an important dimension of learning [Refer: Probe - Learning Is Improvisation]. A great of the most interesting thoughts about perception come to us by way of the artist. This is not surprising since it is the artist that constantly seeks new ways to apprehend experience. We commonly tend to think in terms of concepts, or ideas that have already been given form in our thoughts. Perception is about what happens before thoughts and ideas are formalized in our minds and, more importantly, how we can expand our perceptual abilities to energize learning. The role of perception in learning demands that we challenge not only what we think we know, but also how we come to know something...

Learning: Attention to the Here and Now

Aldous Huxley's Island is a call to attend the here and now.

"But why did they teach him those things? Why 'Attention'? Why "Here and now'?

"Well..." She searched for the right words in which to explain the self-evident to this strange imbecile. "That's what you always forget, isn't it? I mean, you forget to pay attention to what's happening. And that's the same as not being here and now."
- Island

The grievance lying behind this is that we are not paying attention to what is happening in the present moment. Our attention and awareness is directed somewhere else. With respect to education, Huxley is referring to the problem that the ways in which we have learned to perceive the world have become so biased by symbolism that we have impaired our ability to be aware of and pay attention to the present moment:

By themselves, the humanities don't humanize. They're simply another form of specialization on the symbolic level.
- Island

In other words, our perception is constantly immersed over long periods of time in the language of symbols, and therefore the abstraction of experience. Through symbols we learn to classify and categorize. We learn to perceive symbols, but may not be well equipped to perceive the authentic experiences they point toward. In doing so we create thoughts and ideas in a peculiar way and, in Huxley's terms, in a way that distracts our attention and awareness of the here and now.

The Closure of Perception

Neil Postman commented on this tendency from a different perspective:

Our understanding of what is real is different. Which is another way of saying that embedded in every tool is a ideological basis, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another.
- Technopoly : The Surrender of Culture to Technology

Postman's comment was referring to the bias if number on constructing our understanding of education. That is, the idea of grading students' work amplifies the sense that intelligence can be reduced to a number - that human thought can be quantified and expressed numerically. In this context, human intelligence is communicated through the technology of numbers. Our perception is amplified toward the number, and our experience of learning biased by a pathological application of mathematics. Of course, there is no fundamental proof of this. However, even in the absence of proof the reality of education for millions of people is to turn their thoughts and ideas into numerical representation. A human being is a number in this learning environment. This is a fundamental mistake, and perhaps a dangerous one as well. If education were a person, we might feel Huxley's tension in having "to explain the self-evident to this strange imbecile."

Postman also commented that education has a tendency to construct the world as one thing rather than another. The example above focused on the amplification of human thought as a numerical entity. Huxley referred to the problem of symbol manipulation and the amplification of abstract experience over the here and now.

Learning: Every Moment is a Privileged Moment

From a slightly different angle, Albert Camus invites a similar perspective on the critical importance of perception in learning:

Thinking is learning all over again to see, to be attentive, to focus consciousness; it is turning every idea and every image... into a privileged moment.
- The Myth of Sisyphus

Thinking in this context is a form of intensive awareness that encourages us to learn to see again. The idea of "learning all over again to see" means that we expand our abilities to perceive the world in order to think new thoughts, come up with new ideas, amplify new ways of knowing, and finding personal meaning. In other words, we learn to perceive the world in a variety of ways. Learning, in this sense, is always in constant motion - knowledge is a flow of communication, not merely a static classification scheme. Under the idea that learning turning every idea and every image... into a privileged moment we connect to Huxley's idea of the here and now in learning as well to resolve Postman's concern with being limited to a particular ideological bias.

Learning to be in the moment can be thought of as making every moment a privileged one. In other words, we are constantly seeking new perceptions of our experiences even if our circumstances may be quite familiar and routine. In this sense, the development of perceptual acuity is an antidote to the information glut. Under the bias of information we have a tendency to think more is better, or to find ways of connecting on set of information to another, or to explore ways to limit the amounts of information we deal with. Regardless of what we do with information, it is a form of symbol manipulation and therefore all the skills to access, manage, process and communicate information are really just different aspects of one single thing. Information, no matter how well connected, is a form of symbol manipulation.

Perception invites a different perspective. In a sense, perception begins with the one single thing and from there we learn to expand our thoughts outwards, not through connecting information to it, from by observing and challenging our own direct experience with it. In Huxley's terms we learn to pay attention and direct our awareness on the here and now. In Camus' terms we turn every experience into a privileged moment. None of this is to say that information does not have a role to play, however, it is to say that the manipulation of information is not the primary concern in learning to expand our sense perception.

The Hypnotic Subject

If we can control the ways in which a person perceives their experiences, then we can control the ways in which they think and create meaning.

"All children are good hypnotic subjects - so good that four out of five of them can be talked into somnambulism... these people are the propagandist's predestined victims."
- Island

More specifically, if we force people to perceive the world through symbolism, then their thoughts and ideas will be unavoidably biased by those symbols. perhaps this is one of the reasons that students often seem ill equipped for the real worlds after they emerge from their schooling. Their minds are biased by abstraction in the midst of a world that presents a new and different reality.

The somnambulist is educational sleepwalker - student that perhaps receives high grades but is asleep by virtue of the fact that their perception of the world has become incapacitated by the bias of symbols. What about the one out of five students that cannot be talked into somnambulism? Who are they? It is entirely possible that a large proportion of these students today are School Dropouts, Pushouts, and Optouts. The students that do not bow to the authority of the education system are those that, perhaps, demand other ways of knowing - other ways of experiencing the world. And if the education system is unable to accommodate these other ways of knowing, then it imposes a form of isolation on these students via an endless onslaught of labels. The student is the label.

McLuhan also commented on the tendency for new technologies to create period of intellectual and perceptual somnambulism:

For many people, this cooling system brings on a lifelong state of psychic rigor mortis, or of somnambulism, particularly observable in periods of new technology.
- Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

Tagging The Mind: Perceptual Improvisation

It seems to me that what many people fail to take in account is that our idea of what is "new" is really a variation on an old theme. McLuhan referred to this as figure and ground; a musician refers to this as theme and variation. A figure or variation is new in the sense that it provides a different perspective on the ground or theme. However, the ground or theme is not new, it remains the same. We might consider a new technology such as tagging to be new, and in the sense that it provides a variation on the way we manipulate digital content across the Internet we can say that it is new. However, it is not new with respect the underlying ground or theme. Regardless of how tagging is presented, it remains a form of symbol manipulation on the screen regardless of the content it points toward. In this sense, tagging is old and commonplace.

Many people mark-up the books that they read. They might highlight words and phrases, underline particular words and phrases, write notes in the margin, make notes at the end of chapters on any remaining blank space, cross-reference one page to another, leverage the index of a book to explore ideas laterally and thereby breakdown the sequential orientation of the text, and so on. Upon revisiting these mark-ups at a later point in life they might find that their thinking related to the book has changed and therefore change their commentary in the book itself.

This, it seems to me, is a far more productive way of "tagging" our minds. In this sense, a well-written and motivational book will be an invitation to re-reading it over the course of our lives. And this re-reading is not merely an act of literacy. In Huxley's terms, we invite the thoughts of the author and our own thoughts into the here and now. What does this same text mean to me now? In Camus' terms we invite the second, third, fourth, etc. reading of a book to be a privileged moment in which we learn all over again to see. A book is always new, regardless of how many times we have read it, because in the periods of time between the readings we have had new kinds of experiences. We can never come back to the same book in exactly the same way.

A book is a learning environment for perceptual improvisation.

We can only create meaning from a book by "linking" what is being said by the author to our own personal experiences in life. On one level this involves mere comprehension of the text, something more closely aligned to literacy. But comprehension of text is not enough to create meaning from it. Quoting things an author has said does not in any way indicate an understanding of it. The key to creating to meaning from text is to consciously move our perceptions of the text beyond the symbols into the here and now. This demands the development of our perceptual acuity in learning, not mere literacy.

Learning To Be In The Present Moment

The idea of learning to be in the present moment means that what was once familiar becomes mysterious. Improving learning through the development of perceptual acuity means to start with a single source and radiate our thoughts and ideas outward. In this sense, perception is a kind of reaching out and is different from our orientation to information, which is essentially a constant pulling in.

When our perceptual abilities become biased by what Postman refers to as a single ideology we bind our perceptual acuity to that ideology. This is a place where real artists refuse to go. Perceptual confinement leads to conceptual pedantry. We literally think about and feel the world through that ideology, often at the expense of other ways of knowing, and more importantly, creating meaning. With respect to Huxley's grievance that we immerse ourselves in symbol manipulation, the end effect is to amputate our sensory apparatus from direct experience. This is why when many people walk through a forest they can only see labels, and often fail to perceive and therefore more fully appreciate the experience of the forest. It's not that we can't see the forest for the trees; we can't even see a tree for the labels. In this way, our identity is reduced to symbolism and endless forms of classification that amplifies a particular way of knowing while severing others.

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