The Stuff of Thought

From Steven Pinker’s book The Stuff of Thought, on the role education plays (HT: Miles Kimball):

When all the pieces fall into alignment, people can grope their way toward the mouth of [Plato’s] cave. In elementary education, children can be taught to extend their number sense beyond “one, two, many” by sensing an analogy between an increase in rough magnitude and the order of number words in the counting sequence. In higher education, people can be disabused of their fallacies in statistics or evolution by being encouraged to think of a population as a collection of individuals rather than as a holistic figure. Or they can unlearn their faulty folk economics by thinking of money as something that can change in value as it is slid back and forth along a time line and of interest as the cost of pulling it forward. In science and engineering, people can dream up analogies to understand their subjects (a paintbrush is a pump, heat is a fluid, inheritance is a code) and to communicate them to others (sexual selection is a room with a heather and a cooler). Carefully interpreted, these analogies are not just alluring frames but actual theories, which make testable predictions and can prompt new discoveries. In the governance of institutions, openness and accountability can be reinforced by reminding people that the intuitions of truth they rely on in their private lives—their defense against being cheated or misinformed or deluded—also apply in the larger social arena. These reminders can militate against our natural inclinations toward taboo, polite consensus, and submission to authority.

None of this, of course, comes easily to us. Left to our own devices, we are apt to backslide to our instinctive conceptual ways. This underscores the place of education in a scientifically literate democracy, and even suggests a statement of purpose for it (a surprisingly elusive principles in higher education). The goal of education is to make up for the shortcomings in our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world. And education is likely to succeed not by trying to implant abstract statements into empty minds but by taking the mental models that are our standard equipment, applying them to new subjects in selective analogies, and assembling them into new and more sophisticated combinations.

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