Learning, Disability, and the Pursuit of Knowledge

learning disability

Can learning new information, facts, data, etc., really make us better people? Does pursing knowledge really help us make better decisions?

This is a question that has always fascinated me, and it seems to have taken on a new urgency given the state of things. Take, for instance, the justifiable and completely warranted outrage over Betsy DeVos. Her complete and utter lack of information or knowledge about anything related her job as Secretary of Education is incomprehensible. I value public education. To think that someone as unqualified as her will be able to have so much influence over education policy is a disgrace.

Or take the furor over “fake news,” and “alternative facts”, and “post-truth.” Fact-checking is the new baby animal picture on social media. A lot of us are obsessed with making sure we are well-informed, but even more importantly, that other people are well-informed. After all, you need all the information you can get to be able to make good decisions.

Or do you?

I am completely unqualified to talk about these epistemological issues, just to be clear. But my issue with the above is not that we should ignore facts, or refuse to educate ourselves, but that we believe that we can educate ourselves, and that by being informed, whether through schooling, fact-checking, or some other means, we can change our behaviors and make different choices that ultimately lead to better outcomes for ourselves, and the people we care about.

I don’t buy it. Here’s why.

Those Who Can’t… Teach

I love teaching. Whether or not I’m good at it is beside the point. One of the greatest joys I’ve ever known is to see and have a hand in making something click for someone else.

I think all truly great teachers know these two things to be true:

  1. no matter how much you think you may know something, you never fully realize how little you know until you have to explain it to someone else; and
  2. you can never, ever make someone learn something. You can lead a horse to water etc., etc.

The first, seems obvious enough. But it is the second that occupies most of my thoughts on the subject. Because no matter how hard I try to explain something to someone else – how many tools I employ, how many examples I give, what senses I activate – I have no power to force another to learn anything. Teaching, then, is an exercise in patience, yes, but it also has a nihilistic quality as well – for if we really think about the absolute lack of control we have to teach another, the whole project can seem pointless.

I have a little saying that I like to throw around as an amateur pedagogue, “No matter how hard I try, I cannot make someone learn. They have to be willing to receive what I offer.”

The pupil, then, has significantly more power in the teacher-pupil relationship than the teacher, when it come to learning that is. It is the student, not the teacher, who decides what is learned, and to some extent, taught. The gap between student and teacher, between what they know and what they don’t know, between what the teacher knows and the student doesn’t know, is impossibly wide and bottomless. Perhaps there are master teachers out there who have found the way to bridge that gap, but it seems unlikely. If you can’t make someone learn, maybe it’s not possible to teach.

Information Overload

I heard the following on a FiveThirtyEight podcast during the election season last year: “bringing facts to a culture war is like bringing a knife to a gun fight.”

Yet, the impulse to fact-check every single thing we see is irresistible. Don’t get me wrong, I am just as guilty as the next person. But at what point will we realize that no amount of facts will change anyone’s opinion. No matter how many snopes.com articles we post, your libertarian uncle and evangelical mother-in-law will continue to believe the very thing you just disproved. I am unqualified to answer why that is the case, but it is more likely than not that we are all susceptible, if not inclined towards this behavior.

But the issue I find fascinating (and disturbing) is not the psychological, but the moral. If we do not change our beliefs or behaviors based on facts, or data, or information, and we cannot change other’s beliefs with facts, data, or information, what does? What is it that can change how we look at the world? what we believe? how we behave towards others?

Don’t Be Stupid

Last semester, I gave a TED talk about the history of disability, specifically, how it has been understood historically and how that understanding has shaped how we see and treat people with disabilities today. I focused mainly on intellectual disability for two reasons. First, my brother is intellectually disabled, as are most of the people in the disability community that I have or have had relationships with. Not that physical disabilities haven’t also been a part of that, but, and this is the second reason, physical disabilities have much more (this is very relative) representation in the public square.

I would highly recommend going to twitter and look at the #CripTheVote hashtag. It is a great campaign to bring the issues of people with disabilities into the political conversation. But, it is almost entirely a movement by and for people with physical disabilities. Even in the world of academia physical disabilities has more representation than intellectual disabilities. Just think about going to literally any place in the country – there are handicapped parking spaces, ramps, grab bars in the bathroom, etc. These, while absolutely necessary and beneficial not just to people with disabilities, were designed for and with people with physical disabilities in mind.

Part of the reason for this collective forgetting (ignoring?) about intellectual disability, I think, is because of the questions I’ve raised above – does learning more really help you make better choices?

The following excerpt is from an earlier post:

The father of special education, Edouard Seguin, continued the process of reform that began several centuries earlier but directed it towards those persons with [intellectual] disabilities. This was due in large part to a widespread optimism that these institutions could, even for the most severely impaired person, teach and reform within their walls. However, it soon became clear that there were those for whom no amount of education or reform would make any difference in terms of curing their impairments. These so-called “unteachable idiots” began to crowd the asylums.

At the same time, the moral structure of society was also degrading, with the rise of prostitution, alcoholism, etc., and, “…blame for these ills was increasingly shifted onto the feebleminded.” There were many publications that warned of the dangers that the feebleminded would reek on society – everything from the sexual assault of innocent women to numerous pregnancies and subsequent children (it was believed that the feebleminded had more children)…

The confluence of these two forces – the perceived social and moral degradation blamed increasingly on those with intellectual disabilities and the realization that there are some for whom no education will change their impairment – led to drastic measures.

The drastic measures were forced sterilization laws.

Sterilization was a frequent measure used by those advocating for genetic purity in America and then later Nazi Germany, where much more horrific means were used.

The eugenics movement in early 20th century America, which inspired Nazi Germany to begin a program of its own, that forcibly sterilized countless people with disabilities, not to mention the horrific institutional conditions, resulted from the staunch belief that not only will people make better decisions if you teach them, but that everyone can be taught.

Something is Dropped

The irony of this whole post is that it is, no matter how hard I try to deny, an attempt to give you more information, or at least present it in a different context, in the hopes that you will change your opinions and beliefs in order to make better choices. So instead of trying to convince you that you should change your mind, or at least rethink your assumptions about the value of information and facts, let me offer you two quotes and a final reflection.

In pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.

True mastery can be gained
by letting things go their own way.
It can’t be gained by interfering.

– Tao Te Ching

When we walk our way and encounter a man who comes toward us, walking his way, we know our way only and not his; for his comes to life for us only in the encounter.

Of the perfect relational process we know in the manner of having lived through it our going forth, our way. The other part merely happens to us, we do not know it. It happens to us in the encounter. But we try to lift more than we can if we speak of it as something beyond the encounter.

Our concern, our care must be not for the other side but for our own, not for grace, but for will. Grace concerns us insofar as we proceed toward it and await its presence; it is not our object.

The You confronts me. But I enter into a direct relationship to it. Thus the relationship is at once being chosen and choosing, passive and active. For an action of the whole being does away with all partial actions and thus also with all sensations of action (which depend entirely on the limited nature of actions) – and hence it comes to resemble passivity.

– Martin Buber, I and Thou

Perhaps instead of trying to acquire more and more, what is needed is that we give up not only what we think we know, but the need to know it. In the Tao Te Ching a distinction is made between pursuing and practicing. Just as important, as Buber points out, is our position in this process – we cannot know the other’s way, we can only know ours.

Tao, or Dao, is sometimes translated as, “the way.” But it refers to much more than this:

the Tao is the intuitive knowing of ‘life’ that cannot be grasped full-heartedly as just a concept but is known nonetheless through actual living experience of one’s everyday being. (shamelessly quoted from Wikipedia)

Buber also speaks of a way, our way, as that which can only be known by us. Only by encountering the other does their way, “come to life.” Both the Tao and Buber are concerned here with actual life. And that actual life is not experienced through the pursuit of knowledge, but in the giving up of the pursuit of knowledge and in encountering the other.

There is no better expression of this than my relationship to my brother. I cannot change his mind about anything, I cannot feed him more information, more data, and try to convince him that he needs to change his opinion. Such thoughts are a little absurd given his profound intellectual disability. Further, it is just as absurd to consider that I will be changed by acquiring more information, data, or knowledge about intellectual disabilities, or epilepsy, or cognition, etc. None of that will help me relate to him any better, and isn’t that really what all of this is about anyway? The belief that if we gain more information we can make better decisions is always, ultimately, about the other.

Either I pursue knowledge and information, which only better illuminates my way, or I give up that pursuit, and by giving it up the way of the other is made known to me – indeed, it is the only way to true relationship. And I guess this is my point, if I have one: wanting to make better decisions for our life by adding more information cuts us off from that which makes us human: relationships with other humans. How much better will our lives be, and how much better will our relationships be, if instead of adding something everyday, everyday something is dropped.

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