Monday, February 03, 2014

Learning vs. Acquiring. Reading and Writing vs. Speech

One of the reasons humans can learn so much so quickly is because of the presence of adaptive modules -- really, instincts -- that both result in the creation of social knowledge and are developed from that social knowledge. Language is a good example of this. Without an instinct to language, humans could not use or make language. The notion that someone came along and decided, one day, to create language is utterly ridiculous. You cannot create language without a notion of language. It is thus an evolved instinct. However, the details of any given language are learned.

I say, "learned," but in fact the details of any given native language are actually acquired, not learned. There is a huge difference between acquiring something and learning it. You acquire your native language and any other language you encounter pre-puberty, but you learn any second language you have learned post-puberty. You can only learn how to read and write -- they are not acquired. But morals are acquired, not learned.

What, then, is the difference between something learned and something acquired? You acquire something for which you have the neural modules. You thus acquire the language you speak, the morals you practice, the aesthetics with which you judge works as beautiful. On the other hand, when you learn something, there are no naturally evolved modules to speed things along; more, the modules available in the brain have to be adapted to the task. For example, parts of the brain modules for recognizing shapes and for recognizing faces, which are right next to each other, are used for reading and writing in the creation and recognition of letters. Other modules are no doubt adapted for other uses as well. For example, we acquire music, but we learn to play a musical instrument.

Unfortunately, we use the same term -- learn -- when we talk about language acquisition and learning to read and write. However, the former is natural and acquired, while the latter two are learned technologies. The fact that reading and writing are learned technologies explains how it is that a person can speak more eloquently than they write, or write more eloquently than they speak. Yet, there is this expectation that, because someone can speak, that they should be able to learn how to read and write just as easily. However, our brains are not designed to read and write -- our brains merely adapt to learn to read and write. And that adaptation comes at a cost: literate peoples are less able to recognize faces than are illiterate peoples. Educators need to recognize these facts in teaching students how to read and write, and in our expectations about our students' willingness to read and write.

Think about it. We may think a person impractical given contemporary circumstances, but we wouldn't wail and gnash our teeth if someone were to say they didn't like using computers and/or the Internet. There are people who don't like cars and don't like to drive, and drive as little as possible. I resisted getting a cell phone for the longest time, and since my son put my phone in a glass of water, I honestly haven't missed it. Yet, we (overeducated elites) are appalled when we come across people who (horror of horrors!) hate to read and are happy going through life not doing so.

At the same time, communication is increasingly written. We write tweets and emails and on Facebook and on blogs and send memos and have to write reports. How much more reading do people do because of the existence of the Internet? Of course, much of that reading is the tweets, emails, etc. of their friends, meaning common errors in composition make their rounds and build within textual communities. But I would venture to guess that even this is not the real problem with college students' writing.

The real problem is that the percentage of people attending college has been steadily increasing over time. Once, universities were primarily full of people who loved to read and had read a great deal. Those same people are going to college, but they are being joined by an increasing number of people who not only do not read, but actually hate to read. You simply cannot teach adult students who do not like to read, and thus have not been exposed to literally thousands of hours of good sentences, how to write well. The hours of reading and writing (and corrected writing) have to be put in well before college. There is no getting around this fact. Student writing is getting worse not just because our high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools are complete disasters at teaching these two technologies -- but because most of the students attending college are now non-readers.
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