How to instill an appreciation of the difference between “fact” and “poetic truth,” in kids and grownups alike.
By Maria Popova
Few things rattle the fine line between the benign magic of mythology and the deliberate delusion of a lie more than the question of how, what, and whether to tell kids about Santa Claus. Half a century ago, Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978) — the world’s most influential cultural anthropologist and one of history’s greatest academic celebrities — addressed this delicate subject with great elegance, extending beyond the jolly Christmas character and into larger questions of distinguishing between myth and deception.
From the wonderful out-of-print volume Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views (public library) — the same compendium of Mead’s answers to audience questions from her long career as a public speaker and lecturer, which also gave us her remarkably timely thoughts on racism and law enforcement and equality in parenting — comes an answer to a question she was asked in December of 1964: “Were your children brought up to believe in Santa Claus? If so, what did you tell them when they discovered he didn’t exist?”
Mead’s response, which calls to mind Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, is a masterwork of celebrating rational, critical thinking without sacrificing magic to reason:
Belief in Santa Claus becomes a problem mainly when parents simultaneously feel they are telling their children a lie and insist on the literal belief in a jolly little man in a red suit who keeps tabs on them all year, reads their letters and comes down the chimney after landing his sleigh on the roof. Parents who enjoy Santa Claus — who feel that it is more fun talk about what Santa Claus will bring than what Daddy will buy you for Christmas and who speak of Santa Claus in a voice that tells no lie but instead conveys to children something about Christmas itself — can give children a sense of continuity as they discover the sense in which Santa is and is not “real.”
With her great gift for nuance, Mead adds:
Disillusionment about the existence of a mythical and wholly implausible Santa Claus has come to be a synonym for many kinds of disillusionment with what parents have told children about birth and death and sex and the glory of their ancestors. Instead, learning about Santa Claus can help give children a sense of the difference between a “fact” — something you can take a picture of or make a tape recording of, something all those present can agree exists — and poetic truth, in which man’s feelings about the universe or his fellow men is expressed in a symbol.
Recalling her own experience both as a child and as a parent, Mead offers an inclusive alternative to the narrow Santa Claus myth, inviting parents to use the commercial Western holiday as an opportunity to introduce kids to different folkloric traditions and value systems:
One thing my parents did — and I did for my own child — was to tell stories about the different kinds of Santa Claus figures known in different countries. The story I especially loved was the Russian legend of the little grandmother, the babushka, at whose home the Wise Men stopped on their journey. They invited her to come with them, but she had no gift fit for the Christ child and she stayed behind to prepare it. Later she set out after the Wise Men but she never caught up with them, and so even today she wanders around the world, and each Christmas she stops to leave gifts for sleeping children.
Children who have been told the truth about birth and death will know, when they hear about Kris Kringle and Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas and the little babushka, that this is a truth of a different kind.
It has seemed to me for some time that beauty, as a conscious element of experience, as a thing to be valued and explored, has gone into abeyance among us. I do not by any means wish to suggest that we suffer from any shortage of beauty, which seems to me intrinsic to experience, everywhere to be found. The pitch of a voice, the gesture of a hand, can be very beautiful. I need hardly speak of daylight, warmth, silence.
Reflecting on her own journey as a writer, Robinson observes the enduring sense that she “must try to be an interpreter of the true and absolute world, the very planet,” and considers how the paradoxes of “beauty” bristle amid that quest:
The word beauty has always seemed to me unsatisfactory. I have often felt there is an essential quality for which we have no word, and that therefore I am driven back on beauty, or elegance, which has the same problem. It is interesting that both these words are French, that they displaced Old English precursors. In any case, the word beauty has never seemed to me quite suited to the uses I have had to make of it, as though it were never really naturalized into my interior language, or what I might call my aesthetic experience, if that did not oblige me to use the word aesthetic. Why this awkwardness? Why must we lapse into French or Greek to speak of an experience that is surely primary and universal? Perhaps the awkwardness of the language refers to the fact that the experience of beauty is itself complex. We all know we can be conditioned to see beauty where our culture or our generation tells us to see it… And we know beauty can be fraudulent, compromised. Whenever power or privilege wishes to flaunt itself, it recruits beauty into its service, or something that can at least pass as beauty and will achieve the same effect. So it is entirely appropriate to regard beauty with a critical eye. But the point should be to discover an essential beauty, not to abandon the intuition altogether.
In a remark of terrific timeliness in the context of today’s news landscape, Robinson laments the loss of the nineteenth-century reverence for the dignity of ordinary language, the language of the people, and its ability to “do as much as the mind can ask of it, and do it with extraordinary integrity.” With an eye to journalism, publishing, and the media, which “are no true gauge of what public feeling is, or what it could be if it formed under other influences or had other choices,” she writes:
What we have lost with this awareness is respect for people in general, to whom we condescend, as though we were not all ourselves members in good standing of people in general. We explain others to ourselves without reference to what were once called their souls, to their solitary and singular participation in this mystery of being. We are not much in awe of one another these days. We do not hesitate to deprive each other of dignity or privacy, or even to deprive ourselves of them.
There are those who believe we have outlived every beautiful notion about what human life must be, because this is the age of science. These people must not have been paying attention. Science, being one of the unequivocally human undertakings, describes humanity to itself, for weal and woe, in everything it does. Mathematicians and physicists have a habit of using the words beautiful and elegant to endorse theories that are likelier to cleave to the nature of things because of their efficiency and soundness of structure. I would like to see language brought to a similar standard. If this were at all a philosophic age, we might be wondering why it is that beauty can test reality and solve its encryptions in the modest, yet impressive, degree our humanity allows. For me, this is a core definition of beauty: that it is both rigorous and dynamic and that it somehow bears a deep relationship to truth.
We are part of a mystery, a splendid mystery within which we must attempt to orient ourselves if we are to have a sense of our own nature… I believe that there is a penumbra of ignorance and error and speculation that exceeds what might be called the known world by a very large factor indeed. I believe this penumbra is as beautiful in its own way as what I have called truth because it is the action of the human consciousness. It is most human and most beautiful because it wants to be more than consciousness; it wants to be truth.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Donald Barthelme’s notion of writing as an art of not-knowing, Robinson contemplates the mesmerizing mysteries of science — mysteries like the “great spiral structures in space so vast that no account can be made of them” — and makes a beautiful case for why science and the humanities belong together:
To what can we compare these things but to the mind that discovered and described them, the human mind, which, over the centuries, has amassed by small increments the capacity for knowing about them. Planet earth is not even a speck of dust in the universe, and how uncanny it is that we have contrived to see almost to the edge of what time and light will allow, to look back billions of years and see suns forming. When I read about such things, I think how my own heroes would have loved them. What would Melville have done with dark energy, or Poe with spooky action at a distance? Whitman could only have loved the accelerating expansion of the universe. Dickinson probably knew already that our sun is atremble with sound waves, like a great gong. It is a loss of the joy of consciousness that keeps us from appropriating these splendors for the purposes of our own thought.
Robinson considers the wisdom of the ancients, who “recognized a special destiny for humankind, when grueling labor and early death would have consumed most of them,” as she returns to the question of beauty:
The destiny we have made for ourselves may well be the end of us; we all know that, and they seem to have known it too. Still, there is magnificence in it all. So the supposed conflict of science and religion is meaningless, because these two most beautiful ventures of expression of the human spirit are reduced to disembodied fragments of themselves with no beauty about them at all, which is a great pity, since their beauty should have been the basis for harmony between them.
Like science, she argues, writing deals in the potentialities of reality, weaving similar “webs of possibility fashioned from conjecture and observation” — and language, style, and form are the essential tools of this observation, inseparable from the possibilities conjectured:
To approach any utterance as if its meaning were separable from its presentation is to disallow art in every positive sense of that word. It is to strip away the individuation that might make a work a new witness, and it is to violate the bond of reader and writer. The essence of our art lies in creating a lingering dream, good or bad, that other souls can enter. Dreaming one’s soul into another’s is an urgent business of the human mind: the dreaming itself, not whatever agenda can supposedly be extracted from it. As art, it plays on the nerves and the senses like a dream. It unfolds over time like a dream. It makes its own often disturbing and often inexplicable appeal to memory and emotion, creating itself again in the consciousness of the reader or hearer.
The abeyance of beauty, Robinson suggests, can be attributed in no small part to the rift between dreams and agendas upon which the news-media industrial complex — be it CNN or Buzzfeed, it’s worth adding — is built:
Everything we are asked to look at is abrupt, bright, and loud in the visual sense of the word, especially the evening news. We are expected to react to it, not to consider it. It is addressed to our nervous systems, never to our minds.
And yet Robinson is no techno-dystopian — she fully accounts for the role of choice and personal responsibility in reclaiming our higher potentialities:
There is no inevitability in any of it. The visual technologies are blamed, but in fact no more beautiful studies of the human face exist than those made in film while it was still possible for the camera to pause for a moment.
Revisiting “the epic battle between parody science and parody religion,” Robinson finds similar parody in the institutions and industries purporting to represent public life:
Anything stripped of the beauty and dignity proper to it is a parody. Public life itself is now entirely too vivid an instance of this phenomenon. We are losing an atmosphere that is necessary to our survival. We are losing the motive and the rationale that supported everything we claim to value. But the solution is everywhere around us and is as simple as seeing and hearing. We are a grand and tragic creature, humankind, and we must see ourselves as we are … alone in our capacity for awe, and in that fact altogether worthy of awe… Now, because we have devoted so much ingenuity to the project, we have devised more ways to tell ourselves more stories, which means only that an ancient impulse is still so strong in us as to impel the invention of new means and occasions for telling and hearing to satisfy this appetite for narrative. At the most fundamental level, narrative is how we make sense of things — that is, our experience of ongoing life is a story we tell ourselves, more or less true, depending on circumstance. I believe this narrative is the essential mode of our being in the world, individually and collectively. Maintaining its integrity — maintaining a sense of the essentially provisional or hypothetical character of the story we tell ourselves — is, I will suggest, our greatest practical, as well as moral and ethical, problem.
This crucial role of the hypothetical is also what makes the parallel between science and storytelling so apt:
I tend to draw analogies from science because I believe that our sense of the world is always hypothesis, and we are sane in the sense that we understand this.
All thought always inclines toward error. The prejudices that would exclude one tradition of thought, be it science or be it theology, from this tendency are simply instances of the tendency toward error… The mind is prolific in generating false narrative. Like the immune system, it can turn against itself, defeat itself.
We have all forgotten what ought to be the hypothetical character of our thinking… We are inappropriately loyal to our hypotheses, rather than to the reality of which they are always a tentative sketch. This is a special problem in a climate of urgency and anxiety.
But in this very tendency lies the greatest promise of storytelling as a tool of questioning and a hedge against the paralyzing modern notion that “the great questions are closed.” Inviting us to “participate in the mystery of these facts as surely as Shakespeare ever did” — Shakespeare, lest we forget, was inspired by Galileo’s scientific discoveries — Robinson writes:
There is no reason to suppose the invention of narrative is in any way a marginal activity. Narratives define whole civilizations to themselves, for weal or woe.
The human situation is beautiful and strange. We are in fact Gilgamesh and Oedipus and Lear. We have achieved this amazing levitation out of animal circumstance by climbing our rope of sand, insight, and error — corrective insight and persistent error. The working of the mind is astonishing and beautiful.
Meaning is essentially a new discovery of the joy of consciousness—and, of course, the perils of it. We live in uncertainty, which means that we are always exposed to the possibility of learning more, for weal and woe. I would call this awareness humanism, an ultimate loyalty to ourselves that we are all too ready to withhold.
An intelligent antidote to propaganda’s chronic line of unreasonable reasoning.
By Maria Popova
“Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much,” Carl Sagan wrote in his now-legendary Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking. Since 1993, former mechanical engineer turned actor Bill Nye “The Science Guy” — for who Sagan was a personal hero — has been testing and demonstrating the pillars of science, from the everyday to the existential, for kids and grownups alike as a television host, comedian, writer, and one of the most important science educators of our time. In Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation (public library | IndieBound), Nye sets out to undo the immeasurable cultural damage done by anti-science propaganda by exploring why evolution is not only one of the most important ideas in the history of science but also the most meaningful creation story humanity has ever known.
Nye writes in the opening chapter:
Once you become aware — once you see how evolution works — so many familiar aspects of the world take on new significance. The affectionate nuzzling of a dog, the annoying bite of a mosquito, the annual flu shot: All are direct consequences of evolution. As you read this book, I hope you will also come away with a deeper appreciation for the universe and our place within it. We are the results of billions of years of cosmic events that led to the cozy, habitable planet we live on.
But the capacity for such appreciation in science requires the same thing that Oscar Wilde believed was necessary for appreciating art — a “temperament of receptivity.” Nothing stifles that capacity, especially in a young mind only beginning to learn the tools of understanding, more surely than dogma. In one particularly punchy passage, which he read on a recent episode of The New York Times’Science Times podcast in his characteristic animated style, Nye addresses the creationist reader directly with equal parts humor and intellectual rigor:
But for certain people who hold a creationist point of view, life’s common chemistry paints a completely different picture. They claim it indicates that we are all the product of a designer who made everything according to the same plan, all at once.
That line of reasoning also leads to questions — but they’re the exasperating kind. If there was a designer, why did he or she or it create all those fossils of things that aren’t living anymore? Why did the designer put all these chemical substitutions of radioactive elements in with nonradioactive elements? Why did a designer program in this continual change that we observe in the fossil record, if he or she assembled the whole system at once? In short, why mess around with all this messiness? If you’re a creationist reading this, and you want to remark something like, “Well, that’s the way he did it,” I’ll tell you right back, that is just not reasonable, nor is it satisfactory. If we were playing on a team right now, I’d say, “Get your head in the game.”
In the book itself, he goes on to write:
Another thing: If there were a designer, I’d expect some better results. I’d expect no common cold viruses, for example. Or, if viruses are an unavoidable or accidental consequence of a designer designing with DNA molecules, I would hope that we’d be immune to those accidental viruses. If the argument is, “Well, that was all part of the plan,” then I have to ask: How can you take the lack of evidence of a plan as evidence of a plan? That makes no sense.
“While it is not the business of education … to teach every possible item of information, it is its business to cultivate deep-seated and effective habits of discriminating tested beliefs from mere assertions, guesses, and opinions.”
By Maria Popova
“Do not feel absolutely certain of anything,” philosopher Bertrand Russell instructed in the first of his ten timeless commandments of teaching and learning in 1951. And yet formal education, today as much as then, is for the most part a toxic byproduct of industrialism based on the blind acquisition of certainty and the demolition of the “thoroughly conscious ignorance” that gives rise to real progress, both personal and cultural. To fuel the internal engine of learning is a lifelong journey we are left to steer on our own as the education system continues to flounder. The quest to repair that broken system has never been addressed with more urgency and passion than it is today, and yet one of the most intelligent and timely takes on it comes from more than a century ago.
In How We Think (free download; public library) — his timelessly stimulating 1910 treatise on the art of reflection and fruitful curiosity — John Dewey, one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century, distills the purpose and ideals of education with remarkable clarity and conviction. The enactment of these ideals today would produce nothing less than a radical, sorely needed transformation of our broken education system.
Dewey champions the role of education in equipping us with the sort of critical thinking necessary for questioning authority, deconditioning our “mental bad habits,” and dispelling false beliefs and illusory ideas bequeathed to us by society:
Causes of bad mental habits are social as well as inborn… Over and above the sources of misbelief that reside in the natural tendencies of the individual (like those toward hasty and too far-reaching conclusions), social conditions tend to instigate and confirm wrong habits of thinking by authority, by conscious instruction, and by the even more insidious half-conscious influences of language, imitation, sympathy, and suggestion. Education has accordingly not only to safeguard an individual against the besetting erroneous tendencies of his own mind—its rashness, presumption, and preference of what chimes with self-interest to objective evidence — but also to undermine and destroy the accumulated and self-perpetuating prejudices of long ages. When social life in general has become more reasonable, more imbued with rational conviction, and less moved by stiff authority and blind passion, educational agencies may be more positive and constructive than at present, for they will work in harmony with the educative influence exercised willy-nilly by other social surroundings upon an individual’s habits of thought and belief.
Arguing that “the office of education in forming skilled powers of thinking,” Dewey considers the essentials of “mental discipline” and articulates the basic tenets of critical thinking that Carl Sagan would come to outline in his now-legendary Baloney Detection Kit nearly a century later:
While it is not the business of education to prove every statement made, any more than to teach every possible item of information, it is its business to cultivate deep-seated and effective habits of discriminating tested beliefs from mere assertions, guesses, and opinions; to develop a lively, sincere, and open-minded preference for conclusions that are properly grounded, and to ingrain into the individual’s working habits methods of inquiry and reasoning appropriate to the various problems that present themselves. No matter how much an individual knows as a matter of hearsay and information, if he has not attitudes and habits of this sort, he is not intellectually educated. He lacks the rudiments of mental discipline. And since these habits are not a gift of nature (no matter how strong the aptitude for acquiring them); since, moreover, the casual circumstances of the natural and social environment are not enough to compel their acquisition, the main office of education is to supply conditions that make for their cultivation. The formation of these habits is the Training of Mind.
And yet this training, Dewey is careful to point out, isn’t a one-size-fits-all operation but, rather, should be tailored to finding each student’s element and harnessing his or her natural ability:
The very importance of thought for life makes necessary its control by education because of its natural tendency to go astray, and because social influences exist that tend to form habits of thought leading to inadequate and erroneous beliefs. Training must, however, be itself based upon the natural tendencies — that is, it must find its point of departure in them. A being who could not think without training could never be trained to think; one may have to learn to think well, but not to think. Training, in short, must fall back upon the prior and independent existence of natural powers; it is concerned with their proper direction, not with creating them.
Teaching and learning are correlative or corresponding processes, as much so as selling and buying. One might as well say he has sold when no one has bought, as to say that he has taught when no one has learned. And in the educational transaction, the initiative lies with the learner even more than in commerce it lies with the buyer. If an individual can learn to think only in the sense of learning to employ more economically and effectively powers he already possesses, even more truly one can teach others to think only in the sense of appealing to and fostering powers already active in them. Effective appeal of this kind is impossible unless the teacher has an insight into existing habits and tendencies, the natural resources with which he has to ally himself.
Two of our most important and most universal natural faculties essential for learning are curiosity and a “desire for fullness of experience.” Dewey writes:
The curious mind is constantly alert and exploring, seeking material for thought, as a vigorous and healthy body is on the qui vive for nutriment. Eagerness for experience, for new and varied contacts, is found where wonder is found. Such curiosity is the only sure guarantee of the acquisition of the primary facts upon which inference must base itself.
He later adds:
To the open mind, nature and social experience are full of varied and subtle challenges to look further.
Our ability to cultivate the powers of curiosity and reap its fruits, however, is predicated on our fragile willingness to embrace uncertainty and welcome the unknown. Lamenting “the open-minded and flexible wonder of childhood and of the ease with which this endowment is lost,” Dewey considers the various channels of this loss and how education, at its best, can rekindle curiosity:
If germinating powers are not used and cultivated at the right moment, they tend to be transitory, to die out, or to wane in intensity. This general law is peculiarly true of sensitiveness to what is uncertain and questionable; in a few people, intellectual curiosity is so insatiable that nothing will discourage it, but in most its edge is easily dulled and blunted.
Some lose it in indifference or carelessness; others in a frivolous flippancy; many escape these evils only to become incased in a hard dogmatism which is equally fatal to the spirit of wonder. Some are so taken up with routine as to be inaccessible to new facts and problems. Others retain curiosity only with reference to what concerns their personal advantage in their chosen career. With many, curiosity is arrested on the plane of interest in local gossip and in the fortunes of their neighbors; indeed, so usual is this result that very often the first association with the word curiosity is a prying inquisitiveness into other people’s business. With respect then to curiosity, the teacher has usually more to learn than to teach. Rarely can he aspire to the office of kindling or even increasing it. His task is rather to keep alive the sacred spark of wonder and to fan the flame that already glows. His problem is to protect the spirit of inquiry, to keep it from becoming blasé from overexcitement, wooden from routine, fossilized through dogmatic instruction, or dissipated by random exercise upon trivial things.
Bemoaning education’s focus on mindless memorization rather than true understanding, Dewey pulls into sharp focus the central system failure that still plagues us today:
Pupils who in matters of ordinary practical experience have a ready and acute perception of the difference between the significant and the meaningless, often reach in school subjects a point where all things seem equally important or equally unimportant; where one thing is just as likely to be true as another, and where intellectual effort is expended not in discriminating between things, but in trying to make verbal connections among words.
The depth to which a sense of the problem, of the difficulty, sinks, determines the quality of the thinking that follows; and any habit of teaching which encourages the pupil for the sake of a successful recitation or of a display of memorized information to glide over the thin ice of genuine problems reverses the true method of mind training.
In the remainder of How We Think, an immeasurably lucid and necessary read in its entirety, Dewey goes on to explore the most reliable strategies for cultivating the essential “mental discipline” of intellectual development and self-expansion, both in public formal education and in our private journeys of lifelong learning. Download it as a free ebook here, then revisit Kio Stark’s modern manifesto for lifelong learning beyond the classroom.