Thursday, January 10, 2008

How Would a Fool Do It?

I wonder if anyone else noticed the strange doubling of stories in two recent issues of The New Yorker. In the December 17 issue, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about "what I.Q. doesn't tell you about race." He included the following paragraph about how different cultural practices of categorization can be:

The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories. It can be argued that taxonomical categories are a developmental improvement—that is, that the Kpelle would be more likely to advance, technologically and scientifically, if they started to see the world that way. But to label them less intelligent than Westerners, on the basis of their performance on that test, is merely to state that they have different cognitive preferences and habits. And if I.Q. varies with habits of mind, which can be adopted or discarded in a generation, what, exactly, is all the fuss about?

I took notice of this because of that wonderful question: "How would a fool do it?" So imagine my surprise when a different version of the same story came up again in the December 24/31 issue, in Caleb Crain's article "Twilight of the Books":

It’s difficult to prove that oral and literate people think differently; orality, Havelock observed, doesn’t “fossilize” except through its nemesis, writing. But some supporting evidence came to hand in 1974, when Aleksandr R. Luria, a Soviet psychologist, published a study based on interviews conducted in the nineteen-thirties with illiterate and newly literate peasants in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Luria found that illiterates had a “graphic-functional” way of thinking that seemed to vanish as they were schooled. In naming colors, for example, literate people said “dark blue” or “light yellow,” but illiterates used metaphorical names like “liver,” “peach,” “decayed teeth,” and “cotton in bloom.” Literates saw optical illusions; illiterates sometimes didn’t. Experimenters showed peasants drawings of a hammer, a saw, an axe, and a log and then asked them to choose the three items that were similar. Illiterates resisted, saying that all the items were useful. If pressed, they considered throwing out the hammer; the situation of chopping wood seemed more cogent to them than any conceptual category. One peasant, informed that someone had grouped the three tools together, discarding the log, replied, “Whoever told you that must have been crazy,” and another suggested, “Probably he’s got a lot of firewood.” One frustrated experimenter showed a picture of three adults and a child and declared, “Now, clearly the child doesn’t belong in this group,” only to have a peasant answer: "Oh, but the boy must stay with the others! All three of them are working, you see, and if they have to keep running out to fetch things, they’ll never get the job done, but the boy can do the running for them."

The one bit of information that would connect these two stories is whether or not the Kpelle tribesmen mentioned by Gladwell were illiterate or not. If they were, then the categorization issues raised by these two completely distinct stories suggest that modes of categorization shift significantly with the spread of literacy.

But however this coincidence of stories could be interpreted, what struck me was the very fact of its existence, in two articles published in consecutive issues of the same magazine, on quite different topics, without any comment being made on the coincidence by the editors or the authors.

1 comment:

Donald Brown said...

I didn't read either story, but thanks for the lengthy quotations. "How a fool would do it" seems to mean "how an educated person would do it," which translates into: "how would someone do it who has no common sense?"

Common sense or sensus communis being exactly that element of agreement which gives us the abiding impression that we know something because everyone else we know seems to share the same assumptions. You know such "sense" is too entrenched when it's found to be startling that others don't share it, and for valid reasons of their own.