Can you inhabit a concept? On creative inquiry.

Most of our education, at least in the school system, happens at the conceptual level. So the question arises: what does it mean to learn a concept? I’m not trained in the theory of education, but my sense is that learning concepts is regarded as being similar to learning a foreign language. To learn the language, you learn the vocabulary and grammar and how to manipulate them. To learn a concept, you learn its content and how it interacts with other concepts.

Of course, that’s not a very accurate model, either for languages or for concepts. Learning vocabulary and grammar for a new language is a good start, but you’ll learn a lot more once you start to read authors who write in that language; even better, when you go in live in a country where that’s the native tongue. The same holds for concepts: you learn what they mean when you inhabit them.

What I mean by this is that you need to engage the concept, to make it your own. A simple, partial example is when a set of statistics is expressed in graphic form. The visual image lets the numbers become part of your world, at least in a limited way. Through the image, the information the numbers convey enter the world that you inhabit, and in that sense they become part of that inhabited world.

This concept of inhabiting seems to me key (which is why I’m trying to get you to inhabit it). It’s like reading a novel. A good novelist presents a richly detailed world, or at least a richly detailed scene. You can read those details in a distanced, abstract way, taking note of their meaning without really engaging them. Or you can also read those details in a way that lets you enter the world of the novel. Here’s an example chosen at random from a novel I have on my Kindle at the moment:

The next morning . . . my wife and I had one of those fights that are entirely unnecessary, in which everyone is simply reciting lines scripted by their worst impulses, a dull sequel to old fights, a dull prologue to later fights, a DVD frozen on the same stupid mid-blink face of a normally good-looking actor.

Do you see how you can read this passage in one of two ways? You can simply tick off the images as you read, making sure you understand them so that you can go on reading. But you can also get absorbed in them, one at a time, so that they come alive for you, so that you inhabit them: the lines scripted by your worst impulses; the image of mid-blink stupidity, and so on. Only this second approach is going to let you appreciate the work of the author and engage the world of the novel. Of course, it will take more time and more effort. If the novel speaks to you, that extra effort will seem worthwhile. In fact, the extra effort is inseparable from what it means to ‘appreciate’ the novel, to let it grow within you.

The same thing holds true for a concept. Suppose you are reading an argument in favor of a certain position. You have to follow the argument step by step, in light of the larger issues at stake. It’s like rolling a mouthful of wine in your mouth to get the full flavor. You might think it’s enough to get the logic of the argument, the way the pieces fit together, but it’s not: that’s the Cliff Notes version. You have to try the argument on for size. You have to become the one making the argument, to inhabit the world where that argument holds. In the end you may reject the argument, but even rejecting it depends on having first engaged it fully.

The concept is the gateway to a world, the world in which that concept matters. Your responsibility is to inhabit that world. When you do, you learn something that you will learn in no other way.You learn what it means to hold that concept as being true.

The word “education” literally refers to “leading/drawing out.” But you draw out the meaning of something by entering it. You “e-duce” by “in-ducing.” That may sound like word play, but in truth I’m trying gesture toward a style of inquiry that goes way beyond words.

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