stoney language love

"Consciousness raising"

David Brooks had an interesting but flawed column today, about recent findings in neurological gender differences, and how they explain problems boys are having in school. (Sorry for the pay link–you can sign up for the two week freebie, but don’t forget to cancel if you don’t want to pay.) His bottom line was that literary lessons were designed to appeal to girls, and that boys need different kinds of assignments to learn to appreciate reading. Less Austen, more Hemingway.

It make sense to me: literary education at that age is more about seduction than stretching your palate. You have to have a palate to begin with. Work with what boys will like, get them hooked, then stretch their little minds.

I have mixed feelings about Brooks–sometimes he’s close, often he writes in cariacature without depth. I wrote a response to his column. The whole column was OK–muddied a couple points, missed some interesting possibilities, but it was fine till the last line. Here was my critique:

“Consciousness-raising doesn’t turn boys into sensitively poetic pacifists. It just turns many of them into high school and college dropouts who hate reading.”

David, this is a deeply confused sentence. OK, I accept that boys and girls should be educated in different ways, based on recent findings.

But this sentence (if not necessarily the article) confuses “consciousness-raising” with literary education. One could teach boys to love literature with Twain and Vonnegut, and by other means teach them to appreciate the viewpoints of others, including women.

You could teach both sexes the very lessons you enumerate in your article–men and and women are different, and here’s how. These are your tendencies for strength and weakness.

“If your brain worked this way, here’s how you would see the world.” That sounds like some very interesting consciousness raising.

Stoner's theory of pervasive language acquisition

I suspect language acquisition is a more pervasive process than most people think. The process of learning a new language involves special cognitive processes that occur primarily during infancy, but can also happen later in life, though not as powerfully.

I think the same process may be involved in changing dialects. When someone moves to a different part of the country and lives there a few years, their speech patterns change to emulate the people in their new home. I don’t think this is entirely explained by conformity, or even trying to be more understandable. There’s something more subtle going on.

Also, I’ve noticed that when I read an author with a distinct and compelling prose style, like Ernest Hemingway or Johnathan Lethem, they influence my voice. I write more concisely after reading Hemingway, and with a more earthy, imaginative lyricism after reading Lethem.

And it’s not a concious thing. I couldn’t do it intentionally, even if I tried. I just notice it happening.

I don’t think this is a sound framework for a comprehensive theory of human learning. But it does raise an interesting question: where else does the cognitive process of language acquisition occur? Are there other circumstances and events that trigger it? Is it a more general phenomenon? Does it ever apply to other things besides meaningful sequences of sound? It’s a curious thing.