About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cognition and Diversity

Last summer the Conference on College Composition and Communication (which is part of the National Council of Teachers of English) asked me to contribute to their blog on diversity. What I wrote for CCCC resonates with issues that have been emerging on this blog, so I’m reprinting, with some editing, my post below. As its name suggests, CCCC’s primary focus is on college-level writing instruction, but I think the themes in “Cognition and Diversity” have broader application. See what you think.


The issue I want to discuss is intelligence and the broader construct of cognition: attention and perception, conceptualizing, thinking, problem-solving, etc. We tend not to think about this cluster of topics when discussing diversity – unless we’re discussing exceptional children – but beliefs about intelligence are woven throughout beliefs about race, gender, social class, and ability.

I’ll begin with a little personal history.

I’ve been interested in the way we think for a long time. When I was an English major, I found myself drawn to accounts of a writer’s creative process: What was the inspiration for a story or a key defining moment or image that was the germ of the thing? Or what happened to a poem through various revisions; what did we know about why changes were made? Or I was fascinated by those bursts of creativity that seemed to come out nowhere: for example, how you couldn’t have predicted the intricacies of Moby Dick from Melville’s earlier novels.

Then came psychology and reading in perception and cognition, in child development, in cross-cultural studies. All this got me on the road, provided bodies of knowledge and ways to understand and study.

But not without complication.

The history of psychological and social science – and the humanities as well – is laden with research and writing that reflects the biases of the larger culture from which in emerges. So, as in the larger culture, you have claims about the intellectual inferiority of non-white races, or immigrants, or rural folk, or women. You have claims about linguistic inferiority. You have all sorts of claims about the working-class and the work they do.

I won’t weigh the present essay down with the details of how I found my way through all this and begin using the cognitive perspective toward what I hope are egalitarian ends. (Anyone interested in more of that detail can find it in a book of mine titled An Open Language.) But I do want to zero in on two things that I think are central to my own development, and are pertinent to the upcoming discussion.

One is my own background as the child of immigrant working-class parents growing up in a poor neighborhood. I know intimately many of the kinds of people who are the focus of claims about intellectual and linguistic inferiority. And what I heard and read didn’t always match up.

The second is that I started tutoring and teaching at a relatively young age in schools and programs that served poor and working-class people from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds – and the settings spanned kindergarten to college. So, again, I saw first-hand the processes of teaching and learning, and I saw what people can do with their minds.

Both of these elements of my personal history certainly contributed to the way I saw myself, my values and dreams, and they contributed as well to an empirical and skeptical bent, useful both to question the ugliness I’d hear on the streets, on the radio, in my own neighborhood and extended family as well as the claims made in some of the academic material I was encountering.

This empirical skepticism, this need to test what I was studying against my own personal and professional experience, enabled me to use cognitively-oriented research to both critique work within the cognitive tradition that diminished human ability as well as critique the many and ongoing claims that rise like crabgrass in our society about the intellectual capabilities of underprepared students, poor folks, people of color, women, manual workers, you name it.

So let me fast-forward now to a few quick summaries of this work.

My study of cognition combined with other areas of study in the humanities and social science led to a series of articles that, collectively, tried to do the following. I wanted to explore the way flawed assumptions about cognition and language have influenced remedial writing curricula; the limiting institutional definitions of remediation and of writing instruction; overgeneralizing explanations as to why some students have difficulty with writing; and the classroom processes by which some students get defined as intellectually and linguistically deficient.

In addition to critique, I advocated a richer, more multifaceted model of cognition and writing and a way to think about curriculum and instruction that honored that richness. (Some of my earlier entries summarize this approach, see 07/08/08 and 07/24/08).

All of this work played itself out in a series of articles that you’ll find in that Open Language collection and, in more narrative form, in Lives on the Boundary.

I can give you a flavor for this writing by doing a pretty unblogospheric thing here and quoting the closing paragraph from one of the articles, “Narrowing the Mind and Page: Remedial Writers and Cognitive Reductionism”:

If I could compress this essay’s investigation down to a single conceptual touchstone, it would be this: Human cognition – even at its most stymied, bungled moments – is rich and varied. It is against this assumption that we should test our theories and research methods and classroom assessments. Do our practices work against classification that encourages single, monolithic explanations of cognitive activity? Do they honor the complexity of interpretive efforts even when those efforts fall short of some desired goal? Do they foster investigation of interaction and protean manifestation rather than investigation of absence? Do they urge reflection on the cultural biases that might be shaping them? We must be vigilant that the systems of intellect we develop or adapt do not ground our students’ difficulties in sweeping, essentially one-dimensional perceptual, neurophysiological, psychological, or linguistic processes, systems that drive broad cognitive wedges between those who do well in our schools and those who don’t.

Though some of this work is of its time (it was written in the 1980s), it unfortunately is pertinent today. Consider the number of basic/remedial/preparatory writing courses that are still built on problematic notions of cognition and language, leading to deadening skills and drills curricula. Or an article that appeared in the June Atlantic Monthly (that we’ve discussed on this blog) in which a disgruntled community college professor depicts his students as academically dense and marginally literate. Or that old bad penny Charles Murray of Bell Curve fame peddling again in True Education methodologically flawed notions about intelligence and the social order.

O.K., one more fast-forward, this one to The Mind at Work, a recent book in which I continue exploring questions of cognition, intelligence, and achievement. I blend case histories of blue collar and service workers with cognitive and social analysis to challenge longstanding Western distinctions between mental and physical activity, offering, I hope, a more psychologically and educationally productive way to consider what we do with hand and brain.

From Classical Greece on down, we have tended to make sharp and value-laden separations between the mental and physical, between the philosophical, theoretical, and conceptual versus the practical, applied, and concrete – and, more recently, between the academic and the vocational. These distinctions have affected the way we define intelligence, create curriculum, and organize work. This kind of binary thinking is inadequate to describe what actually occurs as waitresses or welders (or, for that matter, teachers or surgeons) apply knowledge, solve problems, arrive at decisions, and make aesthetic judgments.

This set of issues seems especially important for those of us who teach students from working-class families and/or who work in programs aimed at providing occupational training.

I think these issues are also important for all of us, for with our educations can come a predisposition to elevate the intellectual content and value of one kind of work over another and make cognitive judgments about people based on the work they do.

Having said that, I feel the need to explain further, and, if you’ll indulge me one more time, I’m going to do the boorish thing of quoting myself again, this time from The Mind at Work:

This is not a call for a simplified egalitarianism. I am not denying the obvious fact that people come to any pursuit with different interests, talents, knacks for things, motivations, capabilities. Nor am I claiming that all bodies of knowledge and expressions of mind are of the same level of cognitive complexity and social importance. All the cultures I’m familiar with make judgments about competence in the domains that matter to them. (Though ours is more obsessed than any I know with developing measures of the mind and schemes to rank them.) No, the distressing thing is that both in our institutional systems and in our informal talk we tend to label entire categories of work and the people associated with them in ways that generalize, erase cognitive variability, and diminish whole traditions of human activity. Attributions of merit and worth flow throughout the process. We order, we rank, we place at steps upon a ladder rather than appreciating an abundant and varied cognitive terrain.

In closing, let me offer a cautionary tale that illustrates how easily overgeneralized and ungenerous judgments about other people’s thinking can come to us.

About ten years ago a graduate student came to see me with a sketch of a dissertation proposal. It had taken this person a fairly long time to get to this place, having begun then abandoned a previous research topic. And the sketch I was looking at was also the result of many months of deliberation. Along the way another faculty member had commented to me that this person was a “weak” student.

I read the new sketch, and it wasn’t good at all. It was general in some places. In others, one claim didn’t line up with the next. Some sentences were difficult to understand. It was hard to know exactly what the research project was. The comment from my colleague flipped into my mind like a pop-up ad. And so did a sense that’s hard to describe, but was kind of a half-thought/half-feeling that this student might not have the ability to complete a dissertation.

We met and caught up a little, stuff about family and work. Then we turned to the proposal. I decided to avoid its problems and asked the student to talk to me about the project, not in dissertation lingo, but in everyday speech.

What followed was clear, elaborated, interesting. A solid, engaging project. We talked a while longer, getting some notes down on paper. I then turned to the piece I’d read and pointed out a few places where I had had trouble. And the student explained – frustration seeping out – that what I read was an attempt to reconcile conflicting advice from another faculty member, several peers, and an activist in the community to be studied.

This student’s dilemma is familiar to all of us, I’m sure – the way conceptual (and interpersonal) conflicts can negatively affect our writing. But look what went on in my head when I first read the proposal sketch. Without realizing it, I had absorbed the informal norms of graduate study: that, for example, time-to-degree is a measure of ability or that flawed writing equaled flawed thinking. I had drunk the cognitive Kool Aid.

As I write in that paragraph from The Mind at Work, I’m not trying to ignore the fact that we, all of us, do have different talents, interests, etc. It is possible that the student was, for all sorts of reasons, not ready or equipped to write a dissertation. And, after all, as educators we’re obliged to make judgments about performance and respond accordingly. What is troubling in the anecdote, however, is the ease with which a one-dimensional judgment about intellectual ability came to me.

But the anecdote also points to some ways out of this mess. It reminds us that we live tangled in systems of bias, and that we will always blunder, and, therefore, we need in our teaching some methods to keep us aware, some tools of mindfulness: asking different questions, shifting languages, listening closely. We need certain habits of mind, for example, a testing of our own judgments, a willingness to have them disconfirmed. We need to be alert to the social contexts we inhabit – this was the root of my error – and the norms and beliefs we absorb in them. We need to publicly question the vocabulary and assumptions that constitute these settings. (This blog is a tiny gesture in that direction.) We also need to be creative in fashioning other kinds of spaces within those worlds we inhabit.

These are the kinds of issues and questions we – I – need to keep raising. They keep in sight the ease with which we reduce each other. They contribute to a richer pedagogical imagination. Ant they can help fashion a more humane institutional and civic life.


  1. Scattered thoughts - I was just noticing in a discussion last night about how language can be used to communicate or to master a situation, and also to reduce the information coming in to a manageable amount. It's a little like negative capability, maybe? Taking in the familiar, putting it to the usual tests, while trying to keep some part of one's observation/evaluation in an undecided state to take in more of the field?

    I think this is an issue in more than academia, to listen to yourself with interest but not unquestioning faith.

  2. I second your opinion on this matter. Personally I have a child that suffers from ADD, and this aspect of child development has left me puzzled on the options that I can take up. Sometimes I am just at my wit's end.

  3. what I like about Mike's take on Cognition and Diversity in this blog is one of the things I have liked about his work ever since I began reading his books and articles back in the early eighties: his insistence on moving slowly through the issues, recognizing the complexities and paradoxes and refusing to simplify things or start drawing conclusions before their time. Yes, human cognition, is "rich, varied" messy and hard to pin down as our so much of our activities and interactions. And yes, those of us who have taught writing with our eyes open and actually talking to students know that what look like errors and mistakes are often way-stations along the road to trying to figure something out and get it right. It seems like lots of writing instructors have come to understand this. I wish these ideas would spread more widely to other disciplines in the academy.


  4. First of all, Mike, you needn't apologize for quoting yourself. The quotes are like the best kind of visit from old friends--it is pleasant to see them again and they didn't stay overlong.

    Next, I must say that I sometimes despair that education in America will ever embrace the sensible, humane, empowering understanding of cognition and intelligence that you present so well.
    I read another blog by a fifth year teacher struggling in a dysfunctional school. He has been given a lock-step, scripted reading program to present to students who score poorly on reading exams. Some have become disruptive and refuse to "buy in" and you can feel his desperation. In response to a discussion of the merits of the program, one of his readers has written the following which I shall quote in its entirety (with your indulgence):

    "Angela, actually a trained monkey could do a credible job depending on the students being taught. A trained monkey could be used to teach a class full of smart children. Since these children make very few mistakes, it's just a matter of reading the script and it could be read quite poorly and embellished foolishly and the children will still learn. However, it does take a very skilled teacher to teach the DI program, even with the script, to a bunch of low-performing middle-schoolers with a long history of reading failure.

    I agree that there are more alternatives than DI and what ws being done before, but th vast majority of alternatives are only going to be effective as what was being done before which is why we don't hear of too many schools that have miraculously remediated their sub-proficient students outside of elementary school. And, let's give the DI program more than a few days before we declare it a failure. Even if Mr. M can't get the bad apples under controlled, a majority of the class is making an effort to learn, so let's wait and see how they do.
    I have used DI with my kids -- my son and daughter."

    I despair, Mike, I despair.

  5. I completely agree with this piece. I feel that we are always putting "stigmas" on peolpe according to their lifestyle, job, education or lack their of. We set limits for people based on what we have fabricated about them through perception. Why? Dont we know that when we set these limits we are setting them up for failure? With learning the possibilities are endless there are no limits. We need to remove these thoughts that inhibit potential and give people a chance and I'll bet when we do... we will learn something we had never expected to discover.

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