Monday, April 05, 2021

Teaching Young Children, the Interplay of Minds, and (Of Course) Fighting Imperialism

In Marshall McLuhan's book The Gutenberg Galaxy, he is concerned with the affects of media on humans,  taking a deep look at how the adoption of the phonetic alphabet dramatically changed our relationship to the world.

"When words are written, they become, of course, a part of the visual world. Like most of the elements of the visual world they become static things and lose, as such, the dynamism which is so characteristic of the auditory world in general, and of the spoken word in particular."

He argues that with the advent of the printing press and the widespread literacy that followed, the balance of our senses has shifted so that our visual sense has come to dominate, pushing our other senses to the background. Whereas pre-literate humans were more attuned to all their senses, modern humans have become increasingly reliant upon seeing. "Seeing is believing," we say, but for preliterate humans reality seems to reside far more in what is heard than what is said. Modern humans are conditioned to disregard much of our aural world, favoring the visual because that, we've come to believe, is where the most significance lies.

McLuhan makes the case that this narrowing of our experience into one in which the visual sense dominates has lead to such things we consider bedrock, like the perception that time passes in a linear manner, that space is uniform, and cause and effect are sequential. For preliterate humans, words existed not as a sequence of symbols on a page (or screen in the present case), but rather as sounds. 
"Sounds are in a sense dynamic things, or at least are always indicators of dynamic things -- of movements, event, activities for which man, when largely unprotected from the hazard of life in the bush or veldt, must be ever on the alert . . . Sounds lose much of this significance in Western Europe . . . for rural Africans* reality seems to reside far more in what is heard than what is said."
(*Note: When he writes of "rural Africans" here, he is referring to research performed in the early part of the last century when most of rural Africa was preliterate, which is no longer the case.)

His larger argument is that with the advent of the new media of the electronic age, and the creation of "the global village," we are beginning a process of rebalancing all of our other senses, but in the meantime, we are in a position similar to the ancient Greeks, those early adopters of the phonetic alphabet, who were the first to experience this breaking apart of the "magical world of the ear and the neutral world of the eye . . .

"It follows, of course, that literate man, when we meet him in the Greek world, is a split man, a schizophrenic, as all literate men have been since the invention of the phonetic alphabet."

Whether or not you buy the entirety of McLuhan's larger argument, I find his case for the impact of literacy on human beings convincing and it occurs to me that the young children in our preschools share much in common with those rural Africans in that they still live in a the "magical world of the ear."

I've taught many children who have been "diagnosed" (a word I'm loath to use in this regard) with sensory processing disorders. These children are characterized as "oversensitive" to their environments, particularly to sounds or touch, which can overwhelm or even cause physical pain. One boy, for instance, would vomit at the sound of a leaf blower. Others have hidden from certain sounds or been driven to distraction by the feel of articles of clothing on their skins. Some of these children are more sensitive to taste or smells. We couldn't use Ivory Soap in our classroom one year because it activated a child's gag reflex.

"Treatments" typically involve slowly conditioning these children to be less sensitive or more senstitive, to balance out their senses, but one can't help but wonder if what we are witnessing are natural humans responding to an unnatural world. As a fully literate people, versed in the visual logic of cause and effect, maybe it's us, not them, who are insensitive and out of balance. We've become so separated from our sensory world that we are insulated from the essential dynamism of sounds, scents, tastes, and what we feel on our skin. In making ourselves more visual as a species, we have blinded ourselves in other ways (to use a common metaphor that proves our prejudice in favor of the visual).

Stepping back, it seems obvious that it's not just children with a "diagnosis" who can be viewed as natural humans. At one time or another, every child suffers from anxiety, nightmares, and seemingly irrational fears, experiences we dismiss because we live outside their world. Every child is at times violently repulsed by certain sounds, foods and fragrances. They have not yet learned the trick that we have learned: to exercise the visual sense until it dominates, essentially blocking out all the "noise." It seems that instead of "treating" or "curing" children our focus ought to be on getting down on the floor with them and seeking to enter into their world, not with the mission of fixing them, but rather with the perspective of a researchers trying to understand, with the goal of adjusting the environment to suit them, not the other way around.

St. Thomas Aquinas, a rare literate man in a time before the printing press, but living in an era like our own when the a new media (the printing press) was in the offing (give or take a couple centuries), pointed out that neither Socrates nor Jesus committed their teachings to writing "because the kind of interplay of minds that is in teaching is not possible by means of writing."

This remains true in the early years: we are not filling empty vessels, but rather igniting flames, and that can only happen through this interplay of minds.

As adults, those of us who work with young children have a rare opportunity reside in an actual human "village" before literacy, one in which all five senses (and there are certainly more than the standard five) are free to play in the world. The narrowing will inevitably come later as the lessons of literacy are absorbed, but for these precious years, young children can show us not just our human past, but, if McLuhan is correct, our future as well. The outside world is pressuring us to force "literacy" upon these free people, to begin ever earlier the process of conditioning them to an existence in which seeing is the only believing. The imperialism of Western literacy has driven us to conquer most of the globe, there is hardly any "rural Africa" left, and now they're coming for the last non literate humans.

I seek to protect the early years for the children themselves, who are capable of perceiving in ways and to a depth the rest of us have unlearned, but I do it also because I've seen what happens to cultures we've colonized.


This post is one that emerged from the Woodland Park "village," one that could not have been told without the parent, grandparent, and educator working together. As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. I'm proud to announce that I've assembled what I've learned into a 6-part e-course called Partnering With Parents in which I share my best thinking on how educators can and should make allies of the parents of the children we teach. (Click this link to register and to learn more.) Register now to receive early bird pricing. Discounts are available for groups.

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