Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Judging Others Is A Sucker's Game

Judging by their behavior, we can say that plants are intelligent. They turn toward the sun because they need the light. They absorb necessary nutrients from the soil. They communicate with one another, share resources, and can even learn through experience. These are all behaviors we've come to associate with intelligence, although when it comes right down to it, we can never know what goes on inside their . . . Well, they don't have brains, so unless we're missing something (and it's quite possible we are), they don't have the sort of centrally organized system of intelligence that humans seem to have. This would mean that plants likely don't have minds either, that undeniable, yet elusive aspect of our own experience that enables us to be aware of the world and our experiences, to think, and to feel.

So, while we can see from their behavior that plants are probably intelligent, it is unlikely that the plants themselves know they are intelligent.

I would understand if you're still dubious, many, if not most, scientists are dubious. But that is always the challenge of thinking about the internal life of others, be they plants or animals: we are always on the outside and we can only understand what they show us through their behavior, which includes everything from the turning of a flower head toward the sun, clenching sphnicter muscles in fear, or the hearing the words our fellow humans might use to communicate about their internal states. 

In other words, when it comes to understanding the intelligence, thinking, or feelings of others, we are always guessing about what is going on inside someone else. I'm not saying that we can't come close or that we can't at least guess correctly about some aspect of the internal state of others, but the truth is that we struggle to even be certain about own own intelligence, thinking, and feelings, so who are we to judge?

But that's exactly what we do: judge others. When we do, we have no choice but to do so through the filter of our own minds. We can't actually see what a child sees, for instance, because what is taken in by their eyes and processed by their brain and mind is a completely internal process, one to which we have no direct access. What we do instead when we judge them is see with our own eyes that a child is looking toward a certain object, then process that through our own brain and mind, assuming that the child's process is similar to our own. It's from our own internal process, not the child's, that we form our judgements, which are, by definition, largely inaccurate.

If it sounds like I'm saying that judging others is a suckers game, then you get my point.

Despite the impossibility of ever accurately knowing what is going on inside another person, as educators, we are nevertheless often charged with sitting in judgement of children. We are expected to grade, test, or otherwise assess their intelligence and knowledge. At best, however, we can shed light on but the tiniest sliver of what their own minds know about themselves and the world around them. In many ways, the entirety of  standard schooling is a massive attempt to judge the unjudgeable. Most curricula are created as a way to control the scope of what we are to judge, narrowing the infiniteness of what there is to know and think down to something we can easily measure. We make it into a competition so that we can determine the winners and losers under the illusion that this will make our judgements more definite. No matter how careful we are, our judgements become easy labels that we hang on children, and that, too often, become their limitations.

The hubris to think that we can know what another person learns, is the greatest flaw in how we attempt to do education. Learning is a personal, internal process, one that involves an ongoing dialog between the outside world, our nervous system (including the brain and its product, the mind), and the rest of our bodies. We might provide hints and suggestions through our behaviors (including our words) but that is the merest tip of the proverbial iceberg. It's only when we release others from the dictates of our judgements that we create the space in which they are free to learn at full capacity.

None of us can learn on behalf of another, but we have never failed to learn alongside one another, which is, in my view, the proper stance of an educator toward a child.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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