Friday, April 18, 2014

How do you grow a Renaissance person? | Open Thread

I was recently introduced to an intriguing concept called "learning by forgetting." The best example of how this works is in acquiring a language. The theory goes that at birth, human children have the ability to learn essentially any language they are exposed to. Because they are generally exposed to specific languages, with specific grammatical rules and sounds, however, as they grow older they lose (forget) the ability to distinguish between certain sounds only used in other languages. They also theoretically lose (forget) the ability to intuit grammatical structures that are not used in their first acquired language.

For example, when to use or not use a definite or indefinite article in English, which any person raised to speak English gets correct instinctively, seems to be entirely lost on people raised to speak Russian who learned English later in life (we have a living case example of this in our home). Friends/family of ours who grew up speaking Russian often simply don't instinctively know when a definite article is needed in English, despite having mastered nearly every other element of English grammar.

"He should lock the door before leaving house," sounds like perfect English to many Russian speakers with an otherwise solid grasp of English grammar. But to someone raised speaking English, it's clearly missing the word "the" before "house." It's not a matter of implicitly understanding the grammatical rule here either; we simply feel it's missing.

Why this remains difficult for people raised to speak Russian is explained by "learning by forgetting". The theory goes that, like everyone, they were born with the ability to intuit when an article is needed in English (which would be easily proven by any example of a person born in a Russian-speaking country who moves to an English-speaking country early in life and gets articles correct instinctively now...we have another case example of that in our family as well), but they "forget" that ability through never using it if not exposed to English before a certain point in their life. After that point, when they've officially "forgetten" that ability, it's very, very difficult to get it back. Mind you, and this is the really interesting part for me, the theory insists forgetting that ability is simply a part of learning to speak Russian correctly.

And so, I've been wondering if the same applies to learning other things well. Do visual artists, for example, who learn to master a particular medium need to "forget" what they were born knowing or otherwise have under their belt about other mediums to do so? Painting in oils, for example, which are very forgiving (you can usually easily go back into a passage while it's wet and "correct" something repeatedly) is quite different from painting in water color, which is nowhere near as forgiving. Mess something significant up in water color and you quite often are better off just starting over. (I speak from limited, quite amateur, experience.) Do these different limitations require not only learning certain things to master these mediums, but also forgetting certain other things? I'm not sure. Perhaps some of the painters out there have examples that would clarify this.

But beyond technique, I'm also wondering whether "learning by forgetting" applies to art making in general. Is there a parallel between spoken language and visual language? Are all human children born with the ability to master essentially any visual language if exposed to it early enough in life? Mind you, I'm not talking about raw talent here. In English, even among those who were raised speaking it, there's a wide gap between using it correctly (being one of millions of people who have mastered it) and using it to great artistic effect (being that rare human who can create amazing things with it). Rather, I'm talking about simply being able to master a visual language via being exposed to it, being encouraged to use it by those around you in your formative years.

I suspect that via learning other types of languages with their own stringent rules (such as mathematical languages) and not simultaneously being exposed to visual languages, mastering those other languages leads to "forgetting" the abilities we're all born with in visual languages. It may be that, like the way learning to speak Russian well requires "forgetting" the ability to intuit when definite articles are needed in English, becoming a mathematical genius requires forgetting certain other abilities (which could explain the "Beautiful Mind" phenomenon or the quirky scientific genius cliches).

But that's a bit of an unhelpful tangent. Where I'm heading with all this is a question that's been banging around in my brain since first reading what Picasso said about painting like a child. Two quotes form my impression of his meaning there:
“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” ― Pablo Picasso

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” ― Pablo Picasso

The second idea ("every child is an artist") seems parallel to the central premise in the "learning by forgetting" theory. Every human child is born with innate artistic instincts (if not exactly abilities) for any visual language--the door of possibilities is wide open--just as any child is born with the intuitions to master Chinese or Hungarian or even ancient Greek, but they lose/forget those intuitions as they grow older. Is this because they must forget them in order to master other things? And was Picasso foolish to think he had any choice in this forgetting process? He claims to have, over a lifetime, regained the ability to paint like a child. Had he really? Did he un-forget everything he had lost via concentrating on learning to paint like Raphael?

And what implications do these ideas raise with regard to how we might best nurture children to grow up realizing their fullest potential as artists (let alone as humans)? How do you grow a Renaissance person? Exposing them to as much art/ideas as possible seems a logical approach, but for them to master anything, must they also go through the process of forgetting other things? And what about those bona fide "Renaissance people"? Did they somehow skip the "forgetting" phase while growing up? How?

Consider this an open thread (wide open) on "learning by forgetting" and its implications.


Blogger markcreegan said...

As an art educator I can't resist commenting on a topic that is so important to me. I can certainly attest to the huge difference between students who have been previously exposed to art (and encouraged to pursue study) and those with hardly any exposure. The contrast shows not just in drawing ability or in understanding a visual language but also in an overall depth and curiosity and maybe intelligence.
I teach at a community college so I come across students with wide-ranging abilities, some draw and compose fairly well, some exceedingly so, and many seem to have visual abilities no better than when they were young children.
That is interesting when you factor in Picasso's quote. I never took it to mean he wanted to paint like a child in the sense of not knowing what he was doing, but in the ability to be open and free to make mistakes and continue with passion and confidence.
That is what I think my arrested students have experienced- they for some reason stopped trying, either because they were told or felt they were not good at art or learned that art is not a worthwhile ability to develop.
When a 3 year old draws what to us seem like scribbles on some paper and declares it is a giraffe. It really IS a giraffe to that child artist, no matter what anyone else says. Later, when that same child draws a slightly more recognizable giraffe at age 7, an outside critique such as "the neck is not long enough" or "the feet look like claws" become more important to the child and they try to do better. If they struggle, sometimes they just quit. And if they don't have any encouragement the likelihood of quitting increases.
I am not a language specialist, it may be an important factor in mastering a language to be able to shut down the "soaking in" ability we have in early development. But as it pertains to art I think it is important to expose children (as well as my students) to as many different mediums and techniques as possible for as long as possible. Those who want to focus and explore a specific medium or mode will come to that naturally by being so drawn to it they cant help it. I want my students to discover their medium (or mediums) on their own rather than hand it to them like already baked bread.

4/18/2014 01:52:00 PM  
Blogger Judith Schaechter said...

Language is innate but literacy is not. Without sounding like a complete Luddite, I wonder is reading and writing might not "write over" the programs in our brain naturally given to understanding visual information.
Ellen Dissayanake talks about this.

Visual processing can be very verbal: we observe something and then immediately want to name it, classify it and thus are deprived of "seeing" it. I know, as an artist, I had to relearn how to see.

For m, the process of artistic creativity is not about knowledge or rational thinking. I have to unlearn a LOT every time I am in the studio!

4/19/2014 04:37:00 AM  
Blogger lee kaloidis said...

All structured routines are dangerous to presence of mind and learning.

While routines provide security, stability, predictability, heightened productivity and regularity, they are antithetical to discovery and awareness. Until the routines and systems are interrupted by accidents and crash.

The language issue is more the result of intelligence, education, and cultivation, not “forgetting”. I can barely comprehend my Greek father at times or his Russian mate. But they are relatively indifferent to language mastery, even in their native tongues, and it is reflected in their use of English. My dealer is German, and a lawyer, and her husband is Eastern European, and a doctor, and their English is impeccable. This is a constant, in my experience, for everyone I know whose native language is not English.

It is probably best to learn how to learn and never forget how to learn.

4/21/2014 09:21:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I sincerely don't believe the fact that there are some folks who have learned to speak perfect English later in life actually disproves the theory. (Also, do you know your German dealer didn't learn English in childhood?)

Here's how the theory was outlined where I read of it, where the argument for "learning by forgetting" seems pretty compelling to me:

"A crucial contribution of parametric models is that they provided an entirely new way of looking at language acquisition. Acquiring a language amounts, in terms of such models, to fixing the parameters of UG [Universal Grammar] on the basis of experience. The child interprets the incoming linguistic data through the analytic devices provided by Universal Grammar, and fixes the parameters of the system on the basis of the analyzed data, his linguistic experience. Acquiring a language thus means selecting, among the options generated by the mind, those which match experience, and discarding the other options. So, acquiring an element of linguistic knowledge amounts to discarding the other possibilities offered a priori by the mind; learning is then achieved "by forgetting," a maim adopted by Mehler and Dupoux (1992) in connection with the acquisition of phonological systems: acquiring the phonetic distinctions used in ones' language amounts to forgetting the others, in the inventory available a priori to the child's mind, so that at birth every child is sensitive to the distinction between /l/ and /r/, or /t/ and /t./ (dental vs. retroflex), but after a few months the child learning Japaneses will have "forgotten" the /t/ vs. /t./ distinction, etc. because they will have kept the distinctions used by the language they are exposed to and discarded the others. Under the parametric view, "learning by forgetting" seems to be appropriate for the acquisition of syntactic knowledge as well. "

--Andriana Belletti, Luigi Rizzi, "Introduction" to "Noam Chamsky: On Nature and Language"

4/21/2014 09:51:00 AM  
Blogger lee kaloidis said...

Ed, if empirical evidence exists that contradicts a theory, it is no longer a question of believing or not believing. The universality of the theory has to be questioned. Just because the theory sounds convincing doesn't make it true.

I don't know whether my dealer learned English as a child. But I know enough non-native English speakers who have mastered English as adults to discount the theory for myself. I have a lot of Greek relatives and have grown up around immigrants. And I would say, from my experience, that their individual and particular facilities with English usage directly correlates to their intelligence, education, and "concern and caring" about language mastery and communication skills. IOW, for those who are most concerned about clarity and effectiveness of communication, language mastery will be a high priority and it will show.

I'm not saying it's easy or that the second language will ever be as fluid as their native tongue - almost all the people I know for whom English is a "foreign" language still retain their accents - but there is a way out of the learned and/or imposed structural binds.

BTW, I believe that the ability to learn is as a priori as anything else, although, right or wrong, real learning and growth, not just rigid and methodical training, runs counter to the effective functioning of systems, which truly do require forgetting of just about everything in order to operate successfully. Nothing screws things up more than someone who questions a system.

4/21/2014 10:49:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Lee, I'm not sure you are providing empirical evidence that contradicts the theory, though. You note yourself "the second language will ever be as fluid as their native tongue - almost all the people I know for whom English is a "foreign" language still retain their accents" which suggests the sound "forgetting" component of the theory is (fairly) universal, and with regards to syntactical issues, it may be there are no excluding differences (such as the article issue between Russian and English) between German and English.

Also, it's not a matter of a determined person who, through significant effort, can learn to speak as fluently as a native and even adopt an accent that is undetectable (actors do this all the time). It's a matter of intuition (i.e, Universal Grammar) leading you to do so instinctively (as children do) or not longer being able to.

No one is saying you can't re-learn something you've forgotten through concerted effort, just that the process of learning (at least a language) involves "forgetting" a fair bit of the capacity you were born with, and so there are these difficult retraining tasks for adults that would be a piece of cake for children who still have not entirely "forgotten" their innate proclivity for them.

4/21/2014 12:35:00 PM  
Blogger lee kaloidis said...

This is a hugely complex subject, Ed. I would venture a guess that if we had 20 philosophers, 20 social scientists, 20 child psychologists, 20 neurologists, and 20 linguists in one room at the same time there would be very little consensus. :)

And I'm not quite sure how any of this relates to "growing a renaissance" person, since I think there is a big difference between 1. learning fluidity and adaptability and 2. general curiosity and information acquisition. One can know a lot very stiffly, and one can know a lot and be very open to transformation and change.

But as one final thought from me. I take issue with your use of the word "intuit" in the first paragraph of your post. I don't think kids are intuiting as much as they are mirroring and absorbing and exceedingly receptive to learning and information intake over their first few years of life. Not that I believe humans don't innately intuit and build structure. Indeed, that is a huge part of what it is to be human, especially in the arts. But humans both intuit and learn structure, IMO. Much of the actual capacity to intuit, though, is overwritten by social programming (education) of one kind or another in an effort to socialize and cultivate people.

So that when Picasso refers to learning to paint like a child again, the way I interpret that is getting back to a point where one recovers (or discovers for the very first time) the innate ability to actually intuit rather than copy structure, to be liberated to form and reform using that intuition at will while throwing off the straightjacket of socialization and training, etc., that is responsible for domesticating people and making them compliant and productive members of the group.

Kids are very fluid and eager learners. But if you take a kid out to a baseball field on Monday and explain the rules of the game to him and he or she comprehends them, then you take them out to the field on Tuesday and give them and entirely different set of rules, and do the same thing on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, you're going to end up with one pretty fucked up kid on Saturday. :)

So it's a little bit of everything, as it usually is.

We will discuss it over a beer someday.


4/21/2014 03:39:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm not campaigning for the theory as much as trying to explain it here Lee.

But "intuit" is precisely what the theory suggests happens. It claims there are some basic, allegedly universal, grammatical structures that all humans are born with the ability to make sense of or work out the meaning of (i.e., intuit) and some of these apply to the language they'll be exposed to and some do not. The structures they're not exposed to (but had been born with the ability to grasp) are "forgotten" as they refine their mastery of the language/s they end up primarily speaking.

"But humans both intuit and learn structure, IMO. Much of the actual capacity to intuit, though, is overwritten by social programming (education) of one kind or another in an effort to socialize and cultivate people."

That's actually consistent with the theory, as I understand it. It doesn't suggest children will learn English without being exposed to takes both, being born with the ability to instinctively grasp the Universal Grammar, and then being exposed to English. Mind you, children speak languages (often quite well) without ever having had a formal grammar lesson, some part of that ability must be genetic. Some children never speak until later in life and then do so with nearly perfectly formed sentences. Exposure to the language is a part of it, but so is the underlying structure that, as the theory goes, they're born with.

"And I'm not quite sure how any of this relates to "growing a renaissance" person,"

I'm not entirely sure it does either. But my thinking here, ironically, is more or less in line with yours, apparently: "So that when Picasso refers to learning to paint like a child again, the way I interpret that is getting back to a point where one recovers ... the innate ability to actually intuit ...structure."
[editing and emphasis mine].

4/21/2014 04:19:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I know what Picasso meant bone deep. On the art side I always felt that drawing beyond age 12 or so was not useful despite all those who think it necessary. Likewise telling a child/artist of any age that the neck is not long enough, etc. isn't useful unless he wants to know what will make it look more like what the instructor wants. On the language side our son was born with hydrocephalus and experienced dozens of shunt surgeries. I am learning about language...for 52 years now...from his struggles. He is also diagnosed as autistic...before it was popular with everyone. It is as if he has a grammar book in his head yet he can't recognize the differences in many consonants. When only seven he was making a forward bend every time the language machine said, "Valentine".
I asked about it. He said, "It's bowing time, bowing time, bowing time." God forbid, a sports announcer says "The Saints...who would have thunk it?" Jeff will go bananas: "He should not say that. He should say 'funk it'.
The thing I like best is that the human mind never gives up figuring it out. Good luck on that, Ed.

4/24/2014 05:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is my personal experience as it relates to Picasso's comments. When I entered high school at the age of 13, I was painfully shy to the extent that if I spoke ten words a day it was alot. I would draw constantly while taking notes in class. My ability to draw realistically skyrocketed during this time. I've often wondered if the shutting down of the 'verbal', helped to strengthen the hardwiring of the 'visual'. Nowadays my art is completely non-representational. I'll typically draw with my eyes closed and without critical decision making until the latter stages.

5/12/2014 11:41:00 AM  

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