Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Intuitive Person vs. Western Education

From TOG on Interface by Bruce “TOG” Tognazzini, pg. 103:

Western education is heavily biased toward intellect over intuition: Intuition is endowed with a perverse habit of delivering results most slowly when the need for speed is greatest. [....] Telling a bunch of kids to “think about it for a couple of hours, a day, a week—whatever it takes—then get back to me” just doesn't fit into our lock-step educational process. Betty Edwards (1989): “The right brain—the dreamer, the artificer, the artist—is lost in our school system and goes largely untaught. We might find a few art classes, a few shop classes, something called ‘creative writing,’ and perhaps courses in music; but it’s unlikely that we would find courses in imagination, in visualization, in perceptual or spatial skills, in creativity as a separate subject, in intuition, in inventiveness.”

While I admit to having no idea what classes in “imagination” or “creativity as a separate subject” would amount to, and therefore no idea what benefits might be expected from them, this quote otherwise summarizes one aspect of my dismal school experiences better than any other statement I’ve come across, especially the notion of intuitive people going “untaught.” Am I an autodidact by nature, or necessity?

When I signed-up to take shop classes in Junior High, I was hauled before some school authority and lectured that people on the “college track” couldn’t take shop classes. I couldn’t, and still can’t, imagine why any college in its right mind would care about anything that happens in Junior High, or hold it as anything other than a virtue that you know how things work and how to build them, but the view in my Junior High was definitely that people on the “college track”—a track I’d never imagined existed, because it’d never occurred to me that the school was excluding anyone from it—didn’t need to, and shouldn’t, know how to produce anything. Needless to say, I signed-up for the shop classes anyway, and only wish they’d been better and more numerous. There’re still a lot of questions I’d like to ask my shop teachers; none at all that I want to ask of my other pre-college teachers.

As an aside, as far as I can tell, white kids from upper-income families were automatically on the “college track,” and everyone else was apparently disposable. Was that a hold-over from the traditional, strictly stratified southern social structure, with a dose of probable racism thrown in for good measure? This happened in Houston, Texas at a time when school officials still quivered in fear (or anger, depending on their viewpoint) at the prospect of forced-bussing, and, yeah, I think it was all those things.

Also, the general insight that intuition operates least effectively when speed is most demanded, rings true well beyond my school experiences. (Put another way, telling people who are meant to be operating in a creative capacity: “Create! Create now! Faster, faster, faster!” …is not a formula for success, yet organizations that depend on creativity do it all the time, apparently oblivious to how creativity works, or doesn’t.)

As to the issues of pedagogy as I experienced them at all levels of the educational system (well, up to and including undergraduate college, anyway) and what I call the doctrine of “disposable people,” I have a great many thoughts and criticisms, but that’s for another time. (However, if anyone can recommend a good book summarizing modern thinking on pedagogical techniques, please let me know; a comment to the blog will be fine, or you can email me at any of my well-known email addresses.)


  1. Rings true! Autodidact individuals are not very profitable to the ever more exorbitant educational structure.

  2. Billy,

    FWIW, my take on the educational system is that: (1) it is severely broken generally, and (2) to the extent that it tries to serve anyone's needs, it targets the majority, which would be the “sensing” personality types, to use the Myers-Briggs terminology (which is what Tog was using in that quote when he spoke of intuitive people).

    According to the percentage ranges in the United States population for each of the 16 Myers-Briggs personality types (as provided by the Myers-Briggs Wikipedia page), “intuitives” of all types make up between 22 and 40% of the US population, while all “sensing” types combine to make up 54 to 82% of the population. So, even using the most optimistic choices within those ranges, intuitive people are not the majority.

    Consequently, my interpretation is that it's not a matter of profits, but of indifference (perhaps to the point of willful blindness) to those not in the majority. Combine that with the blinkered and seemingly universal viewpoint that says, in effect, “students can get good grades in our classes, and score well on our standardized tests, or they're worthless and lazy, and to hell with them” and you have a potent formula for dysfunction in the system. And, thanks to the pervasive implicit belief that people are disposable, the system doesn’t even have to address its failings; the consensus view seems to be that “bad” students can just be thrown out and they will magically disappear, with no negative consequences for our society (the negative consequences for the disposed-of people are, conveniently, beneath even that very general level of consideration).


  3. Alison in Indiana7:28 PM CDT

    Lucky me, I went to a grade school where everyone took shop (there was no home ec). Unfortunately, the realities of liability insurance has put a stop to that, to the great dismay of current students who hear such wonderful shop stories from alumnae/i.