Help Me! I Can't Stop Shoveling Facts!

Stephen L. Talbott

There's an invisible plaque hanging on the wall of most classrooms across America. It displays what we might call the Educationist's Motto, which runs like this:

If you take care of the flow of information, the education will take care of itself.

Not that many educators would consciously buy into this formula. After all, managing the flow of bits of information into a database looks uncomfortably like a fact-shoveling style of education, and everyone seems to agree that we must abhor thinking of the student as a passive receptacle for facts. And yet, surely there is a reason why the computer and its databases now provide our culture's dominant metaphor for the acquisition of knowledge.

What is the information now being universally celebrated, if not a collection of facts -- things that can be captured and recorded? It is the very nature of the fact to be finished, wholly defined, given in its entirety. A fact leaves no room for the knower's participation. Our capacities, except as receptacles, are irrelevant. Time and again I've heard the same teachers who supposedly deplore fact shoveling grow positively rhapsodic about the information their students can gather from CD-ROMs or the Net -- this despite the fact that the availability of information has not been the bottleneck in education for decades, if ever. The real question is how we can bring alive for the student the infinitesimal fraction of the available information we actually use in the classroom.

But the reality is that, when it comes to fact shoveling, we just can't help ourselves. What I want to do now is to characterize our helplessness, on the assumption that recognizing ourselves is the first step toward change.

The Polar Nature of Thinking

There are two fundamental gestures of thinking, one of which is analytic, and the other synthetic. The tool for analysis is rationality, which gives us logical precision, quantitative accuracy, facts narrowed down to their most bedrock, unassailable dimensions. Analysis distinguishes and divides wherever possible, eliminates vagueness and ambiguity, and finally produces the "hard fact." As we are well aware from the history of that hardest of hard sciences, physics, hard facts pursued far enough tend paradoxically to dissolve into mental abstractions -- equations, probability distributions, and the like. We speak, not only of the hard facts, but also of the hard numbers.

The tool for synthesis is imagination, which does not divide and distinguish but rather discerns unities. It recognizes the previously unapprehended relations of things. (1) Imagination gives us metaphor, by which this becomes the occasion for our seeing that, which somehow shines through or becomes apparent in this. There is a kinship between the two things. Our understanding thereby gains expressive depth and revelatory insight. Operating at the level of our perception, imagination gives us the things of the world, enabling us to see a pine tree instead of an unrelated assemblage of twigs, needles, sections of bark, pine cones, and the other products of analysis. That is, the imagination gives us the whole, bound together as it is by an immaterial unity -- a unity that is not itself simply another sense impression.

Now, there are several things we should notice about these contrary tendencies of thinking. The first is that without both rational analysis and imaginative synthesis, there is no genuine thinking. As Owen Barfield has pointed out, (2) the two gestures are not mere opposites, but polar contraries: each exists not only in tension with the other, but also by virtue of the other. Analysis has nothing to analyze and break down unless it is first given coherent, recognizable things by the imagination; and the imagination cannot discover new unities unless it is first given the broken-down products of analysis as raw materials.

In the second place, since the renaissance and scientific revolution we have increasingly and one-sidedly committed ourselves to rational analysis in all those disciplines we consider to be cognitively solid. This will, I hope, emerge more clearly in the course of this paper. But our one-sidedness is already evident in our tendency to misconceive imaginative synthesis as the external rearrangement of parts upon a kind of analytical framework of logic. Truly imaginative synthesis, on the other hand, operates within the most fundamental parts, bringing about a metamorphosis of them. Or, to speak in terms of language, it operates, not upon the proposition, but upon the individual term. As Barfield puts it:

Logical judgments [as tools of analysis] ... can only render more explicit some part of a truth already implicit in their terms. But the poet [through imaginative synthesis] makes the terms themselves. He does not make judgments, therefore; he only makes them possible -- and only he makes them possible. (3)

(Barfield speaks here, not only of poets in the narrow sense, but also, for example, of the scientist who imaginatively engages the terms of his discipline, as when Einstein reconceived time and space.)

Third, it is analysis that produces the informational bits we can so easily pass from one database to another. The more analytically reduced a language is, the more precise it is and the more readily its propositions can be communicated, or shoveled, from one place to another. The paradox, however, is that you can get perfect precision, and the perfect ability to communicate facts accurately, only by watching the facts themselves evaporate. That is, the most obvious endpoints of analysis are pure mathematics and logic, and in mathematics and logic you have pure form without empirical fact or content.

This, then, is already to introduce a fourth point: Analysis alone cannot give us the world. As Bertrand Russell once remarked, "Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about." (4) Or, as Einstein put it:

Insofar as the propositions of mathematics give an account of reality they are not certain; and insofar as they are certain they do not describe reality. (5)

So, if what we really want in the classroom is information -- fact by immutable fact, bit by measurable bit, readily transmissible from one database or brain to another -- then what we want is not much at all. For to the degree a fact is absolutely true, without room for ambiguity or alternative views, it is vacuous. It has no content. We purchase absolute and universal truth by jettisoning content, so that our truth is not about anything. The "true fact" is always verging upon the empty forms of mathematics or logic, which are the end results of rational analysis.

Mottos of Formalism

Perhaps all this seems extreme to you. Let me briefly suggest how thoroughly the vacuity resulting from a one-sided rational analysis has hollowed out the major cognitive enterprises of our culture. You will find, I'm afraid, that your own discipline, and perhaps even your own habits of thought, have not altogether escaped the prevailing erosion.

There is, first of all, what has been called the Formalist's Motto by artificial intelligence (AI) theorists:

If you take care of the syntax, the meaning will take care of itself.

Stated simply, the idea runs something like this: if you put the computer through the motions of human behavior, you can assume that it means and intends what we would mean and intend by such behavior. So the AI programmer should concentrate on abstracting the formal structure of our tasks in the world without worrying about the inner qualities of consciousness, feeling, and will with which we invest those tasks. After all, our subjective illusions notwithstanding, nothing is really "there" in either man or machine beside formal structure, or syntax. The meaningful, qualitative, inner content of our lives is a kind of syntactic epiphenomenon, the mystery of which need not concern us.

In other words, those who would construct artificial intelligences are determined to do so on the strength of rational analysis alone. The Formalist's Motto expresses the blind faith that, by piling up the logical building blocks that are the empty end-products of analysis, we -- or our machines -- can somehow regain the world of actual experience.

Then there is the Physicist's Motto:

If you take care of the equations, their meaningful relation to the world will take care of itself.

One might wonder about the truth of this at a time when the equations have become almost mystically esoteric and remote from the world of our experience. The wondering is justified, but we also need to realize that the equations succeed remarkably well as shorthand prescriptions for the effective manipulation of the world (and especially of experimental apparatus). The problem lies in how easily and dangerously we forget that manipulating things is not the same as understanding them or knowing what they are.

Nor should we forget the Economist's Motto, arising from an unshakable faith in the power of the Invisible Hand to smooth over our own neglect of what really matters:

If you take care of the economic numbers, the value for society will take care of itself.

Or, as Adam Smith originally put it in his Wealth of Nations (1776), "By pursuing his own interest [the individual] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it." And "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love." So a quantitative concern for the bottom line results automatically in a wider social good, regardless of one's base intentions.

In this case, not only does the syntax of the formal (market) mechanism take care of the meaning, it adroitly negates any unsavory meanings that mere humans try to inject!

One could go on. Probably the most relevant version of formalism for our purposes is that of communications theory, as it has seeped into the popular consciousness:

If you take care of the transmission of bits, the meaning of the text will take care of itself.

And this, finally, produces as a variant the formula with which we began:

If you take care of the flow of information, the education will take care of itself.

Each of these mottos directs us toward an abstract mathematical or logical calculus that can easily be read from, or impressed upon, a mechanism. Meaningful content, the theorist has concluded, can simply be ignored. Somehow it will take care of itself. In the case of the Educationist's Motto, the child's mind is viewed as part of the mechanism, and it is inevitable that we should feel driven to hook this mechanism up with the efficient, information-transmitting and processing machine we call a computer.

Truth versus Meaning

Our exquisite ability to reduce content to usable abstraction is one of our rightly prized achievements. But I remind you that we cannot abstract from the content of a thing unless we are given the thing in the first place -- given it, that is, in all its qualitative and meaningful presence. Otherwise, there is simply nothing there. You cannot arrive at the concrete object from its dimensions alone, you cannot arrive at a worthwhile product from a set of cost specifications alone, and you cannot arrive at the substance of an argument from its logical structure alone.

So this has been the negative part of my thesis: As educators we find ourselves in the fact-shoveling business because we can hardly help ourselves. The progress of our culture has been achieved with a kind of mental limp whereby one of the two essential gestures of thought has gradually atrophied. Falsely convinced that our choice is always the formal one between truth and falsehood, we are driven toward the empty, if "hard," fact. But in reality our choice is between balance and imbalance in our pursuit of effective truth and expressive meaning.

Here I need to make a crucial distinction that is largely lost on our culture. If truth (in the narrow sense of logical validity) is the criterion we bring to rational analysis, depth of meaning is what we look for in the imagination's working. As Barfield has pointed out, (6) there is a peculiar relation between truth and meaning -- in fact, the same relation of polar contraries that we previously saw between rational analysis and imaginative synthesis. Meaning is always fashioned from a kind of untruth or fiction, as when, in metaphor, we say "This is that" -- "There is a garden in your face," or "The physical world's behavior is an obedience to law." But by looking through the fiction, using it as an aid, we grasp a meaningful unity we have not seen before. As Barfield has demonstrated so effectively, all of our humdrum, literal truths (such as the one about physical law) begin life as metaphorical insight. (7)

So meaning is not true or false in the sense that a mathematical or logical theorem is true or false. But that does not imply that meaning is merely the vague meandering of our subjectivity. Meaning is what gives us something for those mathematical and logical theorems to be about. It gives us a world. Meaning can be more or less revelatory; it can be profound or shallow; it can be deeply embedded in the world, or the isolated flight of my individual fancy.

Postmodernism and the Fixation upon Contentless Truth

Parenthetically, this is what postmodernists generally fail to recognize. Upon realizing that absolute rational truth never delivers the goods -- except in purely formal contexts drained of their real-world content -- the postmodernists decided that the game was lost and we are shut up in our various individual and collective subjectivities.

But we do, after all, succeed in grasping one another's meanings to some extent, with no inviolable limit upon that extent. And "extent" here does not betoken a summing of truths and errors; it points rather to a question of depth in our understanding. A relatively shallow understanding is not necessarily false in relation to a deeper understanding. It is more like the view "through a glass, darkly." It is a crucial step along the way.

The postmodernists are bound to those they criticize by a shared neglect of the necessarily twofold nature of every act of human consciousness -- toward truth, yes, but also toward meaning, for which empty truth must be overcome -- even transgressed -- in order that it might receive substance. They have said, "We must have truth or nothing at all -- so it must be nothing," without realizing that it is the one-sided focus upon truth that has brought us to the nothing. They should have said, "Let us have the actual world, by transcending the logician's empty truth."

Teaching with Imagination

Meaning is as available and as huge as the world itself. But that is the problem. We've been taught to ignore the world. It has from the beginning been an axiom of modern science that the qualities of things -- which is to say, virtually all of the world as actually experienced -- must strictly be ignored. It is contaminated. By what? By meaning, upon which the preferred scientific instrument of rational analysis could get no handle. The positive role of imagination in this regard, without which science would have no things to analyze, was lost from sight.

In a one-sided society it is crucial to redress the reigning imbalance by correcting it at least in the education of the child. But how can we correct an imbalance from which we ourselves suffer? I have no good answer, apart from the bland advice that we must struggle toward the light as best we can. But I do wish to offer the briefest of hints about a meaningful and more imagination-centered education of the child. In doing so, I will draw upon some of the practices of Waldorf education.

The key thought in each of the three suggestions I will make is that the unities discovered by the imagination are always unities of self and world. The qualities of the world are at the same time qualities of our consciousness -- not because they are "merely subjective" as conventional science would have it, but rather because our inside is at the same time the inside of the world. So an imagination-centered education is one in which the inner qualities of the teacher necessarily play a central role in leading the child to an understanding of the world.

First, then, the Waldorf teacher, so far as possible, remains with the same class throughout the eight primary grades. This allows extremely close bonds to form between students and teacher, and enables the teacher to reckon over the long term with the individual nature of each student. But, perhaps most important for the current discussion, it puts tremendous demands upon the teacher for personal growth. Teaching eighth graders is a very different thing from teaching first graders, so that the teacher must continually alter his methods -- his entire style of relating to the students -- in fundamental ways.

That, actually, is part of the rationale for the system. The conviction here is that students are much more deeply affected by the teacher's inner resilience and capacity for growth than by any brute information he happens to pass along. That is, the information needs to be colored and deepened by the qualities, the living meanings, at work in the teacher. This, of course, is consonant with the traditional advice to parents: it's not what you say that counts, but what you do and what you are. And the information-laden computer, don't forget, has no capacity for inner growth.

This is closely related to a second feature of Waldorf education: minimal use is made of textbooks. The teacher is expected to master the material -- which he himself selects -- and to present it in a living way, wrestling with it in the current moment, right there in front of the students. Again, the students' experience of this inner activity on the part of the teacher is more important than the passage of objective bits of information from one cranium to another. On their part, the students create a notebook for each subject, which in effect becomes their textbook.

In the third place -- and this final point of my paper will require a brief bit of explaining -- if we are ever to transcend a fact-shoveling style of education, we will have to use as our model the reading of a text rather than the transmission of information. When we read a text -- whether it is printed words on a page or the logos-word displayed in nature -- we are concerned not just with facts, but with meanings. The question is not only, "Have we correctly translated this word or this sentence?" but "How deeply do we understand it?" The richness of our reading is directly correlated with the conceptual richness of our consciousness -- much more so than with the number of facts we hold.

Any given word will have a distinctive resonance for each hearer or reader, and by entering fully into this resonance we make our own contribution, we discover our own particular depths of meaning in the word and therefore also in the phenomena of the world to which that word applies. The different colorings we are all capable of seeing add up to the full spectrum of reality.

Perhaps you have read about the extraordinary education and achievements of Tom Brown, Jr., or Monty Roberts. Brown was trained from a young age in the arts of animal tracking and wilderness survival. his skills reached a fine, almost preternatural pitch, and he has employed them in tracking down criminals for law enforcement agencies as well as in teaching.

When you look at the so-called "coyote method" by which Tom Brown was himself taught, you find that it was not based primarily upon the transmission of information. In fact, it was almost based upon the absolute refusal to transmit information. His old Indian teacher served as a motivator and an example, not a reservoir of facts. What Brown learned was how to shape himself to nature and the animals he tracked, so that he could resonate with or read the signs he observed in their meaningful contexts. He learned, as he put it, to "track the spirit" of the individual animal more than the external marks. Or, rather, he learned to read the marks as external gestures bearing a meaning.

Much the same could be said about Monty Roberts, "The Man Who Listens to Horses." His accomplishments seem scarcely believable to those of us who can approach horses only with the conventional learner's mindset. He can take a wild horse that normally requires weeks or months to be broken and trained, and -- not breaking it at all -- make himself its friend and rider in as little as a half hour. He learned to "speak horse," which required him to shape his own cognitive interior to that of the horse.

This is the true task of the educator: not to transmit dead and finished bits of information, but to help the student gain the imaginative flexibility and muscularity with which he can shape and re-shape himself to the eternal surprise of the world's phenomena. The student of nature must learn to "speak clouds, air and wind." The student of American history must learn to "speak antebellum culture." Without an imaginative feel for the meaning of things, there is no hope of attaining this goal.

As long as we are content to place an abstract, analytical grid over the face of the world and then look for the sure but empty facts that squeeze through the grid, we will continue shoveling those facts into our students. We will continue, that is, until we strengthen our imaginations to the point where they can hold the balance against our well-honed analytical capacities. (8)


1. The phrase is Owen Barfield's. In my
discussion of analysis and synthesis I am deeply indebted to Barfield's
work, and especially to Poetic Diction (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan
University Press, 1973).

2. Speaker's Meaning. (Middletown,
Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1967).

3. Poetic Diction, op. cit., p.

4. Mysticism and Logic (Totowa,
N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1981; originally published in 1929), p. 60.

5. Quoted in Morris Kline, Mathematics:
The Loss of Certainty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 97.

6. "The Nature of Meaning." Seven
2: 32-43.

7. By "metaphorical" I include what
Barfield calls "figurative" in Poetic Diction. See also "The
Meaning of `Literal'" in Barfield, The Rediscovery of Meaning, and
Other Essays (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press).

8. Meaning, imagination, and the polar
relation between rational analysis and imaginative synthesis are treated
much more fully in Chapter 23 of the author's book, The Future Does Not
Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst (Sebastopol, Calif.:
O'Reilly & Associates, 1995). That chapter, entitled "Can We Transcend
Computation?", is available online at

� 2002 Stephen L. Talbott

Steve Talbott, a frequent contributor to SCR, is the editor of NetFuture and author of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst. You can read more of Steve's writings at: www.oreilly.com/~stevet/index.html and at: www.netfuture.org

Email: [email protected]


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