Oliver Sacks is amazing. I started riffing through the July 28 issue of The New Yorker while waiting for an appointment with my physician and landed on A Neurologist's Notebook, The Mind's Eye, What the blind see. Sacks begins:

    In his last letter, Goethe wrote, "The Ancients said that the animals are taught through their organs; let me add to this, so are men, but they have the advantage of teaching their organs in return."

Soon, Sacks is asking philosophical questions:

    To what extent are we -- our experiences, our reactions -- shaped, predetermined, by our brains, and to what extent do we shape our own brains? Does the mind run the brain or the brain the mind -- or, rather, to what extent does one run the other? To what extent are we the authors, the creators, of our own experiences?

Sacks fills the next eight pages with inquiries and stories about how the blind construct reality. The answer? In wildly different forms. Some become hypervisual, others go into "deep blindness," with no images at all. Not only that, the same is true of sighted people. Finally, Sacks concludes that answers are illusive.

    When I talk to people, blind or sighted, or when I try to think of my own internal representations, I find myself uncertain whether words, symbols, and images of various types are the primary tools of thought or whether there are forms of thought antecedent to all of these, forms of thought essentially amodal. Psychologists have sometimes spoken of "interlingua" or "mentalese," which they conceive to be the brain's own language, and Lev Vygotsky, the great Russian psychologist, used to speak of "thinking in pure meanings." I cannot decide wether this is nonsense or profound truth -- it is the sort of reef I end up on when I think about thinking.

And I sometimes end up a reefer myself when I contemplate the nature of learning. (Learning is simply adding to one's thinking, isn't it?)

    Imagination dissolves and transforms, unifies and creates, while drawing upon the "lower" powers of memory and association. It is by such imagination, such "vision," that we create or construct our individual worlds.

    At this level, one can no longer say of one's mental landscapes what is visual, what is auditory, what is image, what is language, what is intellectual, what is emotional -- they are all fused together and imbued with our own individual perspectives and values.

This echoes in my memory, for I've been jotting down "There is no theory of everything for learning" in my journals for the last few weeks without being able to take it much further. In learning, as in physics, everything is relative; every layer you peel off the onion reveals another onion. The closest we get to explanations is a set of probablities, tiny things whose existence is uncertain, and fever dreams about string and infinity.

Well, of course there are accidents. Aren't there?

The same issue of New Yorker concludes with a piece, "Strung Out," by Woody Allen. Woody writes:

    I am greatly relieved that the universe if finally explainable. I was beginning to think it was me. As it turns out, physics, like a grating relative, has all the answers. The big bang, black holes, and the primordial soup turn up every Tuesday in the Science section of the Times, and as a result my grasp of general relativity and quantum mechanics now equals Einstein's -- Einstein Moomjy, that is, the rug seller.

    The latest miracle of physics is string theory, which has been heralded as a T.O.E., or "Theory of Everything."

Woody and I are in sync.

    I awoke on Friday and because the universe is expanding it took me longer than usual to find my robe.

The concept that there's no Theory of Everything is liberating because it enables one to talk about the pieces without referencing the whole. It chucks the absolutes out the windown. It defeats extremism. It replaces this:

with this:

and, as Martha used to say, "It's a good thing."

Posted by Jay Cross at October 11, 2003 12:41 PM | TrackBack

Jay writes, "There is no theory of everything for learning". I've been interviewing recently for Senior Instructional Design jobs and I'm depressed how few candidates know ANY learning theories. It seems you can get ahead in the production-oriented world of industrial e-learning with a general process, a bit of experience and some tricks of the trade. I guess it shows the level of conformity e-learning has reached where all you gotta learn is how to make an attractive electronic book (and sell it).

People only seem to know Bloom and Gagne.

I can' continue, I'm too depressed.


Posted by: sherlock_yoda at October 12, 2003 07:56 AM

All too true. You have to know a whale of a lot of theories to conclude there's no absolute theory, just a box of useful tools. Artisans know this.

A friend of mine makes fine furniture by hand. She has hundreds upon hundreds of tools. She apprenticed to master craftsmen. She understands wood. She designs. She puts love into her projects. She is immensely proud of them.

Hers is a substantially different activity from that of someone assembling knockdown furniture from an Ikea kit with a screwdriver and a mallet. Not that I have something against Iket -- I'm seated an an Ikea desk, surrounded by Ikea bookcases and file cabinets right now.

There are roles for designers and for assemblers. It's important not to confuse the two.

Posted by: Jay at October 12, 2003 08:27 AM

And for those who want to hear more from Oliver Sacks, come to the Training 2004 Conference & Expo in Atlanta, March 1-3, 2004. He's one of the keynotes ... along with fellow neurologist Robert Sapolsky on stress, Churchill's granddaughter Celia Sandys on lessons from Churchill's leadership style, Noel Tichy on leadership and learning, Michael Abrashoff on grassroots leadership and Tony Jeary "life as a presentation". See .

Posted by: Steve Dahlberg at October 14, 2003 07:27 AM

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