June 30, 2008

A scientific defense of fiction

Students learn mathematical principles better when taught in abstract terms, not when taught using "concrete examples." Research conducted at Ohio State University showed that using real-world examples when teaching math "obscured the underlying math, and students were not able to transfer their knowledge to new problems."

I think this is more good evidence for why "real" morality tales are often the worst way to teach morality.

A while back, LDS church magazines succumbed to this notion that all narratives must comport to standards of reportorial "realism." This not only encourages the Paul Dunn problem--"just so" stories that really are too good to be true--but also encourages the solipsistic consumption of art simply for palliative purposes (because it's "good for you").

What the Ohio State University researchers may have discovered is an analogue to the concept of aesthetic distance, the "ability of human beings to enjoy objects and people without bringing into play their practical needs or personal desires," to see things as "fascinating in themselves" (paraphrasing Kant).

Practically every Sunday school lesson on "turning the other cheek," has somebody protesting, "Well, what if your house got broken into?" or "What if you got mugged?" After which the discussion degrades into an argument about gun control and capital punishment. The "noise" from the real-world "example" pollutes the application of the injunction.

In pursuit of the "real," the point of a parable gets lost. "Whoever has ears, let them hear," it says in Matthew 13:9. Or as Louis Armstrong said about jazz, "If I have to explain it [in concrete terms], you're not going to understand it." Like mathematics, "concrete" shortcuts to moral instruction may sacrifice much deeper understandings.

Related posts

Down with literacy
Good books don't have to be hard

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# posted by Blogger Joe
6/30/2008 8:23 PM   
For me, the biggest problem with "real" morality tales is that there is often a large disconnect between the actual consequences and the ones told by the tale; in fact, there may be no negative consequences at all. This goes a long way toward either destroying the credibility to tale giver and/or foisting on a person a bizarre sense of irrelevant guilt.