The President Who Doesn't Read:
on the cognitive-linguistic gulf between oral and print culture


Language, Thought, and Cognitive Performativity

from Imanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787)

Thoughts without intuitions are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind.

from F. Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense (1873)

A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

from Christian J. Emden, Nietzsche on Language, Consciousness, and the Body (University of Illinois Press, 2005)

For Nietzsche, language lets us grasp, order, and judge what we regard as reality, and it also gives us the means to reflect on this reality through the development of general terms and concepts, which let us realize similarities and relations among things and see contexts and construct coherent systems of belief about this reality.  Our experience and knowledge of reality . . . is therefore embedded in a network of concepts delineating what we perceive as our environment.

from David R. Olsen, "History of Writing, History of Rationality," in Eurasia at the Dawn of History (Cambridge, 2016)

Quotes Ong: "Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does. . . .  More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness." (48)

from David R. Olsen, The Mind on Paper: Reading, Consciousness, and Rationality (Cambridge, 2016)

to understand the cognitive implications of literacy it is also necessary to see writing not only as a tool for solving problems but rather as a generalized means or medium for repesentation and communication that give rise to those unique forms of human competence we in modern society define as intelligence and rationality.




The President Who Doesn't Read
Human beings were never born to read
the social origins of language
George W. Bush Tried to Suppress Publication of PISA Data

the Progressive view of human psycho-cognitive development

On Brain Plasticity and the Origins of Language
The Sapient Paradox
The Guttenberg Parenthesis

Cultural-Historical Context of Stalinism: the cultural /linguistic chasm
Lenin on Cognitive Development as the sine qua non of Social Democratic Praxis/What Is To Be Done? (1902)
Validmir Lenin Peers into the Abyss (1923): Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Cultural Front)

Language and Culture: current perspectives
"inexplicable anomalies:" Problems with the U. S. Data (PISA): Political (2006) and "Technical" (2018)



sapient paradox
Orality and Literacy
the Gutenberg Parentheisis
The Withering Away of Mind
rrr



The President Who Doesn't Read



"The President Who Doesn't Read," The Atlantic, January 5, 2018

Ironically, it was the publication of a book this week that crystallized the reality of just how little Donald Trump reads. While, like many of the tendencies described in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, Trump’s indifference to the printed word has been apparent for some time, the depth and implications of Trump’s strong preference for oral communication over the written word demand closer examination.  “He didn’t process information in any conventional sense,” Wolff writes. “He didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semi-­literate.”

Wolff quotes economic adviser Gary Cohn writing in an email: “It’s worse than you can imagine … Trump won’t read anything—not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers, nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored.”

In March, Reuters reported that briefers had strategically placed the president’s name in as many paragraphs of briefing documents as possible so as to attract his fickle attention. In September, the Associated Press reported that top aides had decided the president needed a crash course on America’s role in the world and arranged a 90-minute, map-and-chart heavy lecture at the Pentagon. And amid the hype over Wolff’s book, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough wrote a column Friday saying that in September 2015, he confronted Trump over poor debate performances, saying, “Can you read?” Met with silence, Scarborough pressed again: “I’m serious, Donald. Do you read? If someone wrote you a one-page paper on a policy, could you read it?” Trump replied by brandishing a Bible from his mother and saying he read it all the time—probably a self-aware joke, given Trump’s proud impiety and displayed ignorance of the Bible.

from Jonathan Bernstein, "Where Does Trump Get His Odd Ideas?" (Bloomberg Opinion, May 28, 2019)

The reporting is pretty clear: Trump doesn't read briefings, on politics or anything else. He doesn't appear to have absorbed the basics of public policy, whether on health care or national security or even issues, like trade, that he cares about. Instead, he seems to pick up fragments of information in conversation or, more often, from cable television. Often, it's partisan talking points, which isn't surprising since much of what airs on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC consists of partisan talking points.

from David R. Olsen, "History of Writing, History of Rationality," in Eurasia at the Dawn of History (Cambridge, 2016)

Quotes Ong: "Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does. . . .  More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness." (48)

David R. Olsen, The Mind on Paper: Reading, Consciousness, and Rationality (Cambridge, 2016)

to understand the cognitive implications of literacy it is also necessary to see writing not only as a tool for solving problems but rather as a generalized means or medium for repesentation and communication that give rise to those unique forms of human competence we in modern society define as intelligence and rationality.



Human beings were never born to read
from Maryanne Wolf, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (HarperCollins, 2018),

Human beings were never born to read.  The acqusition of literacy is one of the most important epigenetic achievements of Homo sapiens.  . . .  The act of learning to read added an entirely new circuit to our hominid brain's repertoire.  The long developmental process of learning to read deeply and well changed the very structure of that circuit's connections, which rewired the brain, which transformed the nature of human thought.  pp. 1-2

Every national and international index of how well US children are doing in reading indicates that, despite all the nation’s wealth, they are failing in droves and performing considerably behind children in both Western and Eastern countries.  We cannot ignore what this portends for our children or for our country.

only one-third of twenty-first century American children now read with sufficient understanding and speed at the exact age when their future learning depends on it.  The fourth grade represents a Maginot line between learning to read and learning to use reading to think and learn.

More disturbing altogether, close to half of our children who are African-American or Latino do not read in grade four at even a “basic” reading level, much less a proficient one.  This means that they do not decode well enough to understand what they are reading, which will impact almost everything they are supposed to learn from then on, includiing math and other subjects.  I refer to this period as the “vanishing hole in American education” because if children do not learn to read fluently before this time is over, for all educational purposes, they disappear. pp. 151-2






The Social Origins  of Language

"The co-evolution of language and emotions," Eva Jablonka, Simona Ginsburg, Daniel Dor.  Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, Vol. 367, No. 1599 (5 August 2012), pp. 2152-2159


Another well-researched and uncontested case of adaptive open-ended communicative plasticity in humans is the reorganization of the human brain involved in literacy, which shows how the redeployment of pre-existing neural structures enables humans to read and write, a culturally selected and developmentally constructed ability, which was not itself genetically selected.  (2153) 

In §3, we follow and develop proposals suggesting that for language to evolve, certain emotional preconditions must have been in place. We propose that the human technological and social practices that are considered to be important for the evolution of human cognition, in particular, tool-making and alloparenting, required emotional control and increased social sensibility, and led to the development of the social emotions of pride, shame, guilt and embarrassment. These social emotions are thought to regulate cooperative alliances, and to establish and consolidate group organization—social functions that are crucial for the stabilization of cooperation, including linguistic information sharing. The socially moderating effect of this emotional evolution can be thought of as part of a process of human-specific self-domestication, which is more targeted than that of other domesticates. (2152)

Our position . . . highlights the adaptations of cognition to language: we argue that although general human learning capacities may have ruled out the regular acquisition of some linguistic features, the structure of human brains and minds were never the primary ‘attractors’ (the set towards which a dynamical system evolves over time) around which human language development was organized. The primary attractors were the languages of the communities, the products of innovative collective inventions and social-developmental processes, which ‘stretched’ the plastic cognitive capacities of individuals in novel directions. Our suggestion that language was not only shaped by, but also shaped general cognition, making it more ‘linguistic’, is based on the profound and reciprocal relations between language and culturally constructed modes of cognition, as documented, for example, by Everett [23] among the Piraha ̃, as well as on evidence suggesting that the culturally invented practice of literacy affects categorical thinking. (2154)

Moreover, acquiring the ability to accomplish one thing (using language), scaffolds the learning of other things (reading and writing).  (2154)

In addition to the increased channelling of some aspects of early development brought about through partial genetic assimilation, culture – gene co-evolution led to positive selection for increased plasticity. Once human cultural evolution began to accelerate and languages began to change rapidly, there would have been strong selection for general and language-specific increases in brain plasticity. Since the one thing that is consistently stable in a rapidly changing culture is the culture’s context-dependent flexibility (which the cultural evolutionary process itself creates), there is persistent selection for increasingly flexible and sophisticated ways of learning, including language-learning. As increased flexibility is selected, more learning opportunities, both those afforded by the assimilate–stretch principle and those driven by an increase in cognitive resources (for example, through increase in brain size) are opened up. Such selection produced one of the positive feedbacks that created the human cultural ratchet [6,7]. (2154)

There are many speculations about the cultural– genetic evolution of language, but most evolutionary linguists agree that it involved a fairly protracted process of proto-language evolution [29,30], followed by either gradual or saltatory change into the symbolic-syntactic language observed in Homo sapiens. It is also generally agreed that a sophisticated level of information sharing like that seen in linguistic communication requires a high level of cooperation and collaboration [31], and there are many suggestions as to the conditions that fostered cooperation and its affective correlates [6,32 – 34]. The cognitive requirements, in particular those associated with cooperative hunting and complex tool-making, were also emphasized, and are seen as important facilitating and co-evolving facets of language evolution. Here, we want to emphasize the emotional rather than cognitive requirements, and stress the importance of alloparenting in addition to technological challenges. (2155)

Caring about the opinion of a widening range of others—alloparents, teachers, collaborators—led to the social emotions, to embarrassment, shame, guilt and pride. These emotions were socially constructed from their emotional precursors: the first three are believed to be associated with feelings accompanying subordination and appeasement, and pride with prestige attainment [46]. Shame and embarrassment are thought to establish and maintain social hierarchies by appeasing dominant individuals (e.g. alloparents, teachers), and to reduce aggressive reactions by showing submission. Pride, on the other hand, is a signal of achievement and success, which is directed towards the self, reinforcing one’s motivation, and it is used as a signal to others. (2156)

Docility in humans is probably the result of the selection for increased control of the emotions, for patience, for fine motor control, for delayed gratification, for increased empathy and mind reading, and for interest in social relations and social status. (2156)









Vygotsky and Piaget

Jerome Bruner, "Celebrating divergence: Piaget and Vygotsky"  Human Development 40.2 (Mar/Apr 1997): 63-73.

Piaget was principally (though not entirely) preoccupied with the ontogenesis of causal explanation and its logical and empirical justification. This was even the focus of his masterful studies of moral development, a topic that does not ordinarily lend itself to such an approach. Vygotsky, on the other hand, was principally (though not entirely) concerned with the ontogenesis of interpretation and understanding. Piaget devised methods of inquiry and a theory appropriate to analyzing how children explain and how they justify their explanations - and did it brilliantly. The price he paid, of course, was the usual price one pays for ignoring context, transactional dynamics, background knowledge, and cultural variation. To grasp how somebody interprets or understands something, which was Vygotsky's concern, requires that we take into account their cultural and linguistic background and the context in which they find themselves both `in the small', in the sense of a particular communicative situation, and `in the large' of a patterned cultural system. Vygotsky's emphasis, accordingly, was on situated meanings and on situated meaning-making, which inevitably generates a cultural-historical approach. The two approaches, in consequence, diverged increasingly as they matured perhaps, some would say, to a stage of incommensurability.

I think, and I hope you agree, that we are enormously fortunate to have had two such rich theoretical accounts as an inheritance from our mentors, even if they prove to be incommensurate. Just as depth perception requires a disparity between two views of a scene, so in the human sciences the same may be true: depth demands disparity. So I conclude this excursion into the thought of these two great developmental psychologists with a salute to their profound difference. To have had either of them as a guide would have been a gift. To have had them both is stronger stuff, and even though it may at times seem overwhelming, we are the better for it.





George W. Bush Tried to Suppress
Publication of PISA Data



from How Pisa became the world's most important exam, BBC.com, 26 November 2013 (emphasis added):

Among the starkest revelations has been the decline of the US school system. This former education superpower has been caught up and left behind by many other countries, particularly in Asia.

This was distasteful medicine and Mr. Schleicher says that the U.S. administration was deeply unhappy with the 2006 results and was trying to apply pressure on the OECD.

The U.S. politician who intervened to defend the importance of publishing the results was Ted Kennedy, says Mr. Schleicher. Kennedy, who had chaired the senate committee on education, had become very supportive of the Pisa project.

"It was Senator Kennedy who saved my life at the OECD," he says.

This article appeared about two weeks before the release of the 2012 results (on Dec 7, 2013), and thus was based on the 2003, 2006 and 2009 evaluations.  As can be seen in Figure 1, since then U.S. scores have plunged.




from Merlin Donald, A Mind So Rare: the Evolution of Human Consciousness (W.W. Norton, 2001)

The literary brain did not evolve, in the Darwinian sense.  Humans evolved as a species long before external symbols came into existence, and thus the brain could not have evolved specifically for their use.  Moreover, literacy is neither natural nor universal.  Humanity was illiterate until a few thousand years ago, and more than 90 percent of existing human languages have no indigenous form of literacy.  Yet the children of all human cultures are able to acquire literacy if given a chance.  This shows that the neural demons of literacy, in all their exquisite complexity, are entirely cultural in origin.  Literate culture has capitalized on untapped cerebral potential and reprogrammed the human brain in its own image.  (p. 304)




the Progressive view of human psycho-cognitive development
The excerpt below is from John Dupré, "Causality and Human Nature in the Social Sciences," in Processes of Life: Essays in the Philosophy of Biology (Oxford, 2012).  It is one of the best summaries of what could be called the Progressive view of human psycho-cognitive development (Dewey, Vygotsky, Lunacharsky, Krupskaya):

It is . . . clear that recognition of the variety of factors involved in development makes possible a diversity of individual outcomes within even quite narrowly defined populations. (285)

 . . . the human mind . . . involves a new level of capacity to transform the world beyond the organism. (291)

If I simply act in pursuit of whatever passing whim is uppermost at the moment I exhibit no more causal power than any other animal.  If I choose to build a bridge, write a book, or cook dinner, and subordinate my choice of actions to this decision, I exercise to a greater or lesser degree a distinctively human ability to shape the world.  In the social realm, the ability to confrom to principle, above all moral principle, is the kind of regimentation of behaviour that constitutes a uniquely human achievement. (291)

 . . . it is the fitting of action into some kind of systematic pattern that distinguishes the truly free agent from one who merely has the ability to respond to the whim of the moment; and . . .  [what emerges is] the ontological picture of the human agent as an entity enabled to pursue complex goals or engage in patterns of action over time by the acquisition of a uniquely rich range of capabilities. (293)

I wish to emphasize particularly the ability of cultural evolution to transform the developmental niche.  And here, at least in contemporary developed countries, it seems clear that humans have learned in quite recent times to construct a remarkably novel environment for the development of their young. . . .  [T]hese prodigious changes to the human environment, concretizations of our rapidly evolving culture, profoundly affect the developmental resources available to growing humans.  For that reason their introduction should be seen as representing major evolutionary change. (284)

Nellie Bowles, "Silicon Valley Came to Kansas Schools. That Started a Rebellion." (New York Times, April 21, 2019)
The Sapient Paradox


the ‘speciation phase’ of human evolution 

1)  What we may term the ‘speciation phase’ of human evolution (Renfrew 2006, p. 224, 2007a, p. 94), the period when biological and cultural coevolution worked together to develop the human genome and the human species [Wrangham 2019], as we know it, was fulfilled already 60 000 years ago. This implies that the basic hardware—the human brain at the time of birth—has not changed radically since that time.

That brings us to the sapient paradox.

2)  There seems to have been a long—in fact, inordinately long—delay between the emergence of anatomically modern humans and our later cultural flowering. Both genetic and archaeological evidence converge on the conclusion that the ‘speciation’ phase of sapient humans occurred in Africa at least 70 000–100 000 years BP, and possibly earlier, and all modern humans are descended from those original populations.

the ‘tectonic’ phase

2)  Renfrew labels a later period, extending from 10 000 years ago to the present, as the ‘tectonic’ phase. This has been a period of greatly accelerated change, stepping relatively quickly through several different levels of social and material culture (but see James C. Scott, Against the Grain: a Deep History of the Earliest States; Yale, 2017), including the domestication of plants and animals, sedentary societies, cities and advanced metallurgy. It has culminated in many recent changes, giving us dramatic innovations, such as skyscrapers, atomic energy and the internet. The paradox is that there was a gap of well over 50 000 years between the speciation and tectonic phases. The acceleration of recent cultural change is especially puzzling when viewed in the light of the hundreds of thousands of years it took our ancestors to master fire, stone tool making and coordinated seasonal hunting.

1.  Colin Renfrew, "Neuroscience, evolution and the sapient paradox: the factuality of value and of the sacred," Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2008 Jun 12; 363(1499): 2041–2047.); Colin Renfrew, The Sapient Paradox: Social Interaction as a Foundation of Mind (Youtube Video. 2016 Duke U. seminar)
2. Merlin Donald, "The sapient paradox: can cognitive neuroscience solve it?," in Brain.  A Journal of Neurology.  First published online: 2 December 2008


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from Philip Roth unbound: interview transcript (Daily Beast, October 30, 2009)

Tina Brown: You said in an interview that you don’t think novels are going to be read 25 years from now. Were you being provocative or do you believe that to be true?

Philip Roth: I was being optimistic about 25 years really. No, I think it’s going to be cultic. I think always people will be reading them, but it’ll be a small group of people—maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range. . . .  To read a novel requires a certain kind of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. . .  I think that that kind of concentration, and focus, and attentiveness, is hard to come by. It’s hard to find huge numbers of people, or large numbers of people or significant numbers of people who have those qualities.
brain plasticity

from Lambros Malafouris and Colin Renfrew, How Things Shape the Mind : A Theory of Material Engagement (The MIT Press, 2013)

If the intrinsically plastic human brain undergoes constant change subject to various developmental, environmental, and cultural factors, it cannot simply be assumed that “anatomically modern human intelligence” refers to a fixed and stable speciation event. As we saw in chapter 3, for Material Engagement Theory the hallmark of human cognitive evolution is metaplasticity—that is, ever-increasing extra-neural projective flexibility that allows for environmentally and culturally derived changes in the structure and functional architecture of our brain.

from Joseph Margolis, The Unravelling of Scientism: American Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 15

 . . . the great question of history's constitutive role in the formation and transformation of our cognizing powers is now largely ignored . . .


from “Naval Collision Adds to Fears About U.S. Decline in Asia” (NYT 8-22-17)

"It drives home growing worries about a competence deficit within American organs of power under the increasingly besieged Trump administration,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political analyst at De La Salle University in Manila.


from https://math.berkeley.edu/~frenkel/Frenkel-Wu-WSJ.pdf,

Mathematical education in the U.S. is in deep crisis. The World Economic Forum ranks the quality of math and science education in the U.S. a dismal 48th. This is one of the reasons the 2010 report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" by the National Academies warned that America's ability to compete effectively with other nations is fading. . . .  the current lock-step march to the bottom of international student performance in math and science


from Yrjö Engeström and Reijo Miettinen, "Activity theory and individual and social transformation," in Reijo Miettinen, and Raija-Leena Punamaki, Perspectives on Activity Theory (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 25-6:

Differences in cognition across cultures, social groups, and domains of practice are thus commonly explained without seriously analyzing the historical development that has led to those differences.  The underlying relativistic notion is that we should not make value judgements concerning whose cognition is better or more advanced--that all kinds of thinking and practice are equally valuable.  Although this liberal stance may be a comfortable basis for academic discourse, it ignores the reality that in all domains of societal practice value judgements and decisions have to be made everyday.
More on this





Donald Trump Talks Like a Third-Grader.  (Politico, August 13, 1915.)

For presidential hopefuls, simpler language resonates: Trump tops GOP field while talking to voters at fourth-grade level, (Boston Globe, August 20, 2015).

McMaster Mocked Trump’s Intelligence At a Private Dinner (Buzzfeed, November 20, 2017)

H.R. McMaster reportedly thinks Trump is an “idiot” with the brain of a “kindergartner” (Vox, Nov 20, 2017)
Trump’s latest big interview is both funny and terrifying  (Vox, Oct 23, 2017)

Clubbable, but in the Worst Way (NYT 1-18-18) Fascism


1.1  Emotion and cognition

from Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio R. Damasio, “We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education,” in Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015)

. . . learning is dynamic, social, and context dependent because emotions are, and emotions form a critical piece of how, what, when, and why people think, remember, and learn. (p. 17)

In general, cognition and emotion are regarded as two interrelated aspects of human functioning.   (p. 36)


from David R. Olsen, "History of Writing, History of Rationality," in Eurasia at the Dawn of History (Cambridge, 2016)

[

Quotes Ong: "Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does. . . .  More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness." (48)

from Almudena Herndando, "The Impact of Social Differentiation on Identity," in Eurasia at the Dawn of History

Research on the contrast between orality and literacy unanimously confirms that writing individualizes people. . . .  writing allows subjects to establish abstract, more rational connections with phenomena outside their own personal experience, whereas in oral societies only that which can be experienced in person may be processed as part of reality." (58)


In this context read The President Who Doesn't Read: Trump’s allergy to the written word and his reliance on oral communication have proven liabilities in office (David A. Graham, The Atlantic  1-5-18).



from Sophia Rosenfeld, A Revolution in Language: the Problem of Signs in Late Eighteenth-Century France (Stanford, 2001), pp. 150-51

"As the Abbé Grégoire warned his fellow deputies, 'this inevitable poverty of language, which confuses the mind, will mutilate all your addresses and decrees.'  In a political system built upon a series of mental abstractions, popular linguistic confusion, according to this reasoning, was and would continue to be one of the principal sources of political and civil discord. 

How did these well-placed intellectuals know that many ordinary people failed to comprehend the language of the Revolution?  For the Abbé Grégoire, it was a matter of common sense.  Like the savages of late eitheenth-century travel literature, peasants--the often illiterate speakers of foreign idioms, dialects, and ungrammatical French--were widely thought to have great difficulty generalizing their ideas or forming clear conceptions of abstract, nonmaterial terms.   Indeed, Voltaire's conclusion that 'more than half of the habital world is still populated by two-footed animals who live in a horrible condtion approximating the state of nature. . . barely enjoying the gift of speech' retained its force.  Consequently, even when the population in question was the vast rural citizenry of France, its ability to understand the key debates and decrees of the Revolution was assumed to be extremely limited.  As the Abbé Sernin bluntly states before the Convention, 'Artisans and people in the countryside, although elevated by the law to a new level of Liberty and destined to fill the most important positions in the State, these men are, for the most part, still deaf and mute' when it came to any public functions that they might be called upon to play.

. . . reports . . . often contained ominous tales of public incomprehension of the formal language of France's laws and constitution.  A correspondent from the department of Seine-et-Oise, for example, wrote to express his fear that the young children he regularly heard reciting the Declaration of the Rights of Man from memory did not actually understand what they were saying: "I am sadly convinced by questions which I have posed to the oldest among them that they understand the significance of none of the words used in it.  I have reproached their fathers in a fraternal way for not bothering to explain these words to their children.  They have replied that they do not understand any more than their children and that they themselves need someone to explain these words to them as well."  Similarly, a schoolmaster from Fourny wrote to La Feuille villageoise to say that every Sunday he read this journal aloud to the local peasants and answered, to the best of his abilities, their frequent questions about vocabulary that they did not comprehend.  But, he complained, he was afraid that he was spoiling the journal's lessons and deceiving his disciples, because "I often encounter words that I know only a little or badly."  Unfortunately, the words that the schoolmaster failed to grasp ranged from "democracy" and "coalition" to "analysis" and "metaphor."


from James R. Flynn, What is Intelligence?  Beyond the Flynn Effect (Cambridge Univesity Press, 2009):

Our ancestors in 1900 were not mentally retarded.  Their intelligence ws anchored in everyday reality.  We differ from them in that we can use abstractions and logic and the hypothetical to attack the formal problems that arise when science liberates thought from concrete situations.  Since 1950 we have  become more ingenious in going beyond previously learned rules to solve problems on the spot.  pp. 10-11

The scientific ethos, with its vocabulary, taxonomies, and detachment of logic and the hypothetical from concrete referents, has begun to permeate the minds of post-industrial peoples.  This has paved the way for mass education on the university level and the emergence of an intellectual cadre without whom our present civilization would be inconceivable. 29

Science altered our lives and then liberated our minds from the concrete.  This history has not been written because, as children of our own time, we do not perceive the gulf that separates us from our distant [circa 1900] ancestors: the difference between their world and the world seen through scientific spectacles. . . .  As use of logic and the hypothetical moved beyond the concrete, people developed new habits of mind.  They became practiced at solving problems with abstract or visual content and more innovative at administrative tasks." 172-174

Cultural-Historical Context of Stalinism: the cultural /linguistic chasm

Boris N. Mironov, "Peasant Popular Culture and the Origins of Soviet Authoritarianism," in Cultures in Flux: Lower-Class Values, Practices, and Resistance in Late Imperial Russia, Stephen P. Frank and Mark D. Steinberg, eds. (Princeton University Press, 1994)

The cognitive model of socialization set forth by Piaget and other psychologists suggests that the development of the cognitive, emotional, and moral structures of personality occurs during the process of schooling.  In particular, the adult, "mature intellect"--which is capable of deductive reasoning and of constructing hypotheses, in contrast to the incapacity of the "childlike" intellect for formal operations--is formed in the concrete and situational learning process that occurs up to the age of fifteen.  As the research of A. R. Luria indicates, a person who does not go through the instructional process in school will continue to possess a childlike intellect throughout life.  This has a strong influence on personality and behavior, especially in a realm where authoritarian relations function.  Perhaps it was from this shortcoming that the peasantry's "infantilism" stemmed--a characteristic occasionally referred to by scholars of the Russian countryside.  (68)

Leonid Heretz, Russia on the Eve of Modernity: Popular Religion and Traditional Culture Under the Last Tsars (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

The development of modernity into materialism in the ninetenth century has intensified our difficulties in understanding religion-based traditional cultures.  For the various materialist schools of thought, religious ideas have no existence in themselves, but are merely reflections  of socio-economic realities, and they represent an inferior mode of comprehension or a "false consciousness."  Although interpretations based on this assumption have reached new heights of subtlety and insight, in the Russian case the results have usually been more meager and crude.  Present-day Western scholars might be tempted to lay all the blame for "vulgar materialism" on now-discredited Soviet Marxism and to minimize the extent to which we are all living "in an age in which the understanding of anything that surpasses the material level has practically ceased to exist." [P. Sherrard, The Greek East and the Latin West, p. 50]  If anything, Marxism, with its fundamental humanism, does not even approach the utter materialism  of present-day Western trends such as neoliberal economic theory, "rational choice" political science, neurochemical psychology, and reductionist Darwinist/geneticist sociology.  Given the pervasive materialism of our contemporary worldview, we must make a great effort of empathy to understand the culture of people vitally concerned with things which mean nothing to us.  (p. 9)

The material presented in the following pages constitutes an attempt at enhancing the historical picture by highlighting the persistence of traditional modes of thought and behavior among the Russian peasantry and townsfold in 1905.  This will, in turn, support the notion that the revolutionary events of that year were primarily the work of active, organized elites and not the result of a broad popular movement.  (p. 157)

The goal of this chapter . . . [is] to demonstrate the continued vigor of tradition in a time of revolutionary turmoil, and to show the ways in which the traditional worldview could maintain its coherence even when under assault by drastically new and unsettling developments.  In particular, we will focus on the following issues: (1) the persistence of Tsarism, even in the context of what would appear to be new, modern forms of political activity, (2) the cultural /linguistic chasm which separated the oppositional parties from the traditional elements of the population, (3) the traditionalist reaction which ensured when the anti-Tsarist and anti-religious aspects of the revolutionary movement became apparent, and (4) the means by which the traditional mind could explain the frustration of its hopes while at the same time maintaining its faith in the Tsar. (p. 157-8)

the ancient motif of treason  (p. 160)

The breakdown of order  in 1905 opened, at least in principle, the possibility for modern political conepts to enter into the consciousness of the Russian peasantry, as socialists with their dream of democracy and liberals with their faith in constitutionalism were able to take their messages to the people.  The introduction of new ideas that might have undermned traditional Tsarism was greatly hindred by the lingusitic/conceptual chasm tha tseparated educated society from the mass of the population. (p. 170)


Lenin on Cognitive Development as the sine qua non of Social Democratic Praxis

from Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, What Is To Be Done? (1902)

We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.[2] The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. By their social status the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. In the very same way, in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working-class movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia. In the period under discussion, the middle nineties, this doctrine not only represented the completely formulated programme of the Emancipation of Labour group, but had already won over to its side the majority of the revolutionary youth in Russia. pp. 17-18

Attention, therefore, must be devoted principally to raising the workers to the level of revolutionaries; it is not at all our task to descend to the level of the “working masses” as the Economists wish to do, or to the level of the “average worker” as Svoboda desires to do (and by this ascends to the second grade of Economist “pedagogics”). I am far from denying the necessity for popular literature for the workers, and especially popular (of course, not vulgar) literature for the especially backward workers. But what annoys me is this constant confusion of pedagogics with questions of politics and organisation. You, gentlemen, who are so much concerned about the “average worker”, as a matter of fact, rather insult the workers by your desire to talk down to them when discussing working-class politics and working-class organisation. Talk about serious things in a serious manner; leave pedagogics to the pedagogues, and not to politicians and organisers! Are there not advanced people, “average people”, and “masses” among the intelligentsia too? Does not everyone recognise that popular literature is also required for the intelligentsia, and is not such literature written? Imagine someone, in an article on organising college or high-school students, repeating over and over again, as if he had made a new discovery, that first of all we must have an organisation of “average students”. The author of such an article would be ridiculed, and rightly so. Give us your ideas on organisation, if you have any, he would be told, and we ourselves will decide who is “average”, who above average, and who below. But if you have no organisational ideas of your own, then all your exertions in behalf of the “masses” and “average people” will be simply boring. You must realise that these questions of “politics” and “organisation” are so serious in themselves that they cannot be dealt with in any other but a serious way. We can and must educate workers (and university and Gymnasium students) so that we may be able to discuss these questions with them. But once you do bring up these questions, you must give real replies to them; do not fall back on the “average”, or on the “masses”; do not try to dispose of the matter with facetious remarks and mere phrases.   pp. 83-4


Validmir Lenin Peers into the Abyss
from V. I. Lenin, Better Fewer, But Better ( Written: March 2,  1923)

In the matter of improving our state apparatus, the Workers’ and  Peasants’ Inspection should not, in my opinion, either strive after  quantity or hurry. We have so far been able to devote so little thought and  attention to the efficiency of our state apparatus that it would now be  quite legitimate if we took special care to secure its thorough  organisation, and concentrated in the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection a  staff of workers really abreast of the times, i.e., not inferior to the  best West-European standards. For a socialist republic this condition is,  of course, too modest. But our experience of the first five years has  fairly crammed our heads with mistrust and scepticism. These qualities  assert themselves involuntarily when, for example, we hear people dilating  at too great length and too flippantly on "proletarian" culture. For a  start, we should be satisfied with real bourgeoislenin culture; for a start we  should be glad to dispense with the crude types of pre-bourgeois culture, i.e., bureaucratic culture or serf culture, etc. In matters of culture,  haste and sweeping measures are most harmful. Many of our young writers and Communists should get this well into their heads.

Thus, in the matter of our state apparatus we should now draw the  conclusion from our past experience that it would be better to proceed more  slowly.

Our state apparatus is so deplorable, not to say wretched, that we must first think very carefully how to combat its defects, bearing in mind that  these defects are rooted in the past, which, although it has been overthrown, has not yet been overcome, has not yet reached the stage of a culture, that has receded into the distant past.  I say culture deliberately, because in these matters we can only regard as achieved what  has become part and parcel of our culture, of our social life, our habits.  We might say that the good in our social system has not been properly  studied, understood, and taken to heart; it has been hastily grasped at; it  has not been verified or tested, corroborated by experience, and not made  durable, etc. Of course, it could not be otherwise in a revolutionary epoch, when development proceeded at such break-neck speed that in a matter of five years we passed from tsarism to the Soviet system.

Lenin’s Collected Works, 2nd English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965, Volume 33, pages 487 -  502





from Yrjö Engeström and Reijo Miettinen, "Activity theory and individual and social transformation," in Reijo Miettinen, and Raija-Leena Punamaki, Perspectives on Activity Theory (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 25-6:

Differences in cognition across cultures, social groups, and domains of practice are thus commonly explained without seriously analyzing the historical development that has led to those differences.  The underlying relativistic notion is that we should not make value judgements concerning whose cognition is better or more advanced--that all kinds of thinking and practice are equally valuable.  Although this liberal stance may be a comfortable basis for academic discourse, it ignores the reality that in all domains of societal practice value judgements and decisions have to be made everyday.

Unlike inherited wealth or class, the acquisition of literacy showed that one had the self-discipline to master an intellectual skill and enabled one to absorb "new conceptions of the behavior appropirate for self-possessing individuals

from  T. Wilson Hayes, "The Peaceful Apocalypse: Familism and Literacy in Sixteenth-Century England."  The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Summer, 1986), pp. 131-143 (13 pages)

  . . . they believed that by reading they could learn how to save their own souls." p. 132

"transformation of consciosness with the spread of alphabet literacy"; Ong ref; p. 137

an internal transformation epitomized by the acquisition of literacy  p. 141

Like the Lollards before them, Familists did not advocate separation from the dominant church and, as Champlin Burrage and David Loades have pointed out, should not be referred to as a sect at all.  By encouraging the apocalyptic transformation of consciousness that literacy provokes, Familists showed ordinary people how they might transform both themselves and the world around them.  This was a key factor in the advancement of popular literacy and, as a result, of popular  political awareness. 143

Hayes refers to Eric Leed; footnote 43 on p. 142: "'Voice' and 'Print': Master Symbols in the History of Communication, in The Myths of Information: Technology and Postindustrial Culture (Coda Press, 1980)

In the sixteenth century literacy became a sign of independence. Unlike inherited wealth or class, the acquisition of literacy showed that one had the self-discipline to master an intellectual skill and enabled one to absorb "new conceptions of the behavior appropirate for self-possessing individuals.





Language and Culture: current perspectives

f
rom"
Late Pleistocene Demography and the Appearance of Modern Human Behavior," SCIENCE, 5 June 2009 Vol. 324

The origins of modern human behavior are marked by increased symbolic and technological complexity in the archaeological record. In western Eurasia this transition, the Upper Paleolithic, occurred about 45,000 years ago, but many of its features appear transiently in southern Africa about 45,000 years earlier. We show that demography is a major determinant in the maintenance of cultural complexity and that variation in regional subpopulation density and/or migratory activity results in spatial structuring of cultural skill accumulation.

Language, Culture, and Mind: trends and standards in the latest penddulum swing,” N. J. Enfield.  Journal of the Royal Anthropolitical Institute (N.S.) 19, 155-169.  (2013)

“ . . . distinctly human social cognitive capacities that include the bases of trust, co-operative and altruistic propensities, moral capacities, shared intentions and agency, sensitivity to local norms, and high-level abilities to model and track what others believe and what they know.”


"The co-evolution of language and emotions," Eva Jablonka, Simona Ginsburg, Daniel Dor.  Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, Vol. 367, No. 1599 (5 August 2012), pp. 2152-2159


Our view of language as a part of a sophisticated suite of mental adaptations highlights the intimate interactions between language and emotions.  It stresses the role of cultural innovation and cultural learning in the evolution of language.  It implies that the different facets of language, including the ability for recursion, evolved gradually and incrementally, within the entwined contexts of tool-making, collaborative social practices and communication. (2157)

We argued that not only were the social emotions a precondition for the evolution of instructive communication and controllable  imagination, but also suggested that their co-development and co-evolution with language led to new repertoires of emotions.  Our view thus agrees with and extends Tomasello's suggestion that human cooperation has some unique features, and suggests that one of the contributing factors making human cooperation and agression unique is the language-based control of emotions.  However, the ability to control emotions can lead not only to inhibitory effects but also to excitatory ones: language can be mobilized for generating aggression.  Furthermore, because words and phrases construct and stabilize human mental emotional categories, language makes it much easier to manipulate emotions for both aggressive and cooperative ends.  In humans, cooperation and aggression are therefore, at least partially, symbol-bound and symbol-controlled, and, in this respect, are qualitatively different from cooperation and aggression in other animals. (2157)








"inexplicable anomalies"

Problems with the U. S. Data:
Political (2006) and "Technical" (2018)

George W. Bush Tried to Suppress Publication of PISA Data (2006)

re. the 2006 results: from How Pisa became the world's most important exam, BBC.com, 26 November 2013 (emphasis added):

Among the starkest revelations has been the decline of the US school system. This former education superpower has been caught up and left behind by many other countries, particularly in Asia.

This was distasteful medicine and Mr. Schleicher says that the U.S. administration was deeply unhappy with the 2006 results and was trying to apply pressure on the OECD.

The U.S. politician who intervened to defend the importance of publishing the results was Ted Kennedy, says Mr. Schleicher. Kennedy, who had chaired the senate committee on education, had become very supportive of the Pisa project.

"It was Senator Kennedy who saved my life at the OECD," he says.


FOOTNOTE 1.  from PISA 2018 Results (Volume I):What Students Know and Can Do

footnote 1.  Data did not meet the PISA technical standards but were accepted as laregly comparable (see Annexes A2 and A4)

Annex A 2
In PISA 2018, five countries and economies – Hong Kong (China) (69 %), Latvia (82 %), New Zealand (83 %), the United Kingdom (73 %) and the United States (65 %) – did not meet the 85 % threshold, but met the 65 % threshold, amongst schools initially selected to take part in the PISA assessment. Upon replacement, Hong Kong (China) (79 %), the United Kingdom (87 %) and the United States (76 %) still failed to reach an acceptable participation rate.

Annex A 4
Despite the overall high quality of data, a few countries’ data failed to meet critical standards or presented inexplicable anomalies, such that the Adjudication Group recommends a special treatment of these data in databases and/or reporting.

While the adjudication group did not consider the violation of response-rate standards by Hong Kong (China) and the United States (see Annex A2) as major adjudication issues, they noted several limitations in the data used in non-response-bias analyses submitted by Hong Kong (China) and the United States. In consideration of the lower response rates, compared to other countries, the data for Hong Kong (China) and the United States are reported with an annotation.

Jerrim, J. 2019. "Is Canada really an education superpower? The impact of exclusions and non-response on results from PISA 2015."

Jerrim, J., "Is England’s PISA 2018 data reliable?"

 Valerie Strauss, "Academics call for pause in PISA tests," WAPO 5-13-14