The Lure of Abstraction
It can be intoxicating to realize that a whole world of abstract ideas exists that can explain and help us interpret the world of our daily lives. If supported in thinking in theoretical ways, many of our senior students/adult learners quickly and thoroughly take to the powerful understanding of the world that abstract ideas can offer.
Developing A Sense of Abstract Reality
All through our lives we actively develop a sense of reality through particular kinds of emotional and imaginative engagements. This focus on reality–the real world around us–tends to develop with the onset of literacy. We seek real-world examples of knowledge we are introduced to. We tend to particularly enjoy the “romantic” adventure- and wonder-filled aspects. What does this look like, then, when we study a topic like history? Well, with tools of oral and written language shaping our meaning-making, we most enjoy vivid accounts of exceptional events, heroes, or stories of people/situations that “beat the odds”. We are engaged with the ingenuity of people who are able to channel their hopes, fears and passions in ways that lead to novel solutions and inventions. We collect many examples of specific historical events that, together, create for us an image of why the world is as it is.
[Go deeper: This post describes in detail the most powerful tools of imaginative engagement literate students employ and how you, the teacher, can tap into these in your teaching. This post describes how to most effectively engage our youngest, primarily oral language-using students with any subject matter. And this post–literally, the one you are reading now–is the first in the Tools of Imagination Series about philosophic engagement. So read on!]
With a supportive context and a certain kind of education, we may begin to realize that a world of ideas exists totally apart from our sense of reality. In the words of Dr. Kieran Egan,
“The developing mind begins to construct an abstract world of general concepts that represent reality in a new way. It permits understanding of the processes by which nature and society work and of our increasing control over these processes. It takes shape as part of the development of disembedded, rational, logically structured forms of thinking.” (Source: IERG Website)
Back to the example above, we realize that concepts like FREEDOM, or VALUES, or POWER provide powerful insights and understanding when it comes to our particular experiences or the facts we have learned about history. In some ways, abstract ideas offer us a sense of why the world works as it does. This sense of certainty or ‘Truth” is very appealing to the philosophical thinker.
Beware: The Ideas We Think With Are Potent
Dr. Kieran Egan warns teachers of the power of abstract ideas for students—I use the word “intoxicating” for a reason! He notes how the world of theory can quickly lure our students and can even seem to be more “objective” than other ways of knowing:
“Many students who discover the world of theory are attracted to it—they catch on quickly and thoroughly to the point where they may believe that they are at last able to understand how things really are and how the world works. The world thus becomes re-seen as made up of vast processes – historical, social, psychological, anthropological – governed by laws and rules which abstract theoretic thinking alone can discover.”
(Source: IERG website)
As educators we need to be aware, then, that the tools we are working with are powerful; our lessons may profoundly impact our students’ sense of the world, society, and self.
Teaching looks different if we engage the “sense of abstract reality” tool. So, for example, if teaching Revolutions in Social Studies in a way that engages philosophical thinkers one wouldn’t emphasize the particular examples of the most gruesome or engaging details of battle, but would instead seek to understand the nature of revolution itself. The teaching of particular details–even gruesome ones–is connected to a larger, abstract idea.
Subject Area: English Literature/Hamlet
Source: IERG website (By Kieran Egan)
The aim through all the discussions of Hamlet proposed here is to develop the general and abstract vocabulary required to generate an abstract world. So, what is Hamlet basically about?—this is the question that can drive students to look at the play in this new and powerful dimension of thought.
A useful way to work at developing students’ sense of abstract reality is to engage them in the theories about the play that have hovered around it for hundreds of years. You could ask your students to imagine what the first audiences of the play might have seen in it. Several earlier “Hamlet” plays have been staged, including a recent one by Thomas Kyd, and the story appears in chronicles that Shakespeare and his audiences would have known. But Shakespeare changed the old “revenge formula” into something amazingly more complex and engaging. You might discuss Hamlet as a thriller. From this perspective, the gripping part of the plot is not our fascination with Hamlet’s psyche, which we can indulge because we know what is going to happen, but is rather, for the person who sees the play for a first time, a question of who is going to kill whom first—Will it be Hamlet or Claudius?
Some argue that the play’s power to grip people is due to masterful alignment of the elements to make a seamless whole. You could thus ask your students to think of flawed works of art that nevertheless have a power to grip their imaginations, and ask them to reflect on whether “Hamlet” isn’t the most successful failure ever to be performed. Then there are aspects of the “What’s Hecuba to him?” question. You could solicit your students’ views on this, and ask them to compare their ideas with Hamlet’s own musings in his “O! what a rogue and peasant slave am I” speech. Why should the player weep for Hecuba and we for Hamlet? Then there’s always the “It’s just all a bit too much” theory; that a sensitive person under the array of stresses that pound Hamlet just finds his brain whirring as he tries to deal with it all. Life, death, love, and intense fear—enough to make a lad long for the days playing with Yorik.
More examples: Read imaginative educator Marlene Roseboom’s blog post about tapping into students’ sense of abstract reality/general ideas in English 10: One Theme For The Entire Year? She proposes HEGEMONY can be used to shape the entire English 10 course.
OR read imaginative educator Dr. Tim Waddington’s post in which he indicates how the abstract concept of FRIENDSHIP can shape teaching about The Outsiders: Aristotle And A Leather Jacket: An Example of Concept-Centered Teaching. Also by Dr. Tim Waddington, you might enjoy this post in which he questions the meaning of “literacy”–Was Literacy Just a Phase?