THINKER’S ALMANAC – March 4

Event: Imperative Mood —  Aphorisms 

Subject: March forth!

Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative. -H.G. Wells

Today, March 4th, is the one day of the year that can be stated as a complete sentence.  By swapping out the word “fourth” and replacing it with its homophone “forth,” you create a punny imperative:  “MARCH FORTH!”

Of all days of the year, today is a day to assert yourself.  Be bossy.  Be commanding. Be bold.  Above all, write sentences in the imperative mood — the kind of sentences that command, beginning with a verb and implying a subject, as in, “[You] march forth!”

To become more familiar with the imperative mood, read the following examples of advice from sages from history:

Never ruin an apology with an excuse. -Ben Franklin

Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up. -Robert Frost

Go wisely and slowly. Those who rush stumble and fall. -William Shakespeare

Speak softly but carry a big stick. -Theodore Roosevelt

Doubt everything – find your own light! – Buddha

Just do it. -Nike

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the imperative mood, and why should it come to mind on March Fourth?

Challenge – Write Imperatives and Be More Assertive!:  In the book The Best Advice in Six Words, Larry Smith has collected hundreds of the world’s shortest commencement addresses. This is a genre that requires both brevity of wit and rhetorical deftness.  Try your hand at writing your own.  Begin with the WHAT you want to say, stating it as clearly as possible in the imperative form.  Then, revise it, focusing on how you say it.

Eat good, feel good, be good.

Turn it off, and go outside.

Don’t let frustration hinder your creativity.

Address the elephant in the room.

Celebrate having the title of underdog. 

Run fast, run hard, run far.

Keep walking forward. Don’t look back.

Sources:

Smith, Larry (Editor). The Best Advice in Six Words.  New York:  St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – March 3

Subject:   Memory – Simonides’ Memory Palace

Event:  Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking With Einstein published, 2011

In 2005, journalist Joshua Foer attended the U.S. Memory Championships as a part of his research to find the world’s smartest person.  There he became mesmerized, watching “memory athletes” demonstrate prodigious feats of recall, such as memorizing 27 decks of shuffled playing cards.  Foer discovered that the secret to a great memory was not IQ; instead, it was strategy and focus. Foer found the competition and the strategies so fascinating that the next year he participated himself — and won.

File:Moonwalking with einstein.jpg
(Wikimedia Commons)

Foer chronicled his experiences in his book Moonwalking With Einstein, which was published on this day in 2011.  One specific method he highlights is known as the method of loci, which capitalizes on the brain’s especially strong ability to navigate spatial environments and visualize specific images.  For example, think of how easy it would be for you to draw the floor plan of the house you grew up in.  Even though you never consciously tried to remember the layout, you could probably draw it easily from memory and even recall the exact layout of each piece of furniture.

The method of loci is also known as the memory palace method.  It can be employed, for example, for memorizing a speech by transforming the speech’s key concepts into concrete images.  These images are then placed in the mental floor plan of the speaker’s memory palace.  In addition to making the objects you imagine distinctive, it also helps to make them outrageously absurd.  Doing this makes the images more memorable and more vivid.

For example, say you were giving a speech on the topic of the importance of education and you plan to open with a quotation by Socrates.  To remember this, you might imagine the toga-clad Socrates standing on your front porch with a Bic lighter and an empty bedpan on his head; this might help you remember your opening quotation:  “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”  The next point in your speech can then be found based on an image that you find in your living room as you walk through your memory palace’s front door.

As Foer explains in his book, strategies like the memory palace are nothing new; instead, they were developed over two thousand years ago: “Once upon a time, this idea of having a trained, disciplined, cultivated memory was not nearly so alien as it would seem to us to be today” (1).

In 55 B.C., for example, the Roman statesman Cicero wrote a book called De Oratore where he outlined the strategies of the ideal orator.  It’s in this book where Cicero tells the story of the origin of the memory palace technique, which began with a dramatic near-death experience by Simonides, a Greek lyric poet:

There is a story that Simonides was dining at the house of a wealthy nobleman named Scopas at Crannon in Thessaly, and chanted a lyric poem which he had composed in honor of his host, in which he followed the custom of the poets by including for decorative purposes a long passage referring to Castor and Pollux; whereupon Scopas with excessive meanness told him he would pay him half the fee agreed on for the poem, and if he liked he might apply for the balance to his sons of Tyndaraus, as they had gone halves in the panegyric.

The story runs that a little later a message was brought to Simonides to go outside, as two young men were standing at the door who earnestly requested him to come out; so he rose from his seat and went out, and could not see anybody; but in the interval of his absence the roof of the hall where Scopas was giving the banquet fell in, crushing Scopas himself and his relations underneath the ruins and killing them; and when their friends wanted to bury them but were altogether unable to know them apart as they had been completely crushed, the story goes that Simonides was enabled by his recollection of the place in which each of them had been reclining at table to identify them for separate interment; and that this circumstance suggested to him the discovery of the truth that the best aid to clearness of memory consists in orderly arrangement.

He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty must select localities and form mental images of the facts they wish to remember and store those images in the localities, with the result that the arrangement of the localities will preserve the order of the facts, and the images of the facts will designate the facts themselves, and we shall employ the localities and images respectively as a wax writing tablet and the letters written on it. (2)

Much has changed since Simonides’ time, but the human brain is still very much the same, and we should do what we can to remember how effective the memory palace is for helping us to remember.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the memory palace, and how can it be employed to memorize a speech?

Challenge – Your Brain Blueprint:  Draw the floorplan of the home you are most familiar with.  Consider what strange things you might furnish our memory palace with so that you can use it the next time you need to memorize something.

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

-March 3, 1845:  On this day, Florida became the twenty-seventh state.  This day we should remember the Florida effect, a psychological phenomena that reaches far beyond the borders of the Sunshine state.  (See Thinker’s Almanac – January 9)

-March 3, 1847:  Today is the birthday of Alexander Graham Bell who not only invented the telephone but also said the first words on the telephone on March 10, 1876:  “Mr. Watson — come here, I want to see you.”  He also said something profound about the power of attention:

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.

Sources: 

1-Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. 

2-Simonides of Ceos.”  The Art of Memory Blog 24 Nov. 2010.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – March 2

Subject:  Expectations – Pygmalion Effect

Event: Birthday of psychologist Robert Rosenthal, 1933

The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps. -Carl Sagan

An experiment was conducted in the 1960s that reveals the power of teacher expectations.  Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal — who was born on this day in 1933 — divided a group of elementary students into two evenly matched groups, based on age, sex, ethnic background, and IQ.  One-half of the students were assigned to teachers who were told that their pupils were above average students and fast learners.  The other half were assigned to teachers who were told that their pupils were an average group.  One year later, when the students were assessed, the results showed that the students labeled “fast learners” far surpassed the performance of the students who were labeled as “average.” 

Rosenthal’s study provided new insight into how the expectations of others affect us and how our own subjective perceptions can influence our behavior.  Furthermore, the research revealed that beliefs, biases, and expectations are much more than just abstractions that live in the mind; instead, they can be powerful forces that actually influence actual outcomes.

To name his discovery — the Pygmalion effect — Rosenthal turned to an ancient story told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses about a sculptor named Pygmalion who carved an ivory statue of his ideal woman.  After completing his work of art and naming her Galatea, Pygmalion fell deeply in love with his own creation. The sculptor then appealed to Venus, the goddess of love, to bring him a maiden as perfect as his Galatea.  Hearing the supplication, Venus transformed the statue into a living woman, who then married Pygmalion and bore him a daughter.

File:Pygmalion and Galatea (Normand).jpg
Pygmalion and Galatea by Ernest Normand (Wikimedia)

To help teachers better understand the power of their teaching and their expectations of their students, Rosenthal published a book in 1968 called Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupils’ Intellectual Development.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the Pygmalion effect, and what evidence shows that expectations truly can influence performance?

Challenge – It’s “Golem,” Not “Gollum”:  Do some research on the Golem effect.  What’s the origin of the effect’s name, and what exactly is the effect?  Hint: It’s not from the character in Lord of the Rings; that “Gollum.”

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

-March 2, 1904:  Today is the birthday of Theodore Geisel — better known as Dr. Seuss, who said, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”

-March 2, 1955:  On this day, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This happened nine months before Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.

Sources:

1-Goldberg, Philip.  The Babinski Reflex.  Tarcher, 1990.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – March 1

Subject:  Schema Theory – Cultural Literacy

Event:  E.D Hirsh’s book Cultural Literacy:  What Every American Needs To Know published, 1987

On this day in 1987, the book Cultural Literacy:  What Every American Needs To Know was published by American educator E.D. Hirsch.  The basic premise of Hirsch’s bestselling book was that in order to be literate, students need fundamental background knowledge in a range of disciplines, including literature, geography, history, math, science, art, and music.  Hirsch argues that reading is more than just decoding words; comprehension requires a reader to possess knowledge of a shared body of cultural references.  

File:CulturalLiteracy.jpg
(Wikimedia Commons)

For example, imagine a student read the following sentence from Ray Bradbury:

The television, that insidious beast, that Medusa which freezes a billion people to stone every night, staring fixedly, that Siren which called and sang and promised so much and gave, after all, so little.

To catch Bradbury’s full meaning and his negative attitude towards television, the reader needs to understand the mythological allusions he makes to “Medusa” and “Siren.”  The mere ability to pronounce or read the words is not enough to capture the meaning and tone of the sentence.

Cultural literacy, then, is the body of core, essential knowledge of the people, places, ideas, and concepts that form the collective memory of our culture.  Hirsch’s cultural literacy is based on a concept from cognitive science known as “schema theory,” which attempts to understand how we learn and store knowledge.  According to this theory, new learning becomes integrated into mental learning webs, called “schemas.”  More than just storing a new idea in our memory, we integrate the new learning by connecting it to existing learning.  In addition to our own unique individual schemas, there are also shared schemas based on common experiences.  These shared schemas are the basis of Hirsch’s cultural literacy. For Hirsch, an essential element of education should be paying attention to building students’ cultural literacy:

We have ignored cultural literacy in thinking about education.  We ignore the air we breathe until it is thin or foul.  Cultural literacy is the oxygen of social intercourse. 

In addition to defining and arguing for cultural literacy in his book, Hirsch also included a 63-page appendix where he listed 5,000 subjects and concepts to illustrate the kind of specific cultural references that every literate person should know.  Below is a sample of some of the terms:

ad hoc, Adam and Eve, Battle of the Bulge, Beatniks, capital punishment, Camelot, Emily Dickinson, The Divine Comedy, elementary particles, Epicureanism, The Federalist Papers, free will, Lady Godiva, gerrymander, hyperbole, Edward Hopper, isolationism, Irish potato famine, Jakarta, Judas Iscariot, King Lear, kitsch, Robert E. Lee, Lilliput, Ferdinand Magellan, Magna Carta, Neptune, Nineteen Eighty-Four, oxymoron, Oedipus, paranoid schizophrenia, pasteurization, beg the question, quod erat demonstrandum (Q.E.D.), The Red Badge of Courage, rank and file, sarcasm, Scylla and Charybdis, Tower of Babel, twin paradox, Ursa Minor, unilateralism, Venus de Milo, Voltaire, white elephant, Woodstock, X-chromosome, xenophobia, yellow journalism, yin and yang, Zeus, Zionism

In 1989, Hirsch published The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, a book that gives a brief definition of each cultural reference (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is cultural literacy, and why does Hirsch think it is so important in education?

Challenge – Allusion Alphabet:  What would you say are allusions – cultural references from history, religion, mythology, or literature – that everyone should know?  Create an Allusion Alphabet that includes people, places, and ideas that you think are essential elements of cultural literacy; include at least one reference for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet.  Once you have your alphabet, write a report on one of your allusions.  Imagine you are writing to a person who is unfamiliar with the term.  In addition to giving essential background details on the who, what, when, and where of your term, give the reader some explanation on why this concept is so important. 

-March 1 (Every Year):  Today is National Pig Day, established on this day in 1972 to raise awareness and appreciation of pigs.  It’s the perfect day to contemplate the following quotation from John Stuart Mill:  

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.

-March 1, 1984:  On this day the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion was published by Robert Cialdini who said, “We all fool ourselves from time to time in order to keep our thoughts and beliefs consistent with what we have already done or decided.”

-March 1, 1988:  The book Brief History of Time was published on this day in 1988 by Stephen Hawking, who said, “In my opinion, there is no aspect of reality beyond the reach of the human mind.”

Sources:

1-Hirsh, E.D. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.  New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.