December 20, 2013
Ever since I heard long ago that “Eskimos have 100 words for snow” I’ve been fascinated by how we see, and the ways that our culture and language inter-relate with our perceptions. Never mind that the “words for snow” claim has been questioned and debated for more than half a century, just the idea of it stirs all sorts of creative possibilities for exploring human life-as-lived.
Once you think about it, isn’t it obvious that what we see is intimately connected to how we see? And that how we see is intimately related to how human history, the time and place in which we live, and our unique place within the world has socialized us? Including making the assumption that how we see is the same for everyone, even if what we see differs.
When I used to teach human development to college students, I’d ask them to watch Hollywood films with different “glasses” on—to try to see the way a Freudian, or a Piagetian, or a Skinnerian, or a Vygotskian would see. The classroom conversations were extremely rich, as not only did this exercise help students understand the theorists, it also made them realize that there are different ways to see and they began to explore the implications of that for how we approach and relate to ourselves, each other and the stuff that makes up our worlds.
No doubt we’ve all been in conversations when somebody points out that Person A sees the glass half full and Person B sees it half empty. Fine, as far as it goes. But rarely, if ever, does someone point out that both Person A and Person B see a glass! Or at least we assume they do.
Lately I’ve been reading some of the books written by people diagnosed on the autism spectrum (in addition to Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures and numerous other books, the more recent Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump and Daniel Tammet’s Born On a Blue Day). These memoirs are supplementing the insights I’ve been getting from rereading Lev Vygotsky’s writings on “defectology” from the early 20th century, as well as inspired current day discussions of “extranormal” people by colleague Peter Smagorinsky, professor at the University of Georgia.
I’m half way through Tammet’s Born on a Blue Day (subtitled Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant) and enjoying it immensely. Tammet is a young man who credits his large and supportive family to his growth and satisfying life as someone with Asperger’s syndrome and an extraordinary relationship with numbers. He’s become somewhat of a celebrity with bestselling books, documentary films, awards from honorary and literary societies, speaking engagements and a website where people can ask him questions. I was taken by a line in the Acknowledgements where he thanks a friend or acquaintance “for showing me the power of enthusiasm.”
In their efforts to share (socialize) their ways of seeing, these authors allow us to get to know some very interesting people and discover a new richness of what it is to be human. For me, these authors are also inviting us to become aware of and take a hard look at the assumptions that underlie how we perceive, believe and understand. For they do not see the glass.
To get a sense of what and how they do see, read their books