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Coming to an Understanding

Once upon a time I read these words by Suford Lewis in APA:NESFA, "My basic reason for doubting that you understand history is that you have added nothing to my understanding of the events that you have discussed." I thought her words worthy of comment and commented thusly:

Now there is a pregnant sentence. It contains implicitly a philosophy of history and a prescription of a purpose for it. Unfortunately it leaves open the question of why nothing was added. One possibility is that the speaker (i.e., the one supposedly imparting history) has no understanding. The other possibility is that the listener either cannot or will not what the speaker is saying. (I am, by the by, considering the sentence alone, out of context.) Example: You write a book on relativity - a scholarly treatise. I, unfortunately, never quite mastered long division and algebra is an incomprehensible mystery to me. Your book is totally meaningless to me. Example: I write a paper purporting to show that the reformation was caused by the venality of the popes and the clergy. You, being a militant Catholic who will hear no evil spoken of the clergy, find my paper outrageous and incomprehensible.

I think you will concede that, on its face, the sentence is logically faulty. (It says, in effect, "there was no transfer of information:, therefore "there was no information to be transferred.") Now the case where no information was there to be imparted is uninteresting; the interesting case is the case in which there is information to be transmitted but none is. That is, what if the communication lines are blocked. If A wishes to impart something to an audience and nothing gets through, whose fault is it, and what is to be done. If A has nothing to say and only thinks he does, then obviously the problem is on A's end. But if A does and B doesn't get it, what then. It is natural and human for A to say "It's all B's fault - I presented the information and B failed to get it." It is natural for B to say, "It's A's fault - if he wishes to impart information it should be done in a manner so that it can be received." Now it seems to me that it is all a matter of cases. If I want to tell something to someone who only speaks Spanish and I insist on speaking English, even though I know Spanish, then I am clearly a boob. If I want to learn something from someone who only speaks Spanish then it is incumbent upon me to learn the language that he speaks. In most cases the fault is more evenly distributed; A has failed in gearing his presentation to his audience, and B has failed in not being willing to make an effort to understand what A is saying.

After thoughts

I opine that I was being a bit superficial here. The point I made is clear enough, but the "most cases" need explication. For example, in an open forum such as an APA, a usenet group, or a bulletin board, the ego needs of the participants are constantly present, and frequently make for communication problems. Thus A's presentation may be influenced by his need to be perceived as being clever, or by the displacement of his psychological problems onto the topic of discussion, or by the need to give voice to his inner grandfather. B, on the other hand, may be so driven the need to be right that he cannot hear evidence against his views, or he may strongly need to put A down. It can even happen that there is no communication at all other than the interplay of a psychodrama. Then again, confusion and misunderstanding can be overcome if there is a genuine mutual desire for communication.

The issues in the teacher/student relationship are quite another matter. In fora the participants are coeval; in schools the determination of what is to be taught and its presentation is done by the teacher (or the administration behind him.) The student is without control, his role being to learn what the teacher chooses to teach. The flow of information is one way. (Tests provide a crude, limited flow of information from the student to the teacher.)

In formal teacher/student relationships there usually is an element of compulsion, with varying degrees of the willingness of the student to be there, and of their interest in the information being transmitted. This places a burden on teachers who, to be successful, must motivate their students, and present the information in a way that it can be absorbed, all without the feedback of one-on-one interchanges.

What can happen in argument is that people can play teacher/student, switching roles with listening and speaking. Thus, when they are the speaker they assume the "teacher" role in which they are the authority figure, and the other person is under the obligation to understand what they are saying. Conversely, when they are the listener they assume the "student" role where their effort is limited, and the onus is on the other person to say things in the way that they can understand.

This does not make for good communication. It can be worse. Often enough when people argue they don't listen to each other at all. (Or it could be better - I believe that people actually can listen to each other and try to understand each other, but, then, I'm a Pollyana type.)


This page was last updated March 1, 2005.

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Hyde County, South Dakota is the Pin Tail Duck Capital of the world. Visit scenic Highmore, SD in 2005!