Adults are big babies.
So says Mark Johnson in his fabulous book, The Meaning of the Body. Johnson says babies are born into the world as squirming creatures. This is how they learn. So do adults – which seems to explain why so many get so little out of their education.
Mark Johnson is the author of many books discussing the mind, metaphors, and meaning. A professor at the University of Oregon, his first was The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (1999), co-authored with George Lakoff, a professor in linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. Johnson and Lakoff also co-wrote Metaphors We Live By, a 2003 book that examines how metaphor is a fundamental mechanism of the mind that makes sense of our experiences.
Johnson’s 2007 book, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, considers how we make sense of the world through bodily movement. In one particularly insightful chapter, he writes, “We are born into the world as screaming, squirming creatures, and through our movements we get ‘in touch’ with our world, taking its human measure.”1 My wife Kathy and I raised three children and are now grandparents. We’re reliving what we experienced as parents – babies are writhing, reaching, noisy, bouncing, fidgety bundles of human energy. They learn by the things they see, hear, smell, and touch. “They’re not proposition-crunchers,” writes Johnson.
They do not lie in their cribs combining subjects and predicates into propositions by which they understand the world. They do not look around thinking “Mom’s lips are really red today,” “My bottle weights twelve ounces,” or “Oh my! I’ve misplaced my pacifier.” And yet, babies are learning how to grasp the meaning of things, people, and events. The world is becoming meaningful to them, even though they lack language and are not engaged in full-blown conceptual, not to mention propositional, thinking.2
Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, a colleague of Johnson at the University of Oregon, makes the same point in her book, The Primacy of Movement. She writes how humans, from the very beginning, “are simply infused with movement – not merely with a propensity to move, but [for] making sense of it… We literally discover ourselves in movement.”3 Sheets-Johnstone also notes that “we do so without words.”4 Babies’ experiences generate images, or metaphors. They rely on these images to make sense of the world. The little tykes do this long before they can form words. Metaphor precedes language.
This seems to explain why so many adults get so little out of their education. At the core of the words scholar, school, and scholastic is the Greek root word schola, which means “leisure” or “rest.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with leisure. It’s simply insufficient if the leisurely life is not connected to the active, hands-on experience. These two aspects of learning began to come apart long ago when Augustine and Eusibius made a distinction between the “active life” and the “contemplative life.” While both were important (Augustine had praise for the work of farmers and craftspeople and merchants), they felt the leisurely life was clearly of a higher order.
The leisurely life went even higher in the late 1800s. Progressives decided that academicians, those called to the leisurely life, were the new “experts” in how things work. Scholars required students to sit still and dutifully take notes. But only a tiny percent of students (mostly the academic type) enjoy this style of learning. As Sir Ken Robinson likes to say, the aim of a college education today is to create college professors.5 The rest of the students sit, take notes on stuff – maps, math, and memes – but never learn how to make sense of it. Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, authors of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, found the 36 percent of college students made no discernible progress in the ability to think and analyze critically after four years in school. That’s because we think with our bodies, not just our brains.
The evidence for bodily learning is pretty impressive. For instance, according to physiological and behavioral evidence, the left pars opercularis, the area of the frontal lobe critical for speech production, is most closely linked to nerves located in the stretch of skin between your thumb and forefinger. Language is most naturally formed by touching – especially with your fingers. Squirming babies are getting “in touch” with our world by touching it. Squirming, squeezing, touching, and tasting are integral to how humans form language that has a meaningful connection with reality.
There’s no doubt squirming can be distracting. But it might be the best way to make sense of stuff. Jesus’ disciples tried to shoo away little babies on several occasions. These writhing, noisy, fidgety bundles of human energy were probably a distraction to other adults. Jesus simply chided his disciples, telling them to bring the little tykes to him.
In her last public address, Flannery O’Connor made this statement. “The things we see, hear, smell, and touch affect us long before we believe anything at all.” She didn’t know the science behind her statement, but O’Connor knew scripture. God designed us to learn primarily by touching. Babies get it right. Adults are simply big babies. It’d be great if modern scholars came to recognize this as well.
1 Mark Johnson, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 19.
2 Johnson, Meaning of the Body, p. 33.
3 Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, The Primacy of Movement (Advances in Consciousness Research), 2nd Expanded Edition (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2011), p. 117.
4 Sheets-Johnstone, Primacy of Movement, p. 128.
5 In this RSA Animate, Robinson pins the problems of modern education on the Enlightenment and industrialization.