Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Pot of Green Feathers: Lessons in Apperception from Thomas Rooper

 By Megan Hoyt

"Our minds are not passive; the opposite is true. Through the senses the mind receives impressions, but these contributions from the senses would not be objects of knowledge, would not be interpreted, would not be recognized unless the mind itself worked upon them and assimilated them, converting the unknown stimulus from without into a sensation which we can hold in our thoughts and compare with other sensations within us." (Thomas Rooper, The Pot of Green Feathers)

We have talked about The House of Mind. Now we're moving on to the work of the mind.And this is so crazy, but I've never really thought much about how we take in knowledge and information. I should have. You should, too. Because this is how and why people misunderstand one another, misjudge each other, and end up not speaking to each other. We have these preconceived notions about how people should behave or treat us or how they should react to the world around them. Charlotte Mason would tell us to respect the personhood of each child (and adult!) because we are all created uniquely different. But we so often forget that and get our feathers ruffled (pun intended, though hopefully, our feathers are not green -- with envy or otherwise!) I've had my aha moment for the week. Each person has a lifetime of experiences that influences how he or she takes in new information. And some of that new information is coming from me. I can then expect push back from some and melted hearts from others -- all depending on their life experiences so far. That's freeing in a way. Now I don't have to get upset if someone doesn't receive what I have said very well. I can now officially blame it on their previous knowledge and experience. Thank you, Thomas Rooper!

This little 54-page book, The Pot of Green Feathers, teaches us about the assimilation of knowledge better than any other volume I've read. Rooper explains that to a child who has never seen one, a potted fern looks like a pot of green feathers. The basic premise of this entire book is that without an apt amount of cherished knowledge upon which to "hang" new information, a child will only be able to give his best guess at what he is seeing and experiencing and will therefore be unable to assimilate new ideas very well. This means the art of educating a child is extremely important, doesn't it?

I have seen this played out many times with my own children and now it's starting again with my grandchildren. Just recently, I sent some Chicken and Dumplings over to my daughter's house for my grandson Anthony. He loved it. He had never had Chicken and Dumplings before. How tasty it was to him. He made sure to tell my daughter to tell me thank you for the "Chicken and Ducklings." Well, maybe we need to speak a little more clearly or maybe read a little less McCloskey to the little guy. But see how children perceive things differently than we think they should?

This is weighty. Today, it's a pot of green feathers that the child sees and the teacher grins and explains what a fern is. Tomorrow, there may be a teen who believes abortion is the emptying of the contents of the womb (without examining for even a second what those contents are) or a young adult who believes it's more important to get a high grade on a test so he can get into law school than it is not to cheat. The outcome? Women are killing their unborn babies, and attorneys are lying in court. There are far-reaching consequences to not having a clear, true understanding of what we are seeing and experiencing and learning and to not assimilating strong moral values somewhere along the way.

Rooper speaks of how different minds receive impressions differently. This is another interesting concept. He says that when looking at the same landscape, "The geologist can tell you of the strata, the botanist of the vegetation, the landscape painter of the light and shade, the various coloring, and the grouping of the objects, and yet, perhaps, no one of them notices exactly what the others notice."

To take this even further, Rooper reminds us how the rooms we remember living in as a child look smaller to us when we revisit them as an adult. "The tremendous long throw which you used to make with a ball from one end of the playground to the other, to what a narrow distance it has shrunk!" he says. So impressions depend on the mind, yet the adult mind in the larger adult body gives us a wildly different impression than that of the child mind. Interesting, isn't it? Here's a short lesson in how to throw a football. This is an example of careful instruction with physical example. How long this indoor field must seem to a five-year-old and how short to a pro football player! It's all in how the mind takes in the impression. 

Now on to perception.

Rooper tells us that we interpret new ideas based on our learned perceptions and how we assimilate knowledge (which is based on earlier assimilated knowledge). My mind is spinning now. How do I take this in? Hmmmm. Okay, his example here is a little more complicated. Say, you see your brother coming toward you from a great distance away. How do you know it's your brother? Your mind automatically perceives it because of his gait, how his shoulders slump (or don't), his expressions, how he swings his arms, how he stumbles every now and then. All these things come at us through our senses, but we don't even realize we're taking them in. Yet they work together to tell us our brother is approaching. Rooper goes even further. He suggests that not only do we recognize our brother from far away but we cannot recognize someone or something we are not familiar with already. He gets this idea from several famed men of his day.

Carlyle: "We can only see what we are trained to see."

Goethe: "We only hear what we know."

Herder: "What we are not we can neither know nor feel."

Rousseau: "We can neither know, nor touch, nor see, except as we have learned."
I am not a huge Rousseau fan, but that quote stirred me a little. If we can't fully know or perceive or understand something unless we have first learned about it, that has far-reaching implications. It explains racism, antichristian bias (it's real, trust me), and more. But is the answer education? Do we need to rant on and on and lecture students about upright moral behavior in order to teach them that lying, cheating, and stealing are wrong? Charlotte Mason preferred that students learn and assimilate by reading living materials in which heroism was celebrated and nobility was praised rather than direct didactic explanation. I'm with her!

Rooper goes on to say that it's perfectly appropriate to delay in deciding what we believe about an idea. He says, "A wise man, therefore (if I may draw a passing moral), does not, if he can help it, decide or act in a hurry, under the influence of new impressions, but he will give them time to find points of connections with old impressions. What may today seem irreconcilable with truth, or honor, or happiness, may prove when time has been allowed for assimilation inconsistent neither with sincerity, nor good name, nor good fortune." (Feathers, p. 18)

This is so important! Children need time to take it all in!

I'll leave you with this final thought that Rooper calls The Plea of the Educator:

"Educationists, like Mr. Arnold, also, will continue to implore the public to simplify the studies of children, being convinced that unless the mind has leisure to work by itself on the stuff or matter which is prescribed to it by the teacher, the thinking faculty, on which all progress depends, will be paralyzed, and dead knowledge will be a substitute for living. The mind will have no power of expanding from within, for it will become a passive recipient of knowledge, only able to discharge again what has been stuffed into it, and quite powerless to make fresh combinations and discoveries. Cram is the rapid acquisition of a great deal of knowledge. Learning so acquired, though useful for a barrister, has less educational value than the public believe, for it does not promote but rather tends to destroy the active and constructive powers of the mind."

Now I know why Charlotte Mason admired Thomas Rooper so much. 

Resistance is futile. You must assimilate.  ; )

Postscript: Another fantastic book by Thomas Rooper is titled Apperception. In it, he explores more fully this concept of how we take in knowledge. He drew from the work of Dr. Karl Lange who wrote Apperzeption, from Herbart's Psychology, Bernard Perez's First Three Years of Childhood, Romane's Mental Evolution of Man, and the lectures of Professor T. H. Green. It's next on my list to read. I'll report back on it when I'm done!

1 comment:

  1. do you know, that i read all your posts on my kindle where i can't comment? i need to get better at remember to come back and comment... i have not read through this one in its entirety yet though... i like to really read it, not just skim. i will, i promise! ;)