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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Differences in Cognitive Culture, and Doing Something About Them

I just read another post by my brother to his new blog, which you can read at

It served as a takeoff point for a number of related thoughts which I posted as a comment there. I reproduce them here:

One good habit to develop in life, is not too quickly forming conclusions about other people’s behavior or underestimating the extent to which their knowledge base may be different from one’s own. Doing so may be reinforced by a momentary gratification — because it allows one to feel superior — but can stand in the way of helping them become more a help to themselves and less a burden to others.

Where illiteracy is concerned, it’s important to remember that many people who didn’t learn to read when they were supposed to, are too embarrassed to admit this, and so have developed quite elaborate means of concealing it. They may, for instance, pretend to know the name of a place from reading the sign, when in reality it’s from someone’s having previously told them, or from acquaintance with the graphical aspects of its logo. Once several years ago, I was hit by a store clerk who, as I interpreted it afterwards, was simply too embarrassed to admit he didn’t know arithmetic well enough to see that the register had miscalculated my bill.

Where street signs are concerned, there are many conventions with which we are so familiar, we may forgot that they are not intuitively obvious, and we ourselves had to learn them at one point. A few months ago I was on the the 15th Street platform of the Market-Frankford Line, and someone asked me if this was the side that goes to West Philly. I said yes, but she felt uncertain because of a sign saying “To Frankford.” I explained to her that the arrow next to those words means that you would have to follow that arrow, up the stairs and across to the other side, to get to Frankford. She evidently had simply never been outside her own neighborhood before (some people never do) and so hadn’t made the acquaintance of this sort of sign.

Someone new to the city might 1) not know where to look for the street signs, 2) not be familiar with the convention that a street sign goes parallel to the street it names, so that even if they see the signs they still won’t know which street is 12th and which is Chestnut, or 3) even if they know which street is which, not notice (or be able to read, if their eyesight is poor) the signs’ smaller print about street addresses indicating which way the higher numbers are.

Another, extremely pleasing experience I had in the past year was on a subway ride. A woman whose dress and manner loudly said “middle class” was showing her young child the SEPTA map on the wall of the car, and explaining how it worked. What was remarkable about this heartwarming sight was simply how rare it is, at least on public transit. Not long ago I saw a flier for a book arguing that one of the major factors helping to perpetuate class inequality is the differences in the cognitive habits passed on from generation to generation. Because this is cultural rather than biological transmission, it’s possible to break the cycle (which is the idea behind the Harlem Children’s Zone, for instance).

Of course such differences in cognitive-cultural heritage don’t account for our sociey’s huge differences in income, which result from hereditary private ownership of productive wealth. But while we’re trying to do something about that, there’s no reason not to also address what is easier to tackle politically — not to mention that such newly improved cognitive skills can be applied to activism as well as personal advancement, and are more likely to be if those who taught them are also activists. And that the species as a whole generally benefits when some portion of it gets smarter.

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