Thursday, January 27, 2011


I came across a very enlightening passage while reading Geerat J. Vermeij's The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civiliztion. Vermeij, who is blind, learns everything he knows about the natural world (and he knows a lot) through his sense of touch, sound, smell, and taste. He took part in a program for blind children who were interested in science, and hoped he could share his childhood love of shells with these children (from pages 38-39).
Each child was handed a shell, which I then asked him or her to describe. After this first encounter, we could begin to prove the many oddities of form and ornamentation that these shells displayed so well. I hoped to duplicate for these children the wonder I literally felt when, and the age of ten, I first encountered shells from Florida and other exotic places. . . .

I did not expect the children to notice the kinds of detail I look for, but I hoped they would take the time to inspect these objects carefully, given that few if any of the children would have handled anything like them previously. Each specimen expressed a wealth of tactile features, which cannot be grasped with a cursory inspection. Yet a cursory examination is all that these shells elicited. Adult observers in the room told me that it took about one second for a child to pick up the shell, examine it, and put it down without further touching. A bit of probing confirmed that these children had reached adolescence without having acquired the habit of automatic exploration through the sense of touch. Did this reflect a pervasive lack of curiosity? Had no teacher, parent, or sibling shown these children the pleasures and rewards of close tactile observation? Is there an unspoken assumption that gaining experience through touch comes naturally, especially to a person without sight? I came away from this experience convinced that observation, like reading and writing, is a skill that must be nurtured and honed before it becomes an unconscious habit of mind.
Vermeij's observation can apply to just about anything. I suppose the whole process of teaching is sharing tools of observation with students. People with a perfectly functional set of five senses can be lacking in the most important sense of all: the sense of how to use them in order to learn something about the world (or about music, or about themselves). Perhaps we are not born with natural curiosity. Perhaps it needs to be taught (and learned) in order for us to grow into fully aware human beings.

There's a saying in the Stevens Hewitt oboe method that reads, "the only education is the education of the feelings." I would add the education of the senses to this saying.

No comments: