People learn from experiences in the world. They cannot, however, learn anything from experience unless, when they are out in the world, they know what to pay attention to and how to pay attention to it. They do this by forming an expectation that guides their perception and action and then seeing if the expectation is right or wrong.
So, a baby reaches out to grasp a wooden block and expects it to be solid. She does not expect that her hand will go through it. Where does she get this expectation from? It is innate. Humans are born with this sort of expectation about reality. But they can eventually extend it to cases where it is risky and does not work. Then they learn something special.
For example, when my oldest son was a toddler I was carrying him out on a walk at night and the moon looked very close, since it was near the horizon. I told my son I would give him the moon and he leapt from my arms and ran to grab it. He learned two things. First, his hypothesis that the moon was close was wrong. Second, his hypothesis that his father always told him the truth was wrong. Good lessons both.
Humans, of course, quickly move away from hypotheses that “nature” has given them and start testing out other sorts of expectations. What is important to see, though, is that if a person brings no expectations to experience, then no learning can happen. Indeed, the person does not even know where to focus his or her attention amidst the great buzz of sensations.
Of course, we usually bring a myriad of expectations to any experience, many of which (thankfully) are continuously confirmed, such things as that objects will be solid, that they will not spontaneously combust, that the clouds will be in the sky and not on the ground, and that the colors we see will be familiar ones. However, we tend to learn the most when expectations are not met, as when we shine an ultraviolet light on the ground at night and see colors on things that violate what we expected to see.
Where do people get their expectations from when they are not innate? Well, sometimes they get them via trial and error from previous experience. One morning in Northern Arizona I come out expecting to see my healthy garden and it is gone. Either I ask someone who knows better than me what has probably happened or I eventually see the Javelinas in my neighborhood eating gardens and suspect where my plants have gone.
Trial and error is a relatively minor part of human learning, though it augers larger with other sorts of animals. A great many of our expectations we get neither from innateness nor from trial and error. We get them from other people. Let’s call these socially-derived expectations.
These sorts of expectations come about because some group of people have given us— either through development, socialization, or talk and texts—a socially-derived framework of how to think about certain sorts of things; what is to be expected when and where about such things; how these things are related; and what causes what when these sorts of things interact. Such a framework also gives me certain ways of valuing, assessing, and appreciating these things and their relationships. A socially-derived framework is a type of social or cultural theory.
Take cooking as an example. I can learn things by trial and error. Or I can learn by filtering my cooking experiences through some socially-derived framework or other. In fact, I might confront several, perhaps even conflicting, frameworks.
For example, someone’s Italian family may have given him a cooking framework that comes into contact with a natural foods slowing-cooking framework from “foodies”; with a paleo diet from a different sort of “foodie” (people who want to eat like they think cavemen did); and with his wife’s Chinese family’s food and cooking paradigms. These frameworks may comport in mind and body comfortably or they may cause conflict within the person or with others with whom he interacts.
Socially-derived frameworks give us expectations that we bring to experience (here cooking) and in terms of which we expect, think, plan, value, judge, and adjust things, happenings, environments, people, and behavior as we engage with an activity or project (e.g., cooking a meal, making a menu, or hosting a dinner).
My mind—and yours—is composed of all sorts of socially-derived frameworks stemming from all sorts of different groups, cultures, and institutions. A very important set of socially-derived frameworks we carry around are frameworks that tell us how to apply a word in situations of use. This amounts to a framework of exemplars for a given word and a principle or principles which tell us what counts as sufficiently like the exemplars to merit the application of the word in new situations.
Here is a famous image. It was—I am told by him—invented (and stolen from) my friend Mario, a Native-American:
You see, of course, that the framework this image assumes is quite different from the one many people carry around. This framework may violate your expectation that you yourself are not implicated in terrorism and your expectation about what “homeland” means and how it applies in specific situations of use historically and now.
You can also see that this framework, if juxtaposed to other frameworks (yours and yet others beyond yours and Native American ones) could be a good entrée into discussion, learning, understanding, and transformation, regardless of whether everyone in the discussion makes the same changes. Or it could lead to a fight about who is “right” and “better.” And THAT choice will vary depending on what socially-derived frameworks about learning and identity you bring to the discussion.
One of the most determining factors of history is whether at a given time and place, people with different frameworks will run away (isolate themselves), fight, or discuss and learn. Today it is often the case that both fundamentalist conservatives and politically-correct liberals run or fight. It takes a certain—all too rare, both now and in the past—mindset to discuss frameworks with an open mind. In part this is because humans are stubborn “true believers” and, in part, it is because people believe the point of discussing different or even opposing frameworks is convincing or converting the other person. But we will see later that the point of critically discussing different frameworks is not to reach or gain truth, but to journey in its direction.
Where does this mindset of open critical discussion of alternative frameworks as a journey and not a destination come from? Why do some people have it and not others? What sorts of other frameworks mitigate or destroy this mindset?
These are all important questions. However, there is a yet deeper problem with critical discussions of alternative frameworks. A discussion that is too tolerant can end up with a homogenous mess that effaces diversity. This we already have in our cosmopolitan, secular, global world where, more and more, different cities, hotels, malls, neighborhoods, high-rises, newscasts, and restaurants across the world look a lot alike. McDonalds, Hilton Hotels, and the same consumer goods spread everywhere. A discussion that is too intolerant will end up a shouting match, pushing people further apart into isolation and sometimes violence. This, too, we have all over our global world with incessant conflicts, ethnic and religious hatreds, and wide-spread invidious distinctions about and hatred towards different kinds of people. So what are we to do if neither tolerance nor intolerance are virtues here?