Sterile Manure and the Brain Lady

The startling oxymoron “sterile manure,” coined by Barzun to describe intellectual “superstitions of the day,” came to mind as I recently read an article about research on the brain. The article discussed the educationist vogue of localizing trait-bundles of intellect and character in one or the other of the “hemispheres” of the brain. Its writer observes that neurology has thoroughly debunked the left-brain-right-brain opposition. This is true even though some brain functions have been shown to be more or less localized in particular parts of the brain.

The superseded “knowledge” is manure in that, as with all manure, its users rush to spread it, which it was with careless thoroughness in the 1990s. What teacher of that decade doesn’t remember the hours at conferences spent with The Brain Lady[1] or her equivalent? And what teacher of that decade remembers what The Brain Lady said? The problem with that manure of intellect is that it was sterile because nothing of lasting value came of it.

Dare I say it? Peer reviewing is not necessarily a guarantee of quality. As with schools, so with researchers: some peerages are more equal than others. Review by peers with low standards contributes to the “plausible wrongness,” as Barzun put it, of much of the research that establishes or confirms the superstitions of the day, such as—what shall we call it?—hemisphericism. I mean not just its unprofitable reductionism of intellect as a duality, but also the bad thinking that follows in its wake: the absolutely invidious preference expressed by many teachers for one “hemisphere” over the other—usually the right brain, the “good” hemisphere. Can my younger readers believe that such thinking was common twenty years ago? Probably: such “research”-based faddism is still far from uncommon.

And there is a chance, sometimes a good chance, that the manure, in addition to being sterile, will be poisonous. I refer among other things to young persons inculcated in shortcoming who justify their intellectual vices by citing reductionist “research” in their own favor, e.g., “I couldn’t possibly do math homework because I am right brain.” (Please note: I am not arguing that intellectual or developmental differences do not exist among students or that teachers should not take note of some of them. I am arguing that false categories can lead to plausibly wrong stereotyping, including self-stereotyping.)

Now, the Brain Lady was an earnest, sincere, charismatic presenter. If, in addition to her educationist credentials she, as well as people like her, had also received the formative training that a good liberal arts education (particularly history) imparts, she might have been able to use her considerable gifts to greater and more beneficial effect. We, in turn, might be spared the intellectual false starts and wrong turns so sadly characteristic of the field of education.

[1] I should say a Brain Lady, for the BL we see at the top of a Google search this morning is not my Brain Lady.

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