Reading “Great Books”: Ultimate Pattern Recognition

Another wonderful blog that I have been introduced to, Emergent By Design, has begun exploring “Essential Skills for 21st Century Survival” and the first is pattern recognition. While shaped as a way to innovate and/or solve scientific problems, it starts with that part of the brain that loves, craves, narratives. We want to make sense of the world, and we do so through stories. Ancient myths were a way to explain the world, the seemingly randomness of the mysterious universe around us. And we kept looking, kept modifying the narrative, and it turned into science. But at the end of the day, it started with stories.

I have two very young children. My daughter is deep into the “why” period. Most days, I try to explain why things happen from a very rational, scientific place (why does the sun go down, why does it rain, why do I need to sleep, why is the dog barking, etc). But it has to be told to her in the form of a story, of a narrative. The sun is a character in the play called the solar system. It behaves in a certain way for certain reasons, and it travels to the other side of the world, so they can have the sun, too. Some days it’s enough. Other days, she counters me and says, no, I think the sun is tired and goes to sleep.
When it comes to understanding the patterns of human behavior, this has to be modified. Why is she sad? Why is he mean? Why is he scary? She is learning that all humans behave differently, react differently to the same conditions (when I cry, some of my friends give me hugs, others laugh, others run away and hide). Each reaction is the result of a story. And we can predict once we understand these stories. But where do we get different stories, how can we expose ourselves to the multiplicities of patterns formed all over the world.
Another blog, discussing “What’s so Great About Great Books,” posits the problem that these so-called great books are not repositories of Truth as many would claim, but instead confuse the reader with conflicting and conflicted perspectives. I say, yes! That is the point! Out of the chaos, is there not some connective tissue, some pattern that students should learn to identify. A comment on the article states that the best students in freshman writing have often been exposed to Great Books. Well, of course they are. They have been forced to confront different and challenging perspectives, ideas, narratives, emotions, reactions, solutions. And they will either change their own narratives or reinforce them. Either way, the student has looked at patterns within the literature and come up with a way to make sense of them.
A comment on the first article mentioned in this post laments that for most people, their ability or inability to change their narrative, to see (or accept) other patterns is due to a lack of “black swans” (literary device!) jarring them out of their stupor. What better way than literature to provide black swans for everyone to see, discuss and discover? Another comment mentions “The Hobbit” and other books where there is a quest. We are all questing and books can help us get to where we’re going, make us better.
When I taught the required Intro to Lit course that many students dread, I always told them that this was an opportunity to expand their thinking, their ideas. Even if you are going to be a scientist, literature was the way to take you from simply following directions in an experiment to being able to apply the knowledge and come up with new ideas. Exercising that part of the brain that thinks creatively, symbolically, metaphorically, narratively. That part of the brain that sees different kinds of patterns.
In order to encourage pre-literacy skills, we are told as parents to make sure we make reading active (instead of passive). Ask “What do you think happens next? Why? Etc…” Somewhere we stop doing that. Somewhere, we no longer exercise that part of the brain, forgetting to read, forgetting what reading brings. We start to see patterns, bigger and better patterns. These “old” books still have a lot to teach us.