Friday, July 15, 2011

Discussing H. G. Well's "The Country of the Blind"

"In regione caecorum rex est luscus." -Erasmus

H. G. Well's "The Country of the Blind" takes serious issue with Erasmus' quote.  It seems like an obvious statement.  The most enabled person is the one who naturally becomes king.  Yet in examining the practicality of injecting a very enabled person into a society of those less enabled shows that their coronation is not as natural as Erasmus thought.  Often times new ideas and the people who bring them are scary, especially to people who do not have a foundation to understand them.  This is concept is common in literature.  A messiah, sage, or technologically advanced alien arrives, tries to save us from ourselves and we reject (maybe even kill) him.  This can be seen in the New Testament, the 1951 science-fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still or even the Greek myth about Cassandra and is also found in popular historical anecdotes like the Galileo affair. 

When I first starting volunteering and subbing in classrooms I was surprised at the material that teachers were going over with their students.  The information seemed so basic.  Of course that's how you multiply fractions!  Everyone knows that!  The things I learned in primary and early secondary education had become so ingrained in me I forgot about the period in my life when I did not know them.  I forgot what it was like not to know how to balance an equation in algebra or that Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.  I had forgotten what it was like to not know what "circumstantial" meant.  When I try to teach someone how to play the guitar (an instrument I have played since I was 7) I forget that they don't know that a lower note is one of lower frequency and not a note that is on a string closer to the ground.  Experimental physicists and computer programmers have to understand the concept of a fourth spacial dimension well enough to use in calculations.  It sounds like insanity to those who are used to perceiving space in three dimensions and those who teach those concepts have to start in familiar territory.  Say, explaining how one would conceive of a third spacial dimension if they only existed in two.

In order to teach students something new you have to start out meeting them in familiar territory and then expanding.  This is something we discussed in our seminar for teaching math.  Often times what teachers think should be familiar territory among their students is actually something only familiar to someone raised in the teacher's culture.  Nunez tried to explain the concept of sight to the blind citizens but he only used concepts that make sense to those with sight.  The success of the story was that Wells was able to find a cultural difference to which there would be no familiar territory in common to Nunez and the blind citizens.  A good classroom teacher should find a concept that both he and his students understand that works as a starting point to get them into new knowledge.  I do not know exactly what Nunez should use, but I would recommend starting by explaining how his eyes can "feel" things like their hands and that there is a kind of warmth eyes can feel that is called light.  Teaching the blind citizens about seeing in three dimensions would be a major challenge.  Imagine what would have happened if he attempted what Carl Sagan did. 

"So this warm thing that touches my eyes has FOUR SPACIAL DIMENSIONS!...Guys?"


  1. First and foremost, I would like to thank you for that amazing video. It's interesting to see a different situation where a person's beliefs are questioned and challenged. I have heard of the novel "Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions," but I never really understood the significance of the different dimensions. After watching the video, it made me see the connections it has with H.G. Well's "Country of the Blind" and how a lack of understanding led to problems. In the classroom, teachers should be able to adapt to their students' understanding because it can ultimately make the entire process easier for the students to understand. However, it is not just the teacher that needs to adapt, but the students need to be willing to adapt (learn) as well. If not, there will be chaos in the classroom because the students and the teacher will not be able to properly "communicate" with each other, which can hinder their relationship. I still can't figure out a way for Nunez to be able to properly explain to the citizens of the Country of the Blind how sight works, but what you brought up about eyes "feeling" is one step closer to a good explanation. I was thinking that instead of "feeling," maybe "touching" would be another good word to describe it since the citizens mostly use their sense of touch (aside from hearing).

  2. Hey Misha,
    Thanks for the comment. I agree with you that using touch works, especially since feelings are such an internalized experience for everyone it makes finding commonality even more challenging. In the post I intended to use the tactile meaning of "feel."

  3. I agree! Since "touch" and "feel" go hand in hand, it's sometimes hard to see the distinction between the two. I've been giving it a lot of thought, and I think that one way to explain sight to a blind person would be to tell them that it's to "touch" or "feel" something without physically reaching out to the item. For example, if a person holds up a particular number of fingers and asked a blind person to count how many fingers there are, the blind person would need to actually "feel" the fingers to be able to count them. As for a person who could see, they can count it without "feeling" the fingers. I think it's important to make the distinction that for people who rely on sight, they would use their sight first before actually touching an object. It's so hard trying to come up with a good explanation!

  4. Wow Matt! That video is a great resource to connect to the "Country of the Blind" reading. The inability for the "enlightened" square to explain a third dimension to its fellow flatland shapes is spot on with Nunez's inability to come up with an explanation for sight to someone who has never experienced it.

    I believe you did a great job connecting this phenomenon to the classroom. Although our students live in the same world as us, they have not yet acquired all of the information we have, and therefore, see the world much differently than us. It is important for us to think back to a time before much of the information we now take for granted was known to us. Trying to teach a skill, such as playing a lower tone on the guitar, to someone who does not have information on what a "lower tone is," may be just as difficult as trying to explain sight to the blind. In order to overcome that discrepancy between student and teacher, the teacher needs to be aware of what might not be second-nature to a student. It is then the teachers role to help the student understand the fundamentals behind the skill being learned.

    I think this is a major problem in classrooms. I can think of classes in college where the subject was something I was not familiar with and the lesson went "over my head." Nearly every time I felt like that, it was due to the fact that I did not have a foundation of knowledge that allowed me to understand the next step. In these classes, it was not that the teacher was not qualified or knowledgable in the subject, it was that the teacher did not realize he/she was talking above the level of understanding that the class had currently.

  5. Can any of you think of times when you've been the blind citizen? My brother works in the world of finance and he tries to explain all of that stuff to me and it always goes over my head. He just starts throwing out terms that I don't understand and seems to get frustrated when I don't get it. It's hard form some people to retrace their steps of learning, especially when it's become second nature.

    That's a great idea of how to teach the blind people what sight is. Counting fingers with your eyes instead of by touching them -I like it! We could also just hold their hand under a pump and scream at them.

  6. Another neat video explaining the same concept as the Cosmos video is from What the Bleep Do We Know?. Dr. Quantum visits Flatland.

  7. Cool video! I love this one too, it's a trailer from the movie Flatland: The Movie.

  8. Wow! They have real celebrities in that movie. I wouldn't have thought such a thing would have mainstream appeal. It's really sad the shapes have no idea what kind of cool design they have inside them.

  9. I know, right? I really want to watch this now. "Get to your squericle, now!" I'm looking forward to more lines like this!