On the Nature of Observation

Falling into the category of a Constructivist whose primary objective in education is to facilitate an experience through which students can derive learning, I found the opening argument presented by Lewis to be incredibly valuable for consideration.

It is a critique of one paragraph found in an English textbook of his day that describes a story of two people observing a waterfall. The one pronounced his judgement of the waterfall saying “this is sublime,” the other said, “this is pretty.” The textbook authors suggest that the comments made by the two men had nothing to do with the nature of the waterfall, but were a mere expression of human feeling. Whether this feeling was aroused by what they saw, or simply by the occasion is not made clear by the expressions of the two individuals. However, that they should choose to relate their statements to the waterfall rather than to themselves is, to Lewis and the authors, incredibly significant.

The textbook authors use this to point out a mistake commonly made in the use of English language. Unfortunately, their explanation completely strips of value any observation made by the two men by showing that neither one can be judged more credible or accurate than the other. Observation, they say, is an entirely subjective activity.

Though this was not the primary argument of the textbook authors, Lewis believed it was important to address its implications. In fact, carrying the suggestion of the authors to its logical conclusion reveals that it is a completely unhelpful proposition. An argument similar to the one Lewis presented would be as follows:

If I say “the claims of the textbook authors are ridiculous,” it must follow that I am trying to communicate something more than “my feelings toward the claims of these authors are ridiculous.” If I thought that my feelings were ridiculous I would not care to express them in this way. In fact, I might try to change them. However, because I do not believe my feelings are ridiculous, I use the phrase above to communicate something I have discerned about the nature of what the textbook authors have said.

Certainly, it is important to consider the feelings of an individual in the learning environment, but one must be careful to differentiate the expression of feeling from an expression of observation. It is misleading to say that a particular work of art is beautiful if I am only trying to express some feeling it has roused in me that I associate with beauty. On the other hand, it is also misleading to say that I feel the work of art is beautiful if I am attempting to describe an attribute I believe the artwork to possess.

The distinction here is subtle, but significant. There is no point to making an attempt to ascribe a certain value to some object if others will dismiss it as nothing more than personal opinion. On the other hand, those who wish to know my feelings will quickly be put off if I attempt to force them all to feel the same way.

If I am new to writing, it will be difficult for me to make a value statement about the quality of one author or another. On the other hand, I will quickly be able to discern my feelings toward that author. Perhaps the function of human-centered learning is not to dismiss either sort of observation, but rather to help the individual recognize where each one is valuable in the process of education.

All references from “The Abolition of Man: How Education Informs Man’s Sense of Morality” by C S Lewis. For more blog posts in this series, click here.

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