Monday, November 23, 2009

Understanding vs. Knowledge

At the beginning of the semester, I was excited at the prospect of reading A Wrinkle in Time, but a little confused at why such a beloved book from my childhood would be upon a list of frequently banned books. I figured perhaps after rereading I would understand and there would be some sort of subversive content that completely went over my head when I read it as a child. However, after reading the book as a 22-year-old, I still fail to see how anybody in their right mind would remove this book. There are certainly elements of the book that are anti-conformity, but in a country where individualism is so highly prized I can’t see this being problematic, at least in the USA. Perhaps this would make sense in the 1960’s when the book was written, because the anti-conformist movements were in full swing and the older generation perhaps had fears that putting such ideologies into popular children’s literature would essentially cause them to lose the upcoming generation, but even this seems like a weak reason to ban a book, especially when there is so much in the story that promotes typical biblical issues, such as good versus evil and the infinite power of love. There are passing references to the New Testament, and Jesus is once portrayed as someone who did much on earth to fight the power of evil, which seems like a quite positive thing, and leaves me just absolutely confused and disturbed that there are people so sheltering and so extremely close-minded as to fight for a book this wonderful to be removed from libraries or schools. Perhaps in communist countries this would make a little more sense, but not here.
One part of the novel, however, that it would seem highly difficult for anyone to take fault with is the running theme that intelligence must be tempered with understanding. It is one thing to have factual knowledge or to in a sense “know” the answers to problems, but it is entirely different than having an understanding of what this knowledge means and how one is supposed to use it in the real world in a way that will be beneficial to others and to “fighting the shadow” in the real world. This becomes clear when Meg starts reciting certain math problems in order to fight IT, but because the manner of her recital is so methodical, it has no effect. However, when Meg asserts that equal and like are not the same thing, using understanding rather than plain intellect, she is able to fight off IT for a little while longer. Although this concept of understanding seems relatively simplistic, it is vastly important. When volunteering with my first graders, one thing I always try to do in helping them solve math problems is to have them understand the bigger picture, even though the bigger picture at this point is simply understanding the reasoning behind addition and subtraction. One can use a shortcut in a math problem like Meg is so quick and able to do in the story, but this only has any relevance if one understands why the shortcut works. I think in particular of the counting table the students made several weeks ago in my class – simply put, the 10x10 chart counted from 1 to 100 and allowed the children to do more complicated subtraction or addition problems, such as 63-8 for example. The children could start at 63 and count backwards to get the answer. However, why does this work? The graph is only a physical representation of a thought process the students will be able to do in their heads later on. Thus, it is easy to just copy the teacher’s instructions and examples and get the right answer, but an understanding of why this physical representation works will lead to a greater understanding of math and will help them much better in the future. In much the same way, there are scientists and mathematicians who are incredibly smart and understand more about the way the world works on molecular and scientific levels, but use that knowledge in completely the wrong way in the real world, using it to build atomic and nuclear weapons instead of using that knowledge in beneficial ways. This, I think, is the primary message of the story, and is one that is especially vital for children.

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