A second brain

Found a great remark in a student journal, wanted to share / archive it.

Towards the end, we were asked to choose characters from history. We were asked to learn about the character and see the world from his/her eyes. I chose Adolf Hitler because I really wanted to understand how such a human being could leave such a remark. After all the massacres he lead, I found it more than interesting to discuss it. After each classmate chose a character, three random characters were chosen every time and a random topic such as freedom, power, authority, etc. were chosen for the characters to discuss. If you notice my first few journals, I mentioned the difficulty I faced thinking things through other people’s eyes. This activity has successfully opened my eyes and made me develop a second brain that can easily get isolated and put my feet in other people’s shoes.

I love the idea of a second brain. Maybe some people empathize more directly, but a virtual subroutine is a great way to start for those who don’t. This particular assignment is hard to grade and devolves easily into ignorant posturing by students who won’t or can’t get into the spirit of it, but when it works this is what happens.

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5 Comments

  1. It’s an interesting way to describe thinking in the way somebody else would. We already have an expression that covers it: being in someone else’s shoes, and I’m wondering if either is possible. More than that, though, is the question as to whether it involves empathy. Would developing a second brain mean understanding what Hitler, Stalin or, say, a serial killer did? Would we want our students to develop a “second brain” that would believe it was right to do what was done?

  2. Ronald yeah, for better or worse I explicitly and rigorously demand that my students step back from easy judgments like ‘Hitler was evil’ or ‘slavery was bad’. Not that I disagree, ultimately. But in order to be legitimate, judgment is something we come to after accurate description and understanding, not before. This seems obvious to me – the alternative is judging without understanding.

    Hitler is an important case in particular because he did not personally kill anyone. Nor was he some kind of voodoo master who successfully made a modern nation of millions follow his nefarious schemes against their will. So if we jump to ‘Hitler evil’ we miss completely what his appeal was to people who turn out to have been distressingly like ourselves. Easy judgment intercepts important learning in this and so many other cases.

    I think it’s quite possible to understand why someone else feels, thinks and acts as they do without taking that on as a principle for one’s own action. We do it all the time, according to George Herbert Mead – it’s essential for anticipation and coordination, for example when the first baseman covers the bag on seeing the batter hit the ball to the shortstop. So I can see why it would make sense for someone like Hitler to want to kill all the Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and so on, which ought to make it that much easier to timely interfere.

  3. Carl, I think we are treading on very thin ice here. The temptation to explain evil as a means of “understanding” is understandable. But I disagree that we need to understand in order to judge. In courts of law, murderers do not need to be understood; they need to be condemned. A murderer with a hard childhood is a murderer. Murder is bad.

    Mass murder is evil. What is it that you wish your students to understand about Stalin and about Hitler? Do we, as a society, not know what evil is? Or that slavery is bad?

    Once we begin on the slippery slope of “understanding” the perpetrators of evil – before we state simply and clearly that evil is evil – we will necessarily end up understanding why evil men were evil and that there were extenuating circumstances.

    Your contention that Hitler “did not kill personally kill anyone”, is, I think, problematic. Isn’t is a given that those who give orders to kill are killers?

    As to Hilter not being “some sort of voodoo master”, anyone who sees films of mass hysteria and personality worship, would think otherwise. I can personally vouch for this from what my mother, whom was born in Germany, told me. One of her friends came home and said with breathless wonder, that she had seen Hitler giving a speech and that “she had seen his hands”, almost swooning at the memory.

  4. I’m not worried. But take heart, Ronald. As William James said,

    My failure in making converts… seems, if I may judge by what I hear in conversation, almost complete. An ordinary philosopher would feel disheartened, and a common choleric sinner would curse God and die, after such a reception. But instead of taking counsel of despair, I make bold to vary my statements, in the faint hope that repeated droppings may wear upon the stone.

    If you’re wondering about the moral underpinnings of the project, there’s a sketch here.

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