Sunday, September 9, 2012

Judgment is the Enemy of Experience

"Judgment is the enemy of experience," I would intone as we started talking about what experience-based feedback might look like, "Jot that down in your notebooks, and let's unpack that idea." And I could see my friend and CITYterm colleague squirming in agony out of the corner of my eye as we began class. Later she would say, "You drive me nuts. How can you say that? Judgment is what we are striving for; it is what we want them to achieve. How can you say that it is the 'enemy of experience?'"

And she is right, judgment IS what we are trying to get students to have. After all, if they don't have judgment, then is there any way to judge quality, depth, sophistication? We want them to form opinions objectively, authoritatively and wisely; we want them to be judges. Books like The Primal Teen explore  (in interesting ways) the underdevelopment of the prefrontal cortex in adolescents as being the root of poor decision making and, therefore, judgment. There is a strong case to be made that judgment is precisely what students need more than anything else.

But in the world of experience-based learning, judgment is a bit like the idea of discrimination. We want want people to be discriminating, to make fine distinctions, but being discriminatory has obvious connotations that exhibit a darker side as well. Judgment is a nuanced idea with double meanings. So how is judgment the enemy of experience?

Some of the difficulty lies in the way we are inclined to set up problems. Before we make a judgment, we have almost always created a structure that will determine, in large part, how the judgment wll be made. The point is this, how you set up the problem will determine the range of answers you will get. As Einstein is often quoted as saying, "If I had an hour to save the world I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding the solutions."

I remember listening in a junior American Studies seminar in college to the lists of thesis titles that were coming out that year. What I was struck by was the number of titles that created dichotomies-- "John D. Rockefeller: Robber Baron or Christian Saint?" or "Wounded Knee: Military Necessity or Genocide?
They sounded a little like country-western titles- "I Don't Know Whether to Kill Myself or Go Bowling" or "I'd Rather have a Bottle in Front of me than a Frontal Lobotomy." In a truly disconcerting way, it sounds a bit like the way Democrats and Republicans are defining the issues (and each other) right now. The problem from an experience-based point of view is that you get caught in an "either /or" set-up that provokes debate rather than exploration or dialogue.

And this is where we start each semester at CITYterm (and in my history class at the Masters School) trying to figure out how to "un-learn" the most common ways that problems are set up in our culture. Look around, see how many choices you are given in a day that are either/or choices. There seems to be a preternatural need for some people to set up issues as dichotomies; I sometimes wonder if part of the heritage of Western culture is binary. The other day on a CITYexpedition we ended up in a Hindu temple in Flushing, Queens and got ourselves into a wonderful dialogue about religion.  One student asked the priest, "What about the evil? Who plays the role of the devil in Hinduism?" The priest looked blankly at him and replied that he didn't really understand the question, but that perhaps the student "was trying to describe the cycle that contains both creation and destruction. And, in that case, we should talk about Shiva." The priest was framing the issue as one of exploration of a process, we were reducing the problem to a dichotomous set of categories that would, we thought, grant clarity.

So, at the beginning of each year, we try to move away from the dichotomous ideas of "like and dislike" as responses to a text, and move toward the more unifying idea of "engagement." The expression of "like and dislike" is a "#gamechanger" because it terminates any exploration and declares for one side of the other. If one's opening response to any text is framed in a dichotomous like/dislike framework then you have short circuited the opening process of making that text an experience. This is why this framework is an expression of a judgment and, therefore, the enemy of experience. Cultivating the spirit of exploration must be the opening gambit for generating experiences; the ability to "wonder and wander" is essential to being open to finding oneself in the DKDK zone.

But my friend is right, we do want to strive to arrive at good judgment--but in its time. I have the feeling there is more to say here--maybe another blog post later is in order.


  1. From a friend of mine:

    I cant figure out how to post this comment, but here you go.

    My friend Rick, who outwardly seems very much inclined to reserve all judgment, (and would likely agree wholeheartedly with your wonderful post) exclaimed last Tuesday as we passed a large black metal sculpture in an otherwise undisturbed green in Ridgefield, “what a hideous sculpture! How dare they place it right there!” I was unnerved by his proclamation, so unlike his usual cautious self. He continued on, clearly delighting in his ability to pass judgment on this piece of metal that would not be hurt or offended by his disdain.

    Later that night, driving home from dinner with friends, he commented, “it is amazing how consistently artists struggle with getting certain details of the human form correct. The hands, the teeth, the eyes. Almost impossible to represent in a way that captures the real essence of a person.” He had walked into their living room, surmised the two portraits of their children, and immediately internalized the individual components of why they (the portraits, not the children) were ultimately artistic failures. This did not change his interest in the family, nor his ability to see some of the strengths of the portraits as well, but it was nevertheless an involuntary act of judgment. That outburst with the sculpture was his id leaping out, rejoicing in the simplicity of dichotomy. Yet in reality he passes judgment on individual details all the time, filing away minute photographs and sound bytes that will later emerge as a more sophisticated observation.

    It is in this act of synthesizing smaller judgments that I become intrigued with the idea that judgment is the enemy of experience. Perhaps judgment is just as much the friend of experience as it is the enemy.

    So, ironically, friend/enemy clothes as much a dichotomy as like/dislike, good/evil. Now, do we westerners with our dichotomous mythologies need to start with the friend/enemy before we can move outward to embrace a more cyclical approach? The Like/dislike is so deeply rooted, deeply connected to safe/unsafe, familiar/strange, and then perhaps misattributed to good/evil.

    I return to my friend Rick and his unguarded judgment of the anomalous presence of hard black lines in such a soft green field. In that reaction lies a clue to how he sees the world. Perhaps if we could learn to identify our judgments for what they are, visceral responses, and then identify the personal histories they emerge from, then there would be layers of learning for us.

    Let me stick with these dichotomies for just a moment more. What would it look like if judgment were the friend of experience? Rick might discover that his framing of the world is deeply rooted in the perceived tension between the natural and build environment.

    Last week a facebook pundit posted that Obama’s speech was “jive talk”, prompting a peppering of angry race-tinged judgments of the president. How interesting if these pundits could see the structural framework of race with which they had unconsciously set up their judgments of our president. What might they learn about themselves?

  2. I remember 13 years ago when I entered CITYterm, we talked about the "tensions" that make up NYC - assimilation/diversity, culture/commerce, etc. Perhaps you have moved on from framing NYC as a city of tensions - or that you have at least given up on putting certain dichotomous labels on such things? I would argue that you can still certainly say that NYC is a city of tensions, but the tensions are many, and not necessarily limited to those diads.

    I don't know yet how this relates, but an interesting facet about being a "really good field naturalist" we have talked about in my graduate program is the ability to create a flawless dichotomous key for identifying plants or animals (ex: Leaves are fuzzy underside - yes/no? Go to step 4... Edges of leaves toothed - yes/no? Go to step 8....). Each step of the way has its own little judgement, and if you get that one right, the combination of all little yeses or nos will lead you to the correct identification. As I write, I realize that this works when the end goal is a "correct" answer. In setting up a subjective question - "What makes New York the city that it is?" - you don't have a destination in mind for the answer. So there, judgement can be the enemy of experience, because you are spending too much time chalking up tick marks in the column of "culture" v "commerce" - instead of seeing each experience as an amalgam of both (as there is plenty of culture on Wall St, and a lot of commerce in the Lower East Side).

    I also really like the insight into some of the key differences between Eastern and Western thinking about the nature of the world and good vs. evil. It is quite a leap for us in the US to truly embrace the complexity of a figure like Shiva - whose destructive power is so important - yes important - to the world. El diablo is just easier to vilify, of course, instead of seeing what often rises out of pain and suffering. To use a naturalist's example, the fields of wildflowers that will propagate the land where a forest burned. Both are beautiful, and both occupy and important space in the complexity of things.

    Thanks for the posts, David!