Leadership in Literacy: How Do We Know What We Do Not Know?

by Marc Maurer

Audio Version

Marc MaurerExecutive Director of the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults, Dr. Marc Maurer delivered this address on Thursday, July 13, to the convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Orlando, Florida:

How do we know what we know? Philosophers have had many answers to this question, but a great many thinkers believe that the basis of knowledge is the experience of our senses. However, René Descartes and Ebenezer Scrooge, along with many others, have opined that sense impression alone without contemplation and imagination is insufficient for knowledge. Consequently, they urge that we take proper steps to stimulate the imagination.

John Quincy Adams wrote “To furnish the means of acquiring knowledge is... the greatest benefit that can be conferred upon mankind. It prolongs life itself and enlarges the sphere of existence.”

Learning something new is a great idea. However, theorists have not always felt this way, and some cultures do not value learning, especially with respect to certain groups. It may be fair to say that all cultures (or almost all cultures) resist change, and learning implies change. If the blind are the intended audience, education has often not been a high priority. Indeed, competent, inclusive, accessible, high quality education for blind students is today sometimes very hard to get.

Let us begin not with the blind but with society in general. Alexander Pope said that “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” If this is so, how much is required for safety? When students finish the third grade, are they more of a threat to society than they were when they finished the second? Will they be more or less of a danger when they have completed fourth grade? What about graduate students or the professors who teach them? Current scientific research offers speculation that artificial intelligence can be built that will be able to hold more ideas than any human mind has ever possessed. Will the artificial intelligence add to the safety of our world? If so, whose safety will it protect? The debate rages with some futurists recommending that we invent new thoughts as fast as possible and others urging that limits be placed on scientific advancement. Regardless of the arguments, we in the National Federation of the Blind have a commitment to education; we believe that the blind have minds capable of learning whatever is to be known; and we intend to be in the midst of the educational process—participating in the learning for every discipline, teaching others, and pursuing the most imaginative research. Tell us that learning is dangerous if you like, but don’t try to keep us out because it can’t be done.

Although theorists have complained about the disadvantage of knowledge, societies have been stratified based upon the possession of it. In many places the priestly class could read, which gave this group an enormous advantage. Shakespeare said that we should kill all the lawyers. What advantage did lawyers have that caused such enmity? At least part of it is that they could read in a very specialized field.

Teaching slaves to read in many parts of the United States was regarded as a criminal act. Furthermore education for women in the United States has only comparatively recently become required by law. Despite the restrictions we have placed upon its acquisition, we in the United States have adopted the policy that knowledge is valuable and that we must encourage its acquisition. We follow this policy despite vituperative arguments that the path we tread is dramatically dangerous—that the things we learn may create events from which humanity itself will not survive. In the National Federation of the Blind we also follow this policy, and we encourage our friends to do likewise. We believe that we the blind have the ability to learn, and we honor those who demonstrate this capacity among us. Do others share our commitment for the education of blind students? Are imaginative methods of education for the blind being invented? Is there a widespread effort by agencies of government or the private sector to foster the latent potentialities of the blind?

Not so much.

For more than forty years federal law has declared that students with disabilities have a right to a public education. When the law was adopted, the language it employed was revolutionary. Prior to its enactment public schools had discretion about whether they would permit students with disabilities to be in class. Some disabled students were welcomed, but many were not. When the law came into effect, students with disabilities had a right to attend. Some of the judges who interpreted the law felt outrage that members of Congress could believe that children (they would call these children normal) could be required to be in class with students who possess disabilities. These judges decided that although the Congress had declared the law to be that disabled people had a right to attend class, this did not mean that the students who possessed these disabilities had the right to get anything out of the education other than presence in the room. The school districts were under no obligation (said these judges) to provide specific services, materials, or educational programs designed to assist in meeting the demands involving the disability itself. Blind students could come to class, but the school district was not required to provide training in Braille. Blind students could study geometry, but the school district had no obligation to offer a line drawing of the angles that the sighted students could observe in their books. It is almost as if some of the judges took the position “You can make the school district take you, but you won’t like it when they do.”

In March of this year, the Supreme Court reconsidered the rights of students with disabilities in the public schools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The court said that disabled students have a substantive right to educational programs that are likely to provide a realistic education. This decision appears to restore the promise that students with disabilities have an equal right to an education.

Within the National Federation of the Blind we know that blindness is not a debilitating disability. Instead, it is a characteristic that many of us have. Many of us have wondered what the limitations of blindness are. We have speculated that this condition indicates an inability to perform certain functions. More than forty years ago some of us said that blind people could not fly a plane, drive a car, or serve as medical doctors. Since that time, we have created a way to drive a car, and some of us have come to be medical doctors. The airplane waits to be conquered, but I feel certain that it can be and that it will be. Which leaves the question, what are the limitations of blindness?

How do blind people learn? How do we stimulate the mind to be the medium in which the patterns of observation are implanted? How do we expand the range of such patterns, or cause the intuitive leap that connects one seemingly unrelated thought with another to bring new comprehension? Children are instructed from the time that they are born not to touch. Blind children are instructed to listen, and often they are expected to do nothing more. Although it seems intuitively obvious that learning will be faster when sound, touch, and perhaps other senses are combined, blind children with some remaining vision, or their parents, are sometimes required to choose between Braille and print. The argument goes, demanding that a student learn in more than one way will be overburdensome and detrimental to education. Does education advance more rapidly by listening or touching? Our experience suggests that both together are better than either one separately.

To learn effectively it is necessary to learn how to learn. Just as a birdsong may seem, when it is first heard, to be a jumble of unrelated notes and unmelodic racket, a polysyllabic word may appear to be incomprehensible upon first acquaintance. Visual imagery must also be learned before it has meaning, and the tactile sense must receive its own training if knowledge is to be gained through it. All methods of knowing are learned, except the innate knowledge that comes from being human. When knowledge becomes the goal, it is best for us to employ the widest range of methods for securing it that we can invent.

What does color signify? One tiny piece of the answer to this question is the wavelength of reflected light. The rest must include context, imagery, history, and culture. What does light signify? Only a part of the answer is an observable medium in the electromagnetic spectrum. The rest must involve context. Moonlight may be nothing more than a presentation of waves with certain characteristics, but its meaning is much more complex. How can these concepts be presented in nontraditional forms—auditory, tactile? How can these nontraditional patterns be implanted in the minds of the blind? We have very little experience in testing alternative methods of knowing to the ones that have become most common. We must explore this kind of knowing, and we must expand it. Enormous amounts of intellectual energy have been spent on visual representations, and the language has been created to favor this form of learning, although a substantial segment of knowledge is represented by music. Nonetheless, touch is by far the most important sense we possess. It puts us in constant contact with the world around us, and it keeps us safe. Without touch the constant danger of injury would be devastating. However, our usage favors the language of the eye. When we speak with each other, although we sometimes say “get in touch,” we more often use “I’ll see you.”

We must imagine a way to emphasize the nonvisual methods we use for learning, and we must create the language to support such alternatives. Can you hear a line? Can you touch a sound? Does the hue of a summer sky with the storm coming in from the north have an identifiable aroma? Let us begin with tactile imagery.

A significant part of the task before us is to change the perception that 83 percent of all knowledge comes through the eye. This idiotic statement came from an advertisement by Thomas Edison in 1923, I am told. Thomas Edison had invented the projector, and he wanted to sell it to school systems. He created this misleading line to get the school boards to buy his product, and we have been stuck with the false advertising ever since. Some people may learn 83 percent of all they know by looking—though I doubt this. However, there are other ways to learn, and we must demonstrate that they are as good as the visual method.

We are creating a project for children to learn tactile imagery. We are offering raised-line pictures along with the tools to make more of them. The Tactile Art Kit is a box containing examples of tactile images along with the tools and supplies to perform tactile drawings. Both print and Braille instructions are included along with directions to the website of the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults, the inventor and sponsor of this program, where audible and visual descriptions of how to create tactile art may be found. Five hundred of these kits are available for distribution to blind children ages two through eight. Half a dozen ways of making tactile representations are included in the suggestions about how to use the supplies in the Tactile Art Kit. Lines, two dimensional solid forms, and three-dimensional images can be created. A leaf, two-dimensional; a tree, three-dimensional; and an object at a distance with the imagery to show that there is intervening space between the observer and the object being observed—all of these can be made. What is the difference in a tactile image of a dog standing still and one racing after a rabbit? Can the images be shown in ways that illustrate the calmness of a peaceful afternoon or the uneasiness of an impending storm? All of this will be in our first effort at capturing the ideas transmitted through the tactile imagery of art.

Can blind people be artists? Some of us are. Can blind people engage in the tasks of architecture? Some of us do. Can blind people convey knowledge through the tactile imagery associated with science? Some of us have invented methods for doing exactly that. Can we identify color and represent its meaning? In many respects, we have. How can we expand our knowledge in these areas? We will ask the children and the teachers of the children what works, and we will honor those who expand the range of what we know.

We intend to create artistic experiences with vibrancy, fascinating shapes, and sometimes intense colors. We intend to show other people how the blind do art. At the threshold of learning is a sense of wonder. We do not know what limitations exist for us in the creation of new forms of knowledge, but we are absolutely certain that whatever these limitations might be, we have not reached them. With our sense of wonder we will explore unknown horizons, and this will bring us to new frontiers. In the meantime, as I encounter you at this convention, I do not look forward to seeing you—I anticipate with pleasure hearing you; I anticipate with pleasure touching my hand to yours. I know I could have said touching you, but such expressions are currently easily misunderstood. The sound and the touch will help me to know your spirit and to share mine. Together we will build a better knowing.