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Can Reading Speculative Fiction Make You a Better Learner?

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What if you could master one trick that would make every learning experience from now on more valuable? What if you understood every book more fully, could solve problems more quickly and with more ingenuity, and were better at seeing things from another person’s point of view?

There is a mental trick that can do all this.

                It’s called disassumption. What it comes down to is recognizing your assumptions so you can let go of them and reconsider the information. Without your assumptions, you’re able to see situations from other perspectives and understand them more completely.

An Example from One of MIT’s Open Courses

                In the MIT open course on reflective practice, Sebastiao Ferreira explains that all the information we receive comes through the filter of our assumptions; we get no pure information.

                Consider this example given in the course.

                 If an IT guy assumes that he can improve bus routes if only he had all the numerical  data, he might try to tackle a public transportation problem by collecting more data. If he gets more  data and makes changes, but the problem still isn’t solved, what will he do? Well, if he’s still operating under the same assumption, he’ll just keep collecting more data.

How can he break the cycle? He has to recognize that he was making an assumption about the cause of the problem and the way to solve it. Then he has to release his assumptions and reconsider the problem without them

How This Applies to Literature and Other Studies

                In Classics in the Classroom, Michael Clay Thompson applies this idea to literature. When you’re reading a novel, what assumptions are you making that affect your interpretation of the text? Are you making assumptions about the characters, yourself, the way a novel ought to be written?

To get a fuller understanding of the novel, stop and recognize the assumptions you are making. Then reconsider the novel without your assumption filter.

             Now take this concept and apply it to everything you’re learning and the conversations you have. Are you assuming you have all the information or are generally well informed on a topic? Are you assuming the author of the book you are reading is an expert and unbiased? Are you assuming all scientific findings are based on correctly-performed experiments? Are you assuming the person who disagrees with you is an idiot? (Don’t worry. He is.)

          The point is, we all make assumptions all the time. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. Sometimes we’re right; sometimes we quickly see how wrong we were – before anybody else knows what we were thinking, so it’s okay. But if we want to be better thinkers and learners, we can train ourselves to recognize our assumptions and let go of them; then reconsider the topic currently on our mind.

How Speculative Fiction Can Help You

                Now you know the trick to getting more out of your studies, but how can reading speculative fiction help with that? First of all, researchers have already found that readers of literary fiction are better thinkers. Pick your speculative fiction wisely, tending more toward the literary and less toward the brain candy, and you’ll already be reaping some benefits from reading. But there’s more.

With regard to disassumption specifically, speculative fiction seems particularly suited to the task of evolving our brains.

Consider the nature of the speculative fiction novel. A novel like this often takes a common assumption and says, “What if that weren’t true?”

              leguin  As an example, consider Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness. This novel takes place in the future on the planet Gethen. The Gethenians are hermaphrodites, and they are sexless unless they are mating. Most of the time, a Gethenian is neither male nor female. Sex is only determined during mating, and the sex of any Genthenian could be different if he were mating with a different partner.

On Gethen, that means sex plays no part in economics, politics or daily affairs. What that means for the readers is that they are forced to practice disassumption.

First, we recognize our assumption that sex is stable. Without surgical intervention, a being is either male or female all the time. For the entirety of the novel, we are led through the consideration of another possibility. You will reach at least this level of disassumption when you read any work of speculative fiction, but The Left Hand of Darkness takes things further.

                The Gethenians, lacking sex or gender, are referred to as “he.” “He” is considered a sort of default pronoun in English. Using a masculine pronoun is a correct way to say sentences like:

  • One knows when he is being watched.
  • A person knows when he is being watched.
  • To each his own.

Whereas the masculine pronoun can be used to refer to humans in general, the feminine pronoun “she” is reserved for situations in which we know the subject is female. And using the pronoun “it” might seem offensive or derogatory.

However, every time you hear the word “he” or some other masculine word like “king,” you don’t just register third person singular masculine (or third person singular masculine ruler). These words come with a package of assumptions attached:

  • has male genitalia
  • cannot get pregnant
  • does not menstruate
  • does not lactate, etc.

One might even bring with the word “he” such assumptions as:

  • has short hair
  • only cooks on grill
  • is handy
  • is married to a woman
  • makes more money than wife, etc.

But when you read that the king is pregnant, it is a jarring experience in which you are forced to shut down for a minute, recognize that you brought a package of assumptions along with the word “king” and escape them.

The “Wax on, Wax off” Method

                Practicing disassumption in this forced way is a baby step towards being able to do it when you’re reading a work of realism or a book on philosophy, or when you’re scratching your head in real life trying to think of some other possible solution to a problem. This is the “wax on, wax off” way of learning.

Practice making the moves when it’s easy so it comes naturally to you later on. And instead of waxing cars and floors, you get to read fun and interesting novels.

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