The universities as Flatland

The perfect metaphor for the left-brain academic can be found in a little novella called Flatland.  Originating as a rather silly story conceived by a Victorian philologist-mathematician, which was meant to illustrate class division (of all things), it’s far more important in how it uses geometry as an analogy for the differences between dimensions.  The beauty of this concept is that each dimension sees the next higher dimension as Time.  For one dimension to transform into a higher dimension, it must make a sort of quantum leap in which the entire continuum moves in a direction perpendicular to itself, a direction that can only be perceived as movement, movement requiring time––just as verbs (words depicting actions) require tense (forms that locate them in time: past, present and future).

When the Point––a purely abstract concept lacking any dimension at all––begins to move in a particular dirrection, it creates the first dimension, the Line, which has length but no width.  When the Line makes a quantum leap and begins moving in a direction perpendicular to itself, it creates the second dimension, the Plane. When the Plane moves in a direction perpendicular to itself it creates the third dimension, the Cube.  Up to this level we can grasp the process and the result since these are the dimensions we live with.  Our minds are made to deal with a three-dimensional reality.  The fourth dimension, that is, all lower dimensions moving in a direction perpendicular to all three, lies in a dimension beyond our understanding, one we call Time.

To a resident of the second dimension, the Flatlander of the novella, a three-dimensional object would appear as an event in time.  Thus to a Flatlander, a moving sphere would appear first as a point, then a short line getting longer and longer until it reaches the fullest width of the sphere, its equator, when it begins to diminish down to a point, whereupon it vanishes.  For those of us inhabiting a three-dimensional reality, an object in the fourth dimension appears as a initial event, say, the firing on Four Sumter, that then expanded into the battles and turning points of the Civil War, and that ended with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.  Thus America experienced as events in time what northerners call the Civil War, southerners, the War between the States.

Left brain, two dimensions; right brain three

In humans, the brain is divided into two hemispheres, loosely termed the right and left brains.  These work together in many ways, but one way to distinguish them would be to see the left brain working largely at the level of the second dimension, making it easier to focus on individual facts (“hard data”) by excluding extraneous facts or data, with the right brain functioning more freely but less precisely in the three-dimensional reality in which we live, move, cook and eat dinner, waltz and walk the dog.  What we call thinking is mostly the linear mental activity of the left brain.  Right brain mental activity is given other terms: instinct, gut, sixth sense, automatic reflex, inspiration, imagination, day-dreaming.  The left brain names, categorizes, and stores data which the right brain integrates into a fully dimensional experience, memory, or concept.

Living in a three-dimensional reality, the first and second dimensions exist on a material level only as two-dimensional marks––hyroglyphics, letters, numbers, drawings, photographs––on a flat surface.  When attempting to depict a three-dimensional object  in two dimensions, the artist or designer must resort to illusion, to visual tricks like perspective and foreshortening, tricks unknown to the ancients until discovered (rediscovered?) by Philippo Brunelleschi in the early 15th century.

Ideas and concepts take place in the right brain, which then turns the matter over to the left brain for measuring, fact-checking, creating equations, schematics, perspective drawings, and verbalizing.  On the other hand, much of what we do automatically we had to learn first through the left-brain, one step at a time.  For instance, we learn to drive by verbalizing and categorizing: turn signal first, then brake, then foot on the clutch, then down shift, then more brake, then turn, then clutch and shift, then gas, etc.––putting in order actions that we’ll transfer to our right brain as soon as they’ve become automatic.  This is true of typing on a keyboard, playing a musical instrument, sight singing from notation, as well as the reading, writing, and arithmetic that for most of us are the first uses of the left brain forced on us by society.

Other matters begin in the right brain, transferring to the left when precision is required.  You see your kid at a particular college, the great experience it will be for her, how much she will profit by it and enjoy it, perhaps what a pleasure it will be to visit her.  The matter gets transferred to the left brain: how much will it cost?  What options are there for funding?  Out comes the calculator, the facts and figures, and the left brain goes to work.  Ignoring the emotional elements, facts, numbers, priorities, come into play, one at a time.

Mathematicians who delight in left brain thinking may shun the idea that Time, that arena of the right brain, is the fourth dimension, focussing on its other uses, but this is simply an effort on the part of left-brainers to keep dimensions within a left brain container, for although we may measure Time with left brain devices like clocks, we experience it with the right brain.  Our left brain may have taught us how to stop the car when the light turns red, but it’s our right brain that tells us when to begin braking.

Depth equals amount

To a Flatlander, stuck in the second dimension, all objects have the same depth and the same amount, they vary only in length; a tea tray appears to be longer and therefore of more consequence than a telephone pole seen endwise, because it creates a longer line, though to the Flatlander who sees both as events, the first lasts only a short time while the latter seems to go on forever.

This is the same problem that the academics have with the authorship question.  All writers are alike, their only difference is in length: of time, of vocabulary, of influence, of use of feminine rhymes, of of of of, each measurement seen in isolation from the rest.  Wherever depth occurs, as in depth of education, use of vocabulary, depth of extrapolation from a fact, such as the common sense response to the uncertain scribble that is the only thing we have from William of Stratford’s hand, Flatlanders, stuck in the second dimension, simply don’t see it. They don’t see the ludi, the irony, the joke, the impossibility of the claim that the greatest writer who ever lived could possibly have had such wretched handwriting, or that, coming from a man whose writing was so popular, no one to whom he wrote in that era of letter-writing, ever bothered to save one of his letters.

For the Flatlanders in the university English Departments, the Stratford grammar school, just because they know it existed, creates a longer line than the university-level education that doesn’t exist (for them) because it doesn’t appear in any record.  Hearing in his works the depth and breadth of his education is a right brain function, and a lifetime spent since early childhood in a modern academic environment has left them without the capacity to hear it.  “Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigolds . . . .”

Obsessed with who or what came first, A before B, C before D, they can only see what appears on their level, the 2-dimensional level where things are recorded.  The vast universe surrounding everything from that far back in the past that was not recorded, that must be guessed from amounts, amounts of silence, amounts of time between events, angry reactions as shown by E.K. Chambers’s almost 200 pages of “Documents of Criticism and Control,” means almost nothing to them because sheer volume (the third dimension) is a right brain matter.  Their mentors can’t see it, the committee that gives them their PhD can’t see it, and as a result they can only communicate with their fellow Flatlanders.  It’s a comfortable little world, filled with pleasant fellows who understand what a chap’s talking about.

But sooner or later enough right-brainers from outside the Academy will see what we’re talking about and will they nil they the controversy will switch to arguments over when Oxford began writing in a euphuistic style and when and why he quit.  We’ll all benefit, because the left-brainers whose mentors were so against the authorship question will have totally forgotten that they weren’t the ones who promoted it, and will be hard at work delving through the archives and putting things into the kind of order that makes sense to all our brains.  And that will be a good day, for us, for high school and college students, and for a common sense understanding of how both history and literature, particularly great literature, are made.

One thought on “The universities as Flatland

  1. I like this line (lol) of thought. Eg they really do think that by learning more and more about their narrow plane of focus, cramming it full of data, they can achieve near infallibility of judgment on any matter touching upon that plane. The respect they are given for becoming experts in their fields doesn’t help, clouding their judgments and increasing their confidence to the point of incurable hubris. The way they throw down those stylometric studies (aka garbage in garbage out) like 4 aces is comical, one almost pities them as one would children. Almost, because their 150 year hissy fit has done irreparable damage not only to scholarship but to civilization itself (understanding the conditions that give rise to those revolutionary eras of the highest civilization and human flourishing is best handled by men and women who understand it’s no mere academic exercise).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s