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LIVE from the NYPL: GOPNIK x 2: Fact, Myth & Theory of Childhood


November 28, 2005

Brother and sister, Adam and Alison Gopnik, will talk about childhood and debate the logic and imagination of literature (Adam) and of science (Alison) based on their respective books The King in the Window and The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind.

Adam says: Alison and I have been debating the meanings of childhood since we were children, and continue that debate today. We both have a strong sense that the numinous illuminations of childhood are in some way genuinely enchanted that children really do walk with trails of glory but have pursued that insight, or belief, in different ways. Alison, professor of psychology at Berkeley, in her books and articles, has become expert on the way children think, reason, and learn; I, a New Yorker veteran, in my essays and stories, have recorded the way that children imagine, pretend, and act. Recently, my book for children The King In the Window, was crafted with the constant help, assistance and kibitzing of Alison, and her insights into the logical and theory-pursuing mind of the child is present on its pages. On this occasion, we will swap stories, argue fine points, and debate whether the science of childhood is better than the art of children's literature, or whether indeed a true science of childhood is even possible at all—or at least, what points of contact the study and the entertainment of children have with each other. Though likely to become heated, as our debates have been since the age of six and seven, the great probability is that we will agree on the essential point: that feeling and intellect, emotion and logic, the mind and the soul of the child, evolve together."

Alison says: "The conventional wisdom is that logic and imagination, science and fantasy are deeply opposed aspects of human nature. And the wisdom since the age of the Romantics has been that children's thinking belongs to the realm of imagination and fantasy rather than logic and science children are deeply irrational, solipsistic, intuitive, phantasizers rather than thoughtful pursuers of the truth. Twenty years of research on children's thinking has turned this conventional reasoning on its head in fact, children are the best learners we know of and they use many of the same techniques as scientists to learn so much. Still, the fact remains that children are also the wildest imaginers we know of. How are these two aspects of children's minds connected?

My work in cognitive science suggests an answer to this question. It turns out that the kind of reasoning that children do best, reasoning about causes and possibilities, is deeply linked to both logic and imagination. This is a logic that allows children (and grown-ups) to envision possible future worlds, very different from the worlds we inhabit now, and to bring those worlds into being. This ability to imagine alternative possibilities—to literally change the world—is a deeply important part of our evolutionary inheritance. But it is also the capacity that children exercise most dramatically in their wild imaginative play.

About Adam Gopnik:

Adam Gopnik, contributor to The New Yorker, served as the publication's Paris correspondent for five years where he focused on the details of everyday life and illuminated larger issues such as differences among societies, and our own particularities as Americans. Gopnik's essays on his experiences in France were later collected into a volume titled Paris to the Moon. New York Times writer Alain de Botton identified Gopnik's attention to seemingly trivial subjects as his particular genius: "The distinctive brilliance of Gopnik's essays lies in his ability to pick up a subject one would never have imagined it possible to think deeply about and then cover it in thoughts, making connections with literature, sociology and philosophy--all treated in a highly readable way. . . . He is truly able to see the whole world in a grain of sand."

About Alison Gopnik:

Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at University of California at Berkeley, began her studies of child psychology at Oxford. She intended to become a philosopher, but as she studied, she realized that instead of asking questions, she wanted to answer them: Studying development was a good way to answer them." Gopnik's interest in child development and folk psychology led her, with psychologist Andrew Meltzoff, to develop the "theory theory," which is the primary focus of their book, Words, Thoughts, and Theories. Gopnik's second book, The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind, written with Meltzoff and his wife, Patricia Kuhl, also a research psychologist, continues work on the "theory theory," further developing the informal, entertaining, and authoritative look at the science of the minds of babies.