Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Chess as a Safe House for Learning

Language Professor Mary Louise Pratt delivered a keynote address at a literacy conference in 1990 titled “Arts of the Contact Zone” (later published multiple times in essay form) which had a significant impact in the humanities during the decade that followed. Part of its appeal was the wonderful story she opened with about what her son and his best friend learned from collecting baseball cards:

Sam and Willie learned a lot about phonics that year by trying to decipher surnames on baseball cards, and a lot about cities, states, heights, weights, places of birth, stages of life. In the years that followed, I watched Sam apply his arithmetic skills to working out batting averages and subtracting retirement years from rookie years; I watched him develop senses of patterning and order by arranging and rearranging his cards for hours on end, and aesthetic judgment by comparing different photos, different series, layouts, and color schemes. American geography and history took shape in his mind through baseball cards. Much of his social life revolved around trading them, and he learned about exchange, fairness, trust, the importance of processes as opposed to results, what it means to get cheated, taken advantage of, even robbed. Baseball cards were the medium of his economic life too. Nowhere better to learn the power and arbitrariness of money, the absolute divorce between use value and exchange value, notions of long- and short-term investment, the possibility of personal values that are independent of market values.

Baseball cards meant baseball card shows, where there was much to be learned about adult worlds as well. And baseball cards opened the door to baseball books, shelves and shelves of encyclopedias, magazines, histories, biographies, novels, books of jokes, anecdotes, cartoons, even poems. Sam learned the history of American racism and the struggle against it through baseball; he saw the Depression and two world wars from behind home plate. He learned the meaning of commodified labor, what it means for one’s body and talents to be owned and dispensed by another. He knows something about Japan, Taiwan, Cuba, and Central America and how men and boys do things there. Through the history and experience of baseball stadiums he thought about architecture, light, wind, topography, meteorology, the dynamics of public space. He learned the meaning of expertise, of knowing about something well enough that you can start a conversation with a stranger and feel sure of holding your own. Even with an adult--especially with an adult. Throughout his preadolescent years, baseball history was Sam’s luminous point of contact with grown-ups, his lifeline to caring. And, of course, all this time he was also playing baseball, struggling his way through the stages of the local Little League system, lucky enough to be a pretty good player, loving the game and coming to know deeply his strengths and weaknesses.

Literacy began for Sam with the newly pronounceable names on the picture cards and brought him what has been easily the broadest, most varied, most enduring, and most integrated experience of his thirteen-year life. Like many parents, I was delighted to see schooling give Sam the tools with which to find and open all these doors. At the same time I found it unforgivable that schooling itself gave him nothing remotely as meaningful to do, let alone anything that would actually take him beyond the reverential, masculinist ethos of baseball and its lore.
Quoted from “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession (1991): 33-40.

I think that anyone who wants to make a case for the value of chess, especially the value of chess in the schools, would do well to consider the many ways that chess can become a similar “safe house” for learning (which Pratt defines as "social and intellectual spaces where groups can constitute themselves as horizontal, homogeneous, sovereign communities with high degrees of trust, shared understandings, temporary protection"). Once we begin to master a subject, it can be a vehicle for accessing and retaining new information and making contact with others. Former club president Mike Wojcio makes a similar point in the conclusion to his excellent History of the Kenilworth Chess Club, where he writes:

Friendships and knowledge are more important than winning. Chess helps kids learn a plethora of educational skills, since it relates to history, geography, memory, spatial relations, theory versus practice, and good sportsmanship. It also gives them an opportunity to meet and talk to people of all generations and all nationalities. Where else do you find young kids so ready to talk with old timers? Chess can bridge the gap between all people. The former World Champion from Holland Max Euwe (1901-1981) once said, "Whoever sees no aim in the game than that of giving checkmate to one's opponent will never become a good chess player."

How has chess taught us? Help me to count the ways.

Let's begin by pointing out the obvious: you think baseball has some names that are tough to pronounce? Check out Bill Wall's "Pronounce that Chess Word" guide! I have to admit, though, that many chessplayers never bother to learn these things and seem to persist in their mispronunciations. I can't tell you, for example, how many times I've actually been corrected by people (including a local FM, who will remain nameless) for saying "Peerts" instead of "Perk" to refer to the line that begins 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6.

How many of us have picked up a little Russian, German, Spanish, etc. from trying to decipher annotations in books and on the web? Bobby Fischer famously taught himself quite a bit of Russian from reading 64, for example. At the very least, all chessplayers eventually learn some French and German, including en passant, zwischenzug, and zugzwang.

And history: How many of us use chess as our chief reference point in remembering historical dates? How many of us learned most of what we know about the Cold War from reading about the Fischer-Spassky match? How many of us have learned quite a bit about the old resorts and spas of Europe and America from chess? How many of us would have to admit that the last book on history we read had the word "chess" in the title? And didn't it teach you more than just the history of chess?

What larger lessons have we learned from chess about the importance of weighing options before deciding, about the importance of critical thinking over rote memorization, or about the often immediate value and power of knowledge? I imagine these last points would naturally be among those raised by Josh Waitzkin (of Searching for Bobby Fischer fame) in his forthcoming book The Art of Learning: A Vibrant New Perspective on the Pursuit of Excellence (due out in May 2007). Similar "life lessons" from chess might be derived from a number of other books, including Garry Kasparov's The Attacker's Advantage, Bruce Pandolfini's Every Move Must Have a Purpose, Maurice Ashley's Chess for Success, and even David Shenk's The Immortal Game (reviewed here recently) to name just a few.

Of course, we should pause to admit that chess as a "safe house" is not all open vistas and shining light. It does have its limitations. One of the main points, in fact, that Pratt develops later on in her piece is that, while we inevitably use what we already know as a scaffold for building and supporting new knowledge, these comfortable frames of reference can be limiting in getting to know other people or learning things that are not connected to our worldviews. You can get some sense of that from the passage I quote above. As her tone suggests in the last sentence, she was not especially thrilled by the “reverential, masculinist ethos” that baseball had inculcated in her son, making him potentially unfit to understand a future girlfriend or spouse. Anything that serves as our main gateway to knowledge will inevitably become too narrow a channel for true learning. Sort of like when Christians refer to Chanukah as the way Jewish people celebrate Christmas.... Well, not exactly! Relying only on your own terms and worldviews won't always get you to understanding.

As a truly intellectual, international, ancient, and multi-lingual pastime, however, chess offers a much broader knowledge horizon than many other activities. And I think we can use the concept of the "safe house" to help make that point.

Note: This piece was revised from an earlier version to reflect Pratt's terms more accurately.


Anonymous said...

Excellent article.

Howard Goldowsky

Michael Goeller said...

Thanks, Howard. Yeah, I liked it too, but I get the impression you are one of the few to read it carefully! :-) I think the idea of a safe house for learning, though, is very promising. Chess basically provides a safe environment for engaging in critical thinking.... I may elaborate on that further down the road.