Confused On a Higher Level

Yesterday, the new principal at the community college (folk high school) where I teach quoted an intriguing and thought-provoking phrase in the weekly staff newsletter. He didn’t mention where he had found it or who had coined the phrase, but being the curious person that I am, I quickly started hunting for the quote’s origin.

After a little while of haphazard and fruitless clicking I stumbled upon a fascinating website that just might become one of my new favourite sites: The Quote Investigator. Somebody calling themselves Garson O’Toole (turns out that it’s a pseudonym) have been researching and fact-checking both common and rare quotes on the internet for several years and seem to have amassed quite an audience. They even published a book – Hemingway Didn’t Say That – four years ago.

Way back in 2010, Garson O’Toole posted a reply to someone asking about this very quote that the principal introduced me to yesterday. The questioner had tracked the quote down to a math textbook, which itself provided very limited information as to the quote’s origins, only referring to a note sitting “outside the mathematics reading room” of Tromsø University in Northern Norway.

In the Quote Investigator article, the quote is traced through several instances of use and misuse, and being apparently falsely attributed to various people including Nobel laureate physicist Enrico Fermi. What Garson O’Toole presents as the probable origin of the quote is a textbook for teachers about workshops and the educational process published in 1951. In the book’s introduction, the author, Professor Earl C. Kelley, describes his experiences from education workshops that had been hosted at Wayne University where he worked, and the difficulty in finding proper, definite answers to the difficult questions posed during the workshops.

The quote in question is this:

In some ways we feel that we are as confused as ever, but we think we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.

Earl C. Kelley, The Workshop Way of Learning (1951)

Isn’t it a rather elegant phrase? I feel that it is quite an accurate description of how one can feel when engaged in a learning process, no matter what the subject is, when you’ve absorbed a ton of new information that you haven’t had the time yet to fully process. (My partner, who is studying veterinary medicine, also attests to this sensation with great emphasis.)

It’s every bit as relevant for when you’re studying and/or practicing music. Throughout the process of composing my Suite for Button Accordion I have gone through different stages of confusion, mainly regarding the instrument itself as it is my first proper composition for any type of accordion. (Yes, there are several.) Of immense help in dispelling my confusion has been Irina Serotyuk, the brilliant accordionist for whom I am writing this suite. But as Professor Kelley so neatly describes it, when one layer of confusion is dispelled, that inevitably leads to another layer further away, sooner or later, as my increased understanding leads the way to new questions that I didn’t have the capacity to so much as formulate before.

This also brings to my mind the 20th century psychologist Lev Vygotsky who is probably best remembered today for formulating the concept of the zone of proximal development, a way to measure skills that are in the process of maturing. Vygotsky himself defined the zone as “the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined by problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with a more capable peer”.

In other words, the zone of proximal development is the area on a difficulty scale where you can develop a skill or understanding by yourself or with the help of someone more experienced. Vygotsky’s point was, from what I’ve understood, specifically about learning together, through joint collaboration. And the more you learn, the more you raise your zone of proximal development, and your lower-level confusion is dispelled only to reveal that you are, in fact, still confused – but on a higher level.