On this first day of May, we are introducing a new (and improved) feature of our blog: guest contributors from the Institute’s network of Fellows, Advisors, and Friends. To start off, we are pleased to introduce our long-time collaborator, Dr. Matthew Post of the University of Dallas, who offers us some thoughts on the relationship between brain matter and the human mind.
I recently came across an article published in Slate by Sam Kean: “Phineas Gage, Neuroscience’s Most Famous Patient.” For those unfamiliar with Gage, he was a railroad foreman in the mid nineteenth century who remarkably survived dramatic brain damage caused when a tamping iron shot through his skull. As Kean aptly summarizes the conventional account, “[Gage] transformed from a clean-cut, virtuous foreman into a dirty, scary, sociopathic drifter.” The implication is clear. As a cognitive neuroscientist I know summarized it: “There is no soul; there is only the brain.”
The problem is that the conventional account is almost certainly false. Kean draws our attention to Malcolm Macmillan, a psychologist and historian at the University of Melbourne, who has spent over 40 years uncovering the truth. It turns out that, after the accident, Gage spent seven years in Chile driving coaches along mountain trails between Valparaiso and Santiago—a highly complex task that should have been impossible for someone with his brain injuries, a man who, moreover, permanently lost sight in one eye. Then, a post-accident photo of Gage surfaced. As Kean put it, “Although just one picture, it exploded the common image of Gage as a dirty, disheveled misfit. This Phineas was proud, well-dressed, and disarmingly handsome.”
There is much we can learn from Kean’s article. One comes from Macmillan, who comments that “once you have a myth of any kind, scientific or otherwise, it’s damn near impossible to get it destroyed,” which is sedimented through “the degree of rigor mortis in textbooks.” And yet, at the same time, we see that a logical, critical, diligent and prudent researcher, like Macmillan, can indeed set the record straight, or at least straighter. Another insight can be found in Gage himself, who—based on what scant evidence we do have—is a testament not just to a much-misrepresented individual’s capacity for dignity, but also to the indefatigable resilience of the human spirit in overcoming trauma.
Both insights speak to what we, as classical educators, aspire to cultivate in our students, in the halls of academe, and in the public square… [Note: Dr. Post’s thoughts on this topic will be continued in next Friday’s post.]
Dr. Matthew Post is the Assistant Dean of the Braniff Graduate School at the University of Dallas and a Fellow of the Institute for Classical Education. He also directs the master’s degree in classical education at the University of Dallas. This summer, Dr. Post is leading an online course on Thucydides’ Education in Virtuous Leadership for Great Hearts’ Academy for Classical Teachers. Registration for this course is open now.