'Rules' for teaching and learning; Yogi Berra

December 13, 2017

If Yogi Berra had not existed, someone would have felt obliged to make him up.

 

Widely regarded as one of the greatest catchers in baseball history, he left a rich seam of unintentional witticisms that would credit any scriptwriter. His gems include:

 

"Ninety percent of baseball is mental; the other half is physical."

"It's déjà vu all over again." 

"You can observe a lot by watching."

"Always go to other people's funerals; otherwise they won't go to yours."

"A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore"

"If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.”

 

And, explaining why he no longer frequented a particular restaurant: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

 

But his "Yogi-isms" are not to be dismissed. Apparently nonsensical, they entertain because they each contain a truth that has been condensed into fewer words than might be thought possible.

 

In 1972, defending his team's poor position part-way through a league, he opined: "It ain't over till it's over." As much a gem of foolish wisdom as any other Yogi-ism, it is now part of our language.

 

I therefore give Yogi full credit for the most pithy elucidation of the relationship between the world of conceptual thinking and that of reality:

 

"In theory, theory and practice are the same. But in practice, they are not."

 

I find it impossible to read that sentence just once. I am always obliged to savour it two or three times in order to fully enjoy its terse complexity.

 

Theory, endlessly useful though it can be, cannot be more than a model of reality: a simplification of it.

 

Theory suggests a way in which things work, but being a simplification it cannot take into account all possibilities. After all, there is only one thing that is as complicated as the universe, and that is the universe itself.

 

This is not to belittle the use of concepts, but to admit that they are only useful because they are simplifications. A theory that accounts for everything is as unwieldy as a map at a scale of 1:1;

 

And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!"

 

"Have you used it much?" I enquired.

 

"It has never been spread out, yet," said Mein Herr: "the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.

 

-- Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893).

 

Quite so. If the fastidious application of theory gets in the way of practice, which should be prioritised? Is that even a choice?

 

It is a choice that is often poorly made in our dealings with that most complicated of landscapes; other people. We already have a theory and we do our damndest to get it to fit the circumstances. And when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.. 

 

And so we should use our theories only as guidelines and pay more attention to the reality of the person in front of us; maintain those strong opinions, but only hold them lightly.

 

Yogi himself was not averse to strong opinions. He unsuccessfully sued Hanna-Barbera for defamation over how similarly-named their cartoon bear was. It is ironic how Yogi Bear the cartoon has since eclipsed Yogi Berra the man.

 

In 2005 The Economist magazine named Berra the "Wisest Fool of the Past 50 Years". One measure of that contradiction is the online debate about who first make that key statement about theory and practice; the other contender is Albert Einstein. 

 

Mind you, as Berra once told a reporter "I really didn't say everything I said."

 

 

 

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