solve to understand how people behave and the contradictions in their behaviour. Other inspirations are simply those of curiosity. I was enormously curious about how things worked. I was always asking why? why? why? Then I got to medical school and the why extended to the brain and the activities of the nervous system, which seemed to me to be the largest why of all. Aslo, I had personal experiences with people who had become, I guesss you’d say, psychotic, or who acted bizzarrely or strangely. These matters have been of great interest to me.
DJB: How do you define consciousness?
OSCAR: Well, I was afraid you were going to ask me that. When you say define something, I’m caught between what I recognize as the accepted definition – the sources that come out of dictionaries, legal definitions and all that stuff that belongs in the pragmatic world – and the definitions that come from my intuition. The Oxford English Dictionary offers at least six or seven varieties of definition for consciousness, and several have entirely different connotations. When you get down to contradictions like being conscious of one’s unconscious, it get’s pretty strange and labyrinthine. I would say the conventional definition contains the idea of being aware of one’s self – a sort of self-reflection. Or you can describe it operationally as being the end product of a complex nervous system that eventually produces a state that allows us to be in some way congnizant of ourselves and the enviroment. It allows us to extrap- olate into future events, into past events, and allow us to take a position in one’s imagination so we can examine realities that are not responsive to the ordinary, daily context of the world around us. Many of these things require qualifications, but let me then stay with the word as something that gives us a feeling that distinguishes us as individuals, that gives us a sense of self, and sense of self-reflection and awareness.
JEANNE:: Many years ago, while you were studying at Columbia, you had some problems with your high school teaching job. What happened?
OSCAR: Well, I was practice teaching at the same high school that I had attended, Erasmus Hall in New York, the second oldest high school in the country. I was teaching general science with the lady who taught me, Miss Thompson. I took over her class, and she would sit in the back of the room. So, I was teaching astronomy to these sophomore or junior students. I borrowed a ladder from the custodian and I bought a bunch of gold stars. I spent the entire night pasting them on the ceiling in the form of the constellations. When I wound up it was getting light outside, and I thought I had done this incredible job. So the next day when we had the class, I said with a grand gesture, “We’re studying the stars – look up.” All the kids looked up, everyone was fired up and we had a good time learning about all the stars. That evening, as I was going home, I discovered a note stuck in my letter-box from Mr McNeal, the principal of the school. It said, “See me.” So the next day I went to see him. He said, “The custodian told me that you pasted things on the ceiling.” He shook his head and said, “I’m afraid you’re going to have to remove those, that’s defacing school property,” and he just waved me aside. I spent all the next night scraping the stars off the ceiling, thinking about the errors of my ways. A week later, I decided that we would study eclipses. I said to the kids in the first row, “You bring in the lemons.” To the second row I said, “You bring oranges.” The third row I told, “You bring in grapefruits.” To the fourth row I said, “You bring in knitting needles.” So they were all very eager and they came back with these required things. I said, okay, the grapefruits are the suns, the oranges are the planets, the lemons are the moons, and the knitting needles go through the planets to make them tilted and spin around accordingly. So we had a ball, but a big commotion ensued. During this general upheaval, the door opens and McNeal puts his head in and pulls back again. So sure enough, in my little box, there’s a note that says, “See me immediately”. So I see him, and this time he’s very unhappy. I said, “Dr McNeal let me explain about the sun and the moon and the oranges and the lemons,” but I couldn’t explain it. He said, “Did you know that the teachers on the floor were complaining about you? You were making a lot of noise.” I said, “Yeah, well, you know it’s very difficult to get the spatial relationships right.” (laughter) He said, “I don’t understand. You come from Teacher’s College, that’s the finest college in the country for teachers, it’s the cradle of American education. It was Dewey’s shrine. Don’t they teach you about discipline in the classroom?” I said, “Gee, yeah, I guess so.” He says, “Well, your classroom was in chaos!” I said, “Gee, I….but let me tell you about the oranges and