Bill Long 12/11/04
How and Whether We Can Learn
Pick up any newspaper or professional educational journal and you receive two seemingly diametrically opposed perspectives on student learning. On the one hand, you read stories that tell you that national test scores are low, knowledge of history and geography among American students is abysmal as compared to students in other Western-style democracies and that college is being "dumbed down" so much that a college degree in 2004 reflects little more knowledge than a high school degree of 50 years ago. On the other hand, we read stories about how everyone really wants to learn, that students are naturally curious and that all we need to do is tap into this eager reservoir of talent and desire for learning to take place.
I suppose these two perspectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but it does make you pause for a minute and consider how we (and not just kids) learn and what obstacles we might have to learning as adults. After teaching college/law students for nearly two decades and adults for almost three decades, I reluctantly conclude the following....
Learning and Cliches
We all know that the world is a confusing place. Information may overwhelm us and confuse us. It often is very hard work to sort through mounds of data just to understand something. Then, if we try to summarize it in a memo or essay or book, we have to do even more work. We long for simplicity. In addition, our lives are busy, and most people do not have time to sort things out and explain them clearly. What do we do? We rush to cliches.
Cliches become the literary weapon of choice that replaces learning for "adult learners." A cliche may be broadened to include a famous quotation or two, but cliches are the way that we try to grasp the world simply when we do not have much time and we long for some kind of explanation or understanding. As I say in Billphorism # 68, reflecting on Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount, "Man does not live by bread alone--he needs cliches."
I think that the quest for cliches hinders learning. It suggests that what is really important is boiling something down to the barest essentials and then reducing it yet further so it can be spoken as one's latest mantra with friends or at work. Cliches elide nuance. Yet, I think that a really learned person ought to be able to speak briefly--to come up with proverbs or gnomic utterances, to manipulate language in an arresting way, to say your major point in very few words--but the problem with that is that it gives the impression that learning is easy and can be done without too much effort.
Thus, our longing for cliches is sort of like a yearning for "instant enlightenment." It short-circuits a lifetime of learning or discipline. It means that most students, when I face them out there, are not really looking for or sympathetic to nuanced treatment of difficult subjects or detailed historical consideration of things that might not be immediately relevant. Yet that is what I want to give. Maybe, however, I have just been in the wrong settings. Ah, me.
Letting Learning Sink In
In order for learning to "stick," it must do more than come in through the ears or eyes and then be repeated through the mouth. But I think if we look at the learning process graphically we can see the problem. Let us imagine that learning is like a vapor of sorts that enters into our life through the ears or eyes. In order for learning to "sink in," it must first travel quite a distance to the heart. In other words, in order for learning to take place, it must first be incorporated into the life, be mixed up with other lessons learned, place its stamp on the heart, and enlarge our store of knowledge and understanding of things. That is, learning must be a matter of the heart and not simply the mastery of words or concepts (though I am pretty insistent on the importance of these things, too).
But my experience with most adults is as follows. When you can actually find someone to listen to you (even in class), which itself is somewhat rare, you have to contend with the "eyes/ears and mouth" cycle, as I call it. Information comes in through eyes or ears and immediately sinks to the mouth, where people want to "talk about it" and, frequently expel it along with their other thoughts. In other words, people may be willing to listen to you, but they don't seem to have much "heart space" for what is being said. Why?
When people hear things that may be interesting or important, it takes a while and a lot of effort to bring what is heard into the heart. And, people resist things that will come that closely to them. People resist these things for a number of reasons. First, they may not be confident of their ability to arrange what is being said in the shelves of materials stored up in their hearts. That is, the addition or acquisition of other "treasures" means that you may have to rearrange the objects on your life's shelves. Second, people are afraid to let things sink in deeply because it takes time for things to sink in. And, in the meantime they have to race around at thousands of miles an hour in order to make sure they have enough goods to live a comfortable lifestyle in America. Third, thinking about something that may affect the heart is a very inefficient process, from the perspective of the "economic person" of 2004. It may reorient your life or some of your perspectives, it may take you quite a while to integrate new learning into your life and, in the meantime, you may have not increased your net worth at all.
Thus, after thinking about the issue a good deal, talking and observing people and spending a lot of my time trying to learn and write, I conclude that people learn reluctantly and almost always because of some bottom line that is directly before them. They aren't very concerned to integrate learnings with the demands of the human heart. Their curiosity is erratic. They would rather live by cliche and watch sports than fashion a finely calibrated and textured life with deep and insightful integrated knowledge.
What to do? Learn and write. Take responsibility for my own learning. Don't worry if anyone cares or if anyone wants to imitate my style. Hope that there is a way to get to the heart of every person that hears me so that they will desire to incorporate my insights into their heart's life. Be not too disappointed if this does not happen. Keep searching for the right words to express life. Live with gratitude that I have the chance to do this. Be pleased when people show desires for knowledge mastery and learning. Express that pleasure to them. Always be working. These are some of my guides, that aid in my learning.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long