It is common to spend the most of one’s youth in school — presumably learning something. The financial cost for primary education is a few hundred thousand dollars, borne by the state, plus 13 years or so of the student’s life. College learning costs another $50,000 to $200,000, borne by the student, plus another 4-6 years of life. The indication that you’ve learned something appears, in many majors by the ability to get a job that pays more than the school financial cost. But there is also a sense that you’ve learned something, and this is perhaps the only reward for students of film, religion, or archeology. My question is based mostly on this part: what is this learning. Is it the same as knowledge, a set of facts, or satisfaction — perhaps you could be as satisfied by ignorance or drugs. How do you evaluate the spiritual payback from 4-6 years of college? I don’t have all the answers, but ask to exercise my ignorance.
It would seem to me that an important standard of learning is that it should develop the mind and not corrupt it. But how do you recognize the difference? it seems to me one should leave with a set of mental skills should be new to you, recognizable to a normal outsider, and somewhat useful, as in the poem “Botany” even if you don’t use it. I’m not sure if the skills have to be true, by the way, or how useful they have to be. Perhaps developing a new confusion is better than having false notions — knowing that you doubt something.
If you’ve been educated in music, it seems to me you should be able to make sounds that appear pleasant to a normal listener; if you’ve been educated in mechanics, you should be able to make machines that work, and if you’ve been educated to think… perhaps then you should be able to walk into a discussion about something you once thought was true, and show that it is really false to an extent that others would accept it (and act upon it?). That is, my suspicion is that learning should involve an identifiable change –not only internal satisfaction, and I also suspect learning the new must involve unlearning the old.
And that leads us to facts and methods: knowledge. Facts are good, they are the fuel and substance of learning. Without facts there is nothing for the learning to attach to. But facts are often wrong — the ignorance of others, and even when right, they can be deceptive. If you’ve learned the moon is made of rock, or out of green cheese, it’s pretty much the same unless there is a reason to think the fact you’ve learned is true, and unless you’ve a good understanding of what the fact ‘means.’ I can imagine a rock that is organic (a gall stone) and less solid than some (old) green cheese. The word rock or cheese must mean something to you to be a fact. Similarly in all subjects; if you learn that Shakespeare is a better writer than Poe, you should have a reason to believe it, and a clear understanding of the word ‘better’ in this context.
Turning to the knowledge of methods. It seems to me that learning a new method of thought, action, or argument is a necessary component of learning– one might even call it virtue, but this too seems to have limitations if it is not directed to use. A person is half-educated if he leaves school knowing how to do geometric proofs, but never doing any, or knowing how to run a great business, but never running one. A science graduate should at least be able to use the techniques learned to demonstrate that the world is made of atoms, and that the sun does not circle the earth and perhaps more. An argument can be made for traditional education areas of logic, rhetoric, mathematics, and dialectic. But these seem useless unless they are applied to a worthy end. One should do more with the new methods than to win drawing-room arguments.
There should be a moral component of learning too, but here I feel less certain in describing it, or describing how it should be taught. Theodore Roosevelt said that “An uneducated man can steal from a rail car, “but an educated one can steal the whole railroad.” but perhaps stealing the railroad isn’t such a bad thing if it’s done legally. And as I don’t quite know when the honest stock deal is moral, I’m even more in the dark as to how to teach one to recognize the moral from the immoral in these situations. Two thoughts here: a student deserves some satisfaction from his or her learning and (from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics) to be moral, the student has to earn an honest income. One who can not earn a living is bound to steal from someone sooner or later.
A final sign of learning, and perhaps it’s crown, is creativity, the ability to come to new understandings and develop new things. To do this productively requires some knowledge of the past plus an indescribable view of the future. A spark? A divine madness? Schools do not seem to be able to teach that, but it can help or hinder by either encouraging it, or beating it down. If you did not possess this ability when you entered school, you are unlikely to leave with it, even if you just did drugs, but school can teach one to direct the spark productively.
I’ve noticed that our high schools focus little on the above areas, perhaps because they are hard to test. Rather classes aim to the exams, and the exams test (as best I can tell), memorization, aptitude, and exposure. A surprisingly large fraction of our students leave diagnosed as ADHD. Still, strangely, our graduates do better than the Europeans.
Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, December 29, 2014 (I taught in college). Here’s some advice I wrote for my 16 year old daughter in high school.