Learning

Margaret and I have been fans of Michael Bérubé for ages; I especially remember an article of his in the Village Voice from around the year 1990, in which he offers a clear-sighted perspective on the effects of “postmodernism“ etc. on the well-being of Western Civilization. Margaret, in turn, read Life As We Know It with enthusiastic appreciation; we gave copies to several people, and we have an extra copy on hand right now, waiting for someone who seems to need it.

When Bérubé started blogging, I added him to my bookmarks right away, and someday I’ll get around to blogrolling him (though I maintain a consistent track record for sluggishness in modifying my blogroll). I knew a moment of delight when he left a comment a few months ago (he was gently correcting my recollection of his institutional affiliation).

All that is background for my presenting the following two links to posts that describe ways that Michael’s son Jamie has been learning since Michael wrote Life As We Know It. These stories encourage us to remember how much more expansively people are ready to learn than even encouraging, loving supporters such as Jamie’s dad necessarily imagine — and Margaret’s and my experience amply confirms the anecdotal evidence that these posts provide.

Not only will people always surprise you by their hunger and capacity to learn, but their learning frequently (I’m tempted to say “always”) depends for its quality on their desire to learn. Again, my experience confirms this, as a learner and teacher and as a home-school dad. Few things stick with me from high school as well as the probability theory I taught myself, the soliliquies I memorized walking to and from school, the basics of international relations, organizational politics, and diplomacy that I learned in Student United Nations and the Strategic Gaming club. We grounded our approach to teaching Nate, Si, and Pippa on that premise; I’ve wished any number of times I could teach seminarians that way (and I’m always looking for ways to approximate that more closely). I don’t think we should abolish schools and classes in favor of un-organized general learning, but it would take a lot to convince me that the goal of learning is best served by the assembly-line, compartmentalized structure that institutional education has taken in the U.S. and its sphere of influence.

By all means, let’s support teachers. They [we] need all the help they can get. And let’s remember that learning doesn’t depend on teachers, but teachers contribute to, enhance, enrich, catalyze, provoke learning in vital ways, and they [we] do so best when all of us devote deliberate energy and respect to the ideal of learning, continually, deeply, in company with other eager learners. When we consign “teaching” and “learning” to factory schools and limited, scheduled hours, we impoverish everyone affected by our culture (but especially the people hungriest to learn).

Jamie teaches us that’s another Paul we can’t afford to forget.

1 comment / Add your comment below

  1. The subject of the how and why of learning has been pretty interesting to me over the last year or two. I guess anyone who does teaching of any kind should be interested in the area. One of the things that has impressed me in this subject is that while desire, as you say, is the key component in learning, there are quite a few things a teacher or parent (or teacher/parent in your case) can do either to encourage or to discourage the desire to learn. And one of the things I’ve heard from quite a few writers in this area is that, ironically, attempts to make learning “fun” or “easier” typically decrease the desire to learn, as well as decreasing the retention of material learned.

    In Doomed to Fail, Paul Zoch gives an account of the development of educational theory in America and towards the end contrasts it with the prevailing idea in japanese education. I was fascinated with the latter. The idea in Japan is not to make, say, math interesting, but to present it clearly and in a context where it is shown to be of great importance for personal advancement. The responsibility for learning is not on the teacher but on the student (and his parents). The system teaches that the key component of education is work. A student who falls behind is simply told, “keep working harder and you’ll do fine.”

    This gets into debates about the nature of personal responsibility and how that is taught (and functions) in various communities, but it has been very interesting to me.

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