Tuesday, June 28, 2005

How To Learn

Why you want to know so much. Is it just to keep up with the intellectual Joneses? Many "smart" people just skim the surface of subjects so that they can sound smart and drop names and ideas into conversation. It's a sort of game. If you try to get into a really deep conversation with them -- if you ask too many questions -- they get defensive.

If you want to learn so that you'll really be a smarter, more well-rounded person, then you first have to cast off some baggage. You need to trash most of the academic mindset (if your experience in school was anything like mine). School trains us to think of learning as a chore. We learn and study because it is "good for us." Scholarship becomes like eating fiber. Ugh!

The only reason to learn (assuming you're not doing it to impress or to get a job) is because you enjoy it. You won't enjoy it until you stop thinking of it as a chore.

Yes, the HUGE amount of material out there can be a problem. Where do you start? It ceases to be a problem if you make learning playful. Act like you would at a buffet with too many dishes to eat. Just dip in and grab a snack at random -- one that catches your eye or delights your nose.

There is no difference between highbrow and lowbrow except for snobbery. (A cheese sandwich can be just as tasty as caviar!) So read a comic book, then read King Lear, then watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, then listen Beethoven's 9th Symphony, then read a history of ancient Rome, then listen to The Beach Boys....

All the time, I hear people say, “I don’t really know if I liked that book or not” or “I can’t decide whether that movie was good or bad.” This is really really really really sad. You DO know how to judge whether a novel is good or bad. It's good if it gives you pleasure (or pain or some other interesting sensation). Perhaps you've just been brainwashed into believing one must get some sort of deep (social/political?) meaning from a book in order for it to be good. Why should that be?

There is NO difference between a Shakespeare play and a cheap western, except the writer's skill at putting words together in a way that evokes images & sensations – and this is all the difference in the world~ Judge "great books" by the same standards that you judge genre works. Did you HAVE to turn the page to see what happened next? Did Cordelia remind you of your sister? If so, it was a good book.

I'm not saying “The Brady Bunch” is on par with “King Lear.” The Brady Bunch is bad because it's poorly written (clich├ęs, lack of imagination, etc.) If it was well-written, it would be good. (Check out great genre TV, like HBO's "Deadwood" to see how it can be every bit as good as highbrow stuff.)

Once you’ve cleared your mind of all the silly ideas you learned (about learning) in school, you can begin your real education. Here are some helpful hints:

1) In addition to reading and watching, listen to people. When you meet people who know more than you, ask questions. Get over your fear of looking stupid. Ask questions about the simplest things. What does that word you just said mean? Was that before or after WWII? Was that king kind of like Michael Jackson?

2) Fill you mind and senses. Cram as much into your head as possible (assuming you're doing it because you enjoy it), there are some shortcuts. There are many times I want to read when I can't (i.e. crushed and standing on a crowded subway). So I keep my iPod loaded with recorded books from audible.com. (I generally listen to a classic, then a mystery novel, then some philosophy, then a sci-fi...). When I finally get a seat, I turn off the iPod and crack open a real-life book.

3) There are some great resources, like (in the US) The Discovery Channel, The History Channel, etc. One amazing resource is "In Our Time," a BBC radio show which you can download or listen to on the web. Each week they discuss a new topic from history or the world of ideas.

4) I'm convinced that keeping up with current events kills too much time. It's great for keeping up with the Joneses, though. So-called "smart" people nowadays seem to spend 90% of their time being "smart" about politics (and belittling people who aren't), and maybe 10% of their time researching other areas of art, history, science, etc.

Try giving up (or cutting down) on GWB, The Middle East, etc. Try picking up a Chekhov play or a book on knitting or a Beatles CD or an Agatha Christy novel...

I don't oppose politics (though admittedly it's not my favorite subject). Information is neutral. Politics is just as good/bad/interesting/boring as art, history, etc. And I agree, everything connects/informs everything else.

As a practical matter, though, I have found that for many people, politics (or current events) becomes so addictive that it drives out everything else. That's fine if you have a singluar passion for politics. Then you're a specialist.

But I know a guy -- a really smart guy -- who moans every time he sees me carrying a book that he wishes he had time to read as much as I do. Both of us work the same number of hours, both of us are in childless marriages, so what's his problem? I talked to him about it once, and he told me he feels like he "has" to read the NY Times cover-to-cover each day. Which takes up all his reading time.

There's also what I (in an unfair way) think of as "old man, newspaper syndrome." Do you know anyone afflicted with it? I'm talking about those guys who say, "I used to read all sorts of things when I was younger, but now I find I don't have the patience for anything except the newspaper." And that's all they read (or they watch CNN Headline News hour-after-hour, waiting for the tiniest change in each story.)

People say I’m a bit loony on this subject. Guilty! Because I see the possibility for "old man, newspaper syndrome in myself." Also because when I went to school there was a sort of political snobbery in which being in the know about politics was shorthand for looking like a smart person. (It reminded me in a sickening way of times past, when the women would leave the table so that the men could have a serious discussion about events of the world. Personally, I would have stayed with the women and discussed art, music and the social scene.)

But by going-to-far in the other direction, I've developed some bad traits. I am selfish about what enters my mind. One DOES need to know something about current events in order to vote intelligently. And I never do know enough.

5) Create something. It doesn’t have to be great art. It CAN be great art. It can also be a cake. I find that stimulating material leads to an urge to create (mind-numbing material -- i.e. TV Land -- doesn't). If I watch a really good movie or read a really good book, it makes me want to cook, draw, write... It makes me want to express something. Conversely, creating my own work wants me to experience the works of others.

MOST IMPORTANT: learning should be about intellectual PLAY. If it's not playful, you won't enjoy it. If you don't enjoy it, why do it? Have fun!


J.D. said...

You know, I enjoy reading what you've written. I, too, am in a childless marriage. I, too, have a tendency to read and think and write too much. I, too, like to dwell on topics like Quality, Art, and Beauty.

I can't imagine my life without reading.

Your comments about being "playful" while learning seem spot-on. I'm a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none. I'm always taking up new hobbies, always trying to learn new skills. My approach when trying to do something like learn Latin or teach myself woodworking? A book shotgun. I gather together stacks of volumes and I absorb as much as I can from each of them. It's not a very effective approach, I suppose, but it sure is fun.

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