The Cracker Barrel: Thoughts about learning


Last week our oldest grandchild set off for college. We hugged him, told him how proud he makes us and wished him well. In the days since he left, I've been thinking a lot about the act of learning.

There are many notions of how best to help a person learn. For many years, the dominant theory was pure drill. By repeating something over and over and over, the student was bound (eventually) to find the information drummed, as it were, into his or her memory.

This approach is effective for some kinds of information. Multiplication tables, grammatical rules, the number of days in the various months, etc., are examples of the sort of factual data that is probably best memorized.

But there are many other kinds of information that are better communicated via methods other than sheer drill. Most good teachers instinctively understand this and are careful to avoid falling into the one-method-serves-all way of teaching.

History, for example, is best taught by immersing the student in autobiographies, journals, letters, movies and historical novels that conjure up the sights and sounds and feelings of the times, not by making him memorize hundreds of names and dates.

When it comes to helping students learn about themselves, to explore their inner parts and find out who they are and how they can best make sense of life, the methods once again may change. Involvement with one's senses, with the physical, touchable, smellable, audible aspect of the world, may lead one to insights that would otherwise remain undiscovered.

It's precisely here that sports and art and music and drama have their special value, and any education that deserves the name will include these areas of exposure.

Sadly, for many young folks education seems equated with pressure or boredom or pain. This may be the fault of teachers who bludgeon their way through the textbook, insisting that all be cut, dried and regurgitated onto the exam paper.

But I think it's also the fault of parents and other adults who have taught the younger generation to equate the act of learning with the objective of increasing one's income.

It seems to me that far too much stock has been put in the idea that schooling will automatically result in making more bucks - or even that it should. To my mind, the objective of study ought to be learning, not earning.

The world is filled with millions of fascinating things for us to understand and appreciate, and the act of exploring them ought to trigger laughter and joy, not competition and greed. Our lives are brief, and precious hours shouldn't be wasted doing things we don't enjoy.

In my opinion, the key to making a satisfying income is to find work that you truly love doing. When you care about what you do, the odds are great that you will steadily grow in competence, which in turn will generally guarantee earning a reasonable recompense.

Academic degrees can be important, too, but not nearly as important as the attitude you bring to your daily work.

One final point regarding learning is the idea that there is, in fact, no such thing as "preparation" for life. There is only life itself, that wonderful mysterious thing, at whatever stage you find yourself living it.

And you better darn well live it as vigorously and as gratefully as you can, whether you're in diapers, college, mid-career, retirement, a rest home or anywhere in between.