Read Part 2 of this essay here.
What is learning? In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler defines it concisely as the process by which a mind passes from understanding less to understanding more. Here, he employs the terms “learning” and “understanding” to refer to more than gaining new information, but also wisdom and insights on certain timeless truths. This learning is not identical to schooling, since it covers a greater time span than conventional schooling years–a lifetime.
A process from understanding less to understanding more implies that there is a certain inequality between the mind of the learner and the source of insight, at least at the beginning. (Since Adler is writing specifically about books, the source of insight is the mind of the book writer.) The writer must have something that can increase the learner’s understanding. Learning then is the closure of that gap such that the learner’s understanding approaches the author’s.
First, there is initial inequality in understanding. The writer must be “superior” to the reader in understanding, and his book must convey in readable form the insights he possesses and his potential readers lack. Second, the reader must be able to overcome this inequality in some degree, seldom perhaps fully, but always approaching equality with the writer… In short, we can learn only from our “betters.” We must know who they are and how to learn from them.
Following this premise, a book that is completely understandable to a reader–meaning its intelligibility is equal to the reader–cannot enhance the reader’s understanding.
There is the book; and here is your mind. As you go through the pages, either you understand perfectly everything the author has to say or you do not. If you do, you may have gained information, but you could not have increased your understanding. If the book is completely intelligible to you from start to finish, then the author and you are as two minds in the same mold. The symbols on the page merely express the common understanding you had before you met.
If that initial inequality between two minds is needed, then a learner must first get to that stage of awareness before learning can happen. She must know that she understands less that she should or would like. How does one get to this place?
One way is another person telling her that she needs to learn, like in the case of a child when her parents tell her why she needs to go to school. Another way, among many others, is by an encounter with a piece of information or a situation that awakens her interest and curiosity.
This awareness, though, is more than factual, because it takes a degree of humility and curiosity to go from knowing that she needs more understanding, to admitting it, to subjecting herself willingly to another mind. It is not uncommon to refuse to understand something one doesn’t care about.
Yet another aspect to this learning dynamic, a twin to the concept of humility, is admiration–the first lowering oneself, and the other exalting another person. Take the case of a man who thinks he’s superior than anyone else, and has no need that anyone should teach him. Factually, many are more enlightened than him, though maybe not all, but in some subjects. But because of his perception, he exempts himself from the need to learn from others. It’s hard to learn from someone you don’t respect and admire.
In this sense, learning is not simply a mental operation, it is also relational. The learner must always think that someone must have something better.
The Role of Awe
Take away admiration and there will be no learning. Interestingly, there’s much emphasis on critical thinking as the substance of intelligence in modern education, rightly so, because it is very important to examine the truthfulness of any knowledge that we encounter. But this is not the only mode of learning. In critical thinking, one is comparing what she perceives to the principles that already exist in her mind. The subject matter is being examined in a framework, and that framework must have already been in place. It requires the presence of other knowledge in the mind and thus cannot be the beginning of learning. The question then is, How did that first knowledge get in?
In his insightful book, Man is Not Alone, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that awe is necessarily the beginning of knowledge.
Standing eye to eye with being as being, we realize that we are able to look at the world with two faculties–with reason and with wonder. Through the first we try to explain or to adapt the world to out concepts, through the second we seek to adapt out minds to the world. Wonder rather than doubt is the root of knowledge… to doubt is to question that which we have accepted as possibly true a moment ago… But if we must know in order to question, if we must entertain a belief in order to cast doubt upon it, then doubt cannot be the beginning of knowledge.
Again, Heschel describes the difference between learning by awe and learning by critical thinking.
Wonder goes beyond knowledge… We are amazed at seeing anything at all; amazed not only at particular values and things but at the unexpectedness of being as such, at the fact that there is being at all… Even before we conceptualize what we perceive, we are amazed beyond words, beyond doubts… When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question.
The first instances of learning, when the learner is subjected to such wonder that she is filter-less and ready to receive whatever comes, take place because of awe and admiration. Much of this happens to us during childhood, where everything was a wonder. Yet is that the only period when this can take place? Are we to abandon this mode of learning as adults? If we were to commit to a life of learning, the answer to this question must be No.
Esteem Others as Better
Those familiar with religious literature would perhaps be familiar with this injunction:
…in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Phil 2:3
There’s much wisdom in this exhortation, especially in the context of learning as a lifestyle. If learning were to be a livelong pursuit, then a continual attitude of humility is required, since one must always seek to recognize what she hasn’t understood yet. She needs to retain awe and admiration in life, to find her “betters” and learn from them.
This attitude says that one can learn from every single person, though younger, less experienced, no matter their status or cultures in society. It’s not blind admiration, but a mentality to glean wisdom from all circumstances.
The person that admires the most, I think, learns the most. My recommendation to you, then, thinkers, is to carve out space and time for wonder, awe, and admiration in your learning journey.
Photo credit: Paul Leach