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.
Just last week, I was in Gili Trawangan, a small island in south central Indonesia east of Bali. If I could take an elongated personal retreat, this would be the place I choose. You can circle the whole island in a few hours by foot or even shorter by bike. There is no motorized vehicle allowed on the island, so you’d get around by walking, biking, or riding a Cidomo, a horse-driven rickshaw.
It’s a WONDERFUL place to be. I could seriously live there for a few months, living the simple life. Wake up, walk, eat, work a bit, snorkel or dive, and hangout with the locals or the multitude of foreigners who visit or live there. Next day, rinse and repeat.
How to Get to Gili Trawangan
Where exactly is Gili Trawangan, you may ask. I’ll show ya.
These are the islands of Bali (left) and Lombok (right), for orientation purposes. To find Gili Trawangan, we’d have to zoom in to the west side of Lombok. It is one of the three tiny islands just above Mangsit in the picture above. You’d have to take a boat from Lombok to get there, which you can charter for a very reasonable fee. Here they are, enlarged.
What to Do in Gili Trawangan
The water was super clear! It was like swimming in an aquarium, and I dare say, better than Hawaii. Even better was the price – $10 for 4 hour-trip! Shoot. You could go everyday for a week and it would cost the same as one snorkeling trip in HI. Four hours, three snorkeling sites around the three islands, plenty of aquatic life and turtles. On the second day, we chartered a private boat to snorkel for 2 hours. Cost: $50. Heaven. (Except in heaven this type of thing would be free).
When they dropped you off at Turtle Point, you know, the point where the turtles are, some of the guys also jumped in to help you find the turtles and yell out when they find them. Local snorkeling guide – pure awesomeness.
In the pursuit of turtles, we got stung by a million of tiny jellyfish. Maybe not a million, but definitely in the hundreds. You couldn’t see them, but it felt like you were being pricked all over your body while swimming. I felt like Marlin in Finding Nemo.
2. Scuba Diving
There are plenty of scuba dive shops on the island, with an abundance of certified dive instructors from around the world who are living the chill type of live on the island. I tried scuba diving for the first time. Kinda scary. Probably because it was too short: ~30 minute in the pool, then off to open water. I freaked out a few times, especially in the beginning. But then underwater, you just gotta rein in the panic attacks. The biggest turtle I saw was during this dive, but I was too stressed out to savor the sight. But I’d do it again.
Many hotels have bikes you can use for free. I found it really relaxing to bike along the path around the island, with the sunset on the horizon. I loved it! No cars, no pollution, no noise, except for the horses.
4. Enjoy the Island Life
It was just…so…chill…
5. Mingle with People – Local and Foreign
Gili Trawangan didn’t feel particularly Indonesian because there were so many foreigners there. It felt like there were more foreigners in sight than the locals, and thus a bit disorienting. But seeing some of these guys was awe-inspiring. They were the backpackers, the teachers in other Southeast Asian countries taking vacation, the entrepreneurs who could work from anywhere in the world, the diving instructors. A good number actually lives there. In my country! I was so jealous.
Jealousy turned into inspiration. Now my brain is churning ideas on how to live that way too…
In conclusion, Gili Trawangan was awesome. The best part: everything was so cheap, especially when converted to US$! There were vacation packages where you could island-hop all the way to Komodo Island for $30/day. Ridic! Next time, I’ll do this.
Indonesia – most fascinating travel destination on earth.
True education means more than the pursual of a certain course of study – Ellen White
Once upon a Princeton semester, I journeyed from the corridors of the Engineering Quadrangle, through the Shapiro Walk, flanked between the glass-windowed, rooftop-gardened ORFE (Operations Research and Financial Engineering) building and the Engineering Library, past the Woodrow Wilson School, and entered the 1879 Hall, where I enrolled in a History of Science course.
I dare say few trod this path, for why would an engineer willingly “inflict” upon themselves the trouble of reading, discussing, and writing papers for a Humanities class, especially when it’s not required?
As for me, I was simply feeling exploratory. It is also worth mentioning that I suck at Humanities classes. I’m not particularly good at writing Humanities papers, I dread class discussions, and I lack the skill to ask the right analytical questions for the materials at hand.
Although the course title bore the word “Science,” the class felt worlds away from my daily reality over at the EQuad. It was philosophical, historical–for a lack of a better description–and naturally, I struggled, but managed, to keep up.
You could say it was a detour from my academic orbit.
The Siloed Education
What was most fascinating about this experience, however, was not how foreign the content of the class was to me. Instead, it was my full ignorance that the Philosophy department was housed in a building that I passed by almost every day. I had no idea about what took place in this space that I was familiar with.
Institutions of learning are architecturally organized by departments and disciplines. Each lives within their own space, with occasional crossing in some interdisciplinary efforts. This makes perfect sense in terms of collaboration efforts and administrative activities within the department, minimizing the travel time for frequent internal meetings between faculty members and the student bodies. For the sciences, it makes sense to build laboratory infrastructures in localized areas.
This architectural layout reflects the realities of modern day knowledge, which is segmented by disciplines. As a result, though, students rarely pass through buildings that are not their home departments. More importantly, students rarely interact with those in other fields, especially as they delve deeper into their majors in the latter years of undergraduate studies, and more so in graduate studies. It seems to me that the deeper we go into our academic pursuit, the more disconnected we are to others outside of our circuit.
Even though we occupy the same spaces, namely the university, our realities are tangential to each other, co-existing but barely touching,
Assuming that everyone who reads this was born within the last 200 years, this separation of disciplines in education systems is all that we know. It is simply the way our world is organized, and it is hard to imagine an alternative.
The compartmentalization of knowledge, however, is a relatively recent construct in human history, designated to organize the growing body of academic knowledge during the last two centuries. Beginning in the early 19th century, following the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, and coinciding with the Industrial Revolution, the idea that specialties in a single area (whether in education or manufacturing processes) can produce much gain and efficiency took off.
The fruits of this compartmentalization have multiplied and reproduced spectacularly. Each field has discovered much depth and vastness in its subjects and the benefits are plentiful. Advances in health, medicines, and technologies had increased life expectancies; engineering practices empowered life conveniences and mass production of goods; economics and market understanding have incentivized development worldwide.
Yet, even with this vast body of knowledge, there are still problems that are difficult to address, partly because of the segmented nature of our expertise.
An Argument for Integration
Edgar Morin, French philosopher and sociologist, eloquently explains why these silos of knowledge are imperfect.
See the full interview here.
For one, it has troubles with addressing complex problems with the proper complexity. These are the ones with vast scope, like poverty, the inefficient distribution of food around the world, climate change, environmental degradation, pollution and waste, social justice issues, etc. By nature, these problems require the interplay of multiple disciplines.
Morin argues that there is a need to contextualize knowledge–historically, geographically–“inserting it into the whole [reality] to which it belongs.” For example, “economists who have developed a precise social science based on calculations, are powerless in the face of crises” because humans don’t just obey economic laws, but also many other laws beyond economics.
In a particular poignant sentence, Morin says, “While calculation is useful, it cannot comprehend the suffering and the human problems of our lives.” You cannot calculate human suffering.
The tendency to tell single narratives–seeing and slicing a problem exclusively with a singular point of view–is, I think, stemmed from these separations of disciplines. We don’t know what we don’t know, so how can pivot our perspective?
Does this, then, cause us to miss opportunities at solving complex problems with cohesive solutions that would not solve one and create another problem?
What if, the assumption that learning needs to take place in only one department is challenged? Can education be multifaceted? And what kind of fruits would it produce in society?
Perhaps the more pertinent questions are those posed to the individual. How can we be conscientious learners, who can both learn and contextualize knowledge? How do we make sure, while we are submerged in our respective fields, that we remember the full reality, that life is greater than just our world?