Rock of Ages: Structures That Last

Rock of Ages: Structures That Last

Giza. Chichen Itza. Magelang. Three locations where ancient structures stand for thousands of years. The pyramids of Giza have existed for over 4000 years, built out of quarried stones, stacked and shaped into place. El Castillo, the largest pyramid in the Chichen Itza complex in the Yucatan state of Mexico, is made out of rocks forming a 4-sided structure with stairs on each side. There are sculptures of serpents on the sides of the stairs on the northern side. Candi Borobudur, or the Borobudur Temple, in Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia, is an impressive structure of stone carvings of Buddha facing all corners of the earth. The walls are relief panels with carvings that narrate Buddhist cosmology as well as daily living in 9th century Javanese society.

Borobudur Temple

Candi Borobudur, or Borobudur Temple, in Central Java, Indonesia

 

Each of these structures reflects the worldviews of the civilizations that created them. Both their function and aesthetics are filled with meaning, and somehow this deep meaning is communicated to anyone visiting its perimeters. When you come close to these structures, they generate a reaction in the soul.

Pyramid and sphinx

Pyramid and sphinx of Giza, Egypt. Credit: Freeimages

 

In Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down, reportedly one of the influential books that Elon Musk read when he first thought about building SpaceX, structural engineer J. E. Gordon reflects on structures and aesthetics in his first chapter:

 

“…although most artefacts are not primarily concerned with making an emotional or aesthetic effect, it is highly important to realize that there can be no such thing as an emotionally neutral statement. This is true whether the medium be speech or writing or painting or technological design. Whether we mean it or not, every single thing we design and make will have some kind of subjective impact, for good or bad, over and above its overtly rational purpose.”

 

Gordon contrasts the artefacts of the eighteenth century, which “seem to many of us to be at least pleasing and sometimes incomparably beautiful,” to the works of modern man—modern is a relative term–which is not so much filled with “active ugliness” as the “prevalence of the dull and the commonplace.”

 

“…man does not live by safety and efficiency alone, and we have to face the fact that, visually, the world is becoming an increasingly depressing place… Far too seldom is the heart rejoiced or does one feel any better or happier for looking at the works of modern man.”

 

It seems to me that the grandeur of exceptional structures lies in the spiritual aspect of the work, which is often the source of excellence that makes them out of the ordinary.

 

Ancient Engineering

 

On why these ancient structures last, I am toying with conjectures here. I’d defer to the civil engineers and architects to supply the scientific explanation.

 

Pyramids and temples were built by their creators to last. Whether it was a tribute to kings, ancestors, or gods, these structures reflected their beliefs about life and the afterlife. This to them was a perpetual reality that would never change. Why would it, if this was how the world worked? The bodies of past Pharaohs were not placed there temporarily, nor Buddhas arbitrarily placed in random directions. They were designed with intention of permanence.

 

If these structures were meant to last, they needed to be built in a certain way, much like the difference in attitude and approach when I know I’m making something for temporary use or for ever. Intent drives content, which in turn informs method.

 

The pyramid-like shape of these 3 structures to me seems very stable, although I would here open myself to counter examples that show other equally stable shapes. Admittedly, these 3 examples are simply based on my personal exposures, a lecture I heard recently on Egyptology, my recent visit to Chichen Itza, and my visit and pride in a notable accomplishment of my home country’s past civilizations.

 

Gordon also writes that pre-metallic structures of the past probably ‘force’ their engineers to think deeply about loads and stresses on the materials at their disposal:

 

“To make structures without the benefit of metals requires an instinct for the distribution and direction of stresses which is by no means always possessed by modern engineers; for the use of metals, which are so conveniently tough and uniform, has taken some of the intuition and also some of the thinking out of engineering.” 

 

Certainly there were numerous ancient structures that didn’t last, whether to due structural or environmental causes. Earthquakes, floods, and everything that could happen over the span of 4000 years might destroy even the most superior knowledge of stress distribution on solids. This, though, only makes our respect and admiration grow for the few structures that have survived history and the “primitive technologies” that created them.

 

Of Matter and Structure

 

There is also, however, something to be said about the materials used in these trans-millennial structures. They were made out of stones, probably because stones were the most readily available materials with load-bearing strength before the discovery, manipulation, and production of metals. Is it also possible that this choice material contributes to their survival?

 

Since metallic structures are relatively younger, it is quite unfair to compare stony and metallic structures on equal grounds. We don’t know (or, rather, I don’t know) whether metals will outlast stones, as in, if two pyramids were built, one with stone and one with metals in the same location, which one would last longer? We only have one version of history, so all we can do is credit the ancient glories to the stone structures.

 

As building materials, stones have notable advantages. They are by nature durable, fireproof, and nonreactive. They are not the easiest to work with due to their weight and non-uniformity, and they don’t provide good insulation (not good for places with extremely hot or cold weather). But their resistance to fire and moisture is a clear strength, unlike wood that is in fact fuel for fire and prone to decay, or metals that bend and melt due to heat. Stones will not rust, since the molecules are mostly oxidized and thus will not react with air or water. Further, it can be restored. Many of the ancient stone structures were once lost and re-discovered after many years of abandonment. But careful restoration could bring their old glories back, provided that enterprising people didn’t chip them away, and moss could be removed from stones. Compare this with common houses in North America, which, HGTV tells me, can undergo so much decay and destruction from being abandoned for a few years.

 

The Character of Stones

 

In the Biblical account, there is a section that flies over human history by giving each era a certain character through material symbols. In the book of Daniel chapter 2, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had a dream which he forgot, and decreed his counselors to reproduce the dream and interpretation. Failure to do so would result in death. Daniel, a Hebrew prophet in the king’s court prayed to God and was granted the vision and its explanation.

 

The vision was of a statue with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly of brass, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay. Each section symbolized a kingdom, gold for Babylon, silver for Media and Persia, bronze for Greece, iron for Rome, and iron and clay for divided Rome.

 

At the end of the vision was a part that was a bit strange and discontinuous. A stone “cut out without hands” appeared, stroke the feet of the statue, and crumbled the whole structure down. This stone represented the kingdom of God, hence the discontinuity from the materials in the statue–metals refined by human civilizations–was fitting here.

 

Yet the choice of a stone to represent the kingdom of God was rather anticlimactic, wouldn’t you say? I would probably choose something majestic, like a big giant diamond to crush the entire human civilization. A plain old stone is neither flashy nor valuable.

 

Interestingly, however, the commentary continues to highlight that this last kingdom’s distinct characteristic was that it would last forever. Daniel 2:44 says, “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.” The other kingdoms pass away, but this one stays.

 

Perhaps there is something here, given what we know about the material characteristics of rocks and stones. In other places, Biblical references to rocks mean stability, strength and assurance (e.g., building on the rock, rock of salvation, etc). God Himself is referred to as the Rock of Israel.

 

It is not uncommon for the Bible to illustrate the kingdom of God with unusual symbols; a seed, leaven, a net cast into the sea, and numerous other unexpected metaphors. They are often humble, simple, and commonplace. Yet each time, they reveal a secret strength that is not always intuitive to human thinking, like the seed that grows into a tree, where birds can lodge in its branches. The baffling-ness calls its audience to think of reality as God sees it, that not everything is valued according to the marketplace and human commerce.

 

In the choice of a stone in Daniel 2, its durability, strength, and stability certainly reflects a characteristic of God’s kingdom. That sameness yesterday, today, and tomorrow is a key aspect of the Biblical God. I don’t know whether the author of the hymn “Rock of Ages” was thinking along this line, but that phrase is awfully and appropriately fitting.

 

Photo credit: Johnny Loi Photography

How To Be An Excellent Student

How To Be An Excellent Student

This article continues the series on how to be an excellent student and life learner. Read the previous article here: Before Learning: The Role of Awe in Life and Learning and After Learning: The Role of Reflection in Gaining Wisdom.

 

In After Learning, I shared what I wish I had done as a student to grasp the subject of my courses better. Here, I’m sharing tips specifically on how to be an excellent student who is not just smarter, but wiser, knowing how to contextualize and apply the knowledge to real life situations.

 

These are not meant to replace the usual taking notes, completing assignments, and regular studying that are given activities of a student’s life. They are, instead, ways to get the most out of those other activities, be it lectures, assignments, office hours, etc. The goal is primarily to increase and deepen understanding of the subject, which secondarily, I would think, would reflect in the grades. These are also written in the context of a high school, college, or graduate course, but the principles are applicable to other learning contexts.

 

Before the Course

 

Study the syllabus. Your instructor has put together a plan on how she would guide you through a particular subject for the whole semester. This is done with no small effort. The syllabus is the highest level of perspective on everything you will learn. It tells you a lot about how the instructor thinks and what she deems as important. I used to not pay attention to this, to my own detriment, like the table of contents of a book. But in fact, this is a roadmap that, if followed, will guide your way throughout the semester. Study it; pose questions on why it is arranged this way. You can even ask the instructor the why and how she arranges her course during office hours. Let me tell you a secret: most instructors would be thrilled to be asked these questions by a genuine and true inquirer.

 

Studying the syllabus also helps you to know, before coming to lectures, what will be covered on a given day. This way, you won’t be a passive recipient of information, but an engaged, active listener. And an active listener will always absorb and retain more information.

 

Skim the textbook/reading materials. Spend a few minutes to an hour to skim the textbook and reading materials. The purpose of this is to get an initial impression on what you will learn. Read the first and last few paragraphs of each chapter to get a sense of its key ideas, flow, and arrangement of thoughts. When the course eventually gets to each section, your brain will have some memory and familiarity to the subject, and will absorb information better. Psychologically, you’ll be more at ease in facing a more familiar topic than a completely foreign one. If you’re majoring in something that requires loads of reading, skimming will help you retain more insights on the reading materials.

 

During the Course

 

Reflect each day. Ask yourself, what did I learn today? What happened in class? Sometimes we get too busy taking notes, running from one class to another, that we don’t get to absorb what is being taught. Take a few minutes to review the day. Remember, repetition deepens impression.

 

Each week, ask yourself, how does this week’s lessons connect with last week’s? Where are we now in the roadmap? How does it differ or enhance the previous topics? Refer back to the syllabus to see where you are in the context of the whole semester.

 

Converse with classmates, teaching assistants, and instructors about the subject. Ask questions that come up during your personal reflection time, listen to what they think, and synthesize your own conclusions. I may not remember what a lecture covers, but I can usually remember good conversations.

 

Go to office hours. Most instructors and TAs are just waiting for you to come and talk to them. They usually don’t see many students until an assignment is due or before exams. The truth is, they would love to have conversations with students from the beginning of the class. These are people who dedicate their lives to academia. Nothing gives them more joy and fulfillment than seeing students who love to learn. So talk to them. They’re humans, trust me. Ask them about their career, why they chose to be in academia. You may be in for surprises.

 

If you want to take it to the next level, create your own thought process map or chart in organizing the course materials. If you were to teach the course, how would you do it?

 

After the Course

 

Once the semester ends and final exams are over, don’t just discard the materials you’ve learned and dump all memory to oblivion. Spend some time contextualizing the course in the bigger framework of your life education.

 

What are the key principles you learned from the course?

 

Connect the subject with other courses or fields of study. How do they relate to each other? How do they make you a better doctor/engineer/social worker or whatever career you are pursuing? This exercise helps you understand what relevance does this subject have in the world. Write down your thoughts to summarize the course and the whole semester.

 

 

These things don’t have to take a lot of your time; a few minutes here and there will do. And you don’t even have to do all of them. You can start implementing one thing into your daily habits, and add on later. In fact, I would argue any one item would naturally lead to the others, since this is about approaching school as a wisdom seeker. When this self-evaluation becomes a habit, it will change the way you live and learn hereafter.

 

Further reading: 

If you want to learn more on how to be an efficient learner, read How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. It has a brilliant section on how to skim a book!

 

Photo credit: Freekpik

After Learning: The Role of Reflection in Gaining Wisdom

After Learning: The Role of Reflection in Gaining Wisdom

This essay continues the thoughts in a previous essay, Before Learning: The Role of Awe in Life and Learning.

 

If wonder is the beginning of wisdom, perhaps reflection is the other bookend, the process by which we form thoughts, shape opinions, and reach conclusions on the things we learn.

 

If I Could Do School Over

 

If I were to re-do my schooling—I wouldn’t—I would take more time to reflect. Here’s why. Throughout the years of formal education, I tended to do better in final exams than in midterms, because I learned the most when studying for finals. The distinct difference here was the scope of the materials. During finals, I studied the entire curriculum for a given subject, which gave me a narrative of the past semester.

 

Having this big-picture view, I finally understood the context of each individual lesson, why we went through certain subjects, and how they connected to other topics in the class. I knew this then and I know it now: I was always a big-picture learner. I could grasp knowledge better if I knew its context, as if fitting it to a larger puzzle in my mind.

 

In my field, most classes involved solving problems with a multitude of equations. During the semester, it was easy to get lost in what the lecture covered at a particular moment, since the equations looked similar from week to week. How did week 5’s problem differ from week 4? Since the lectures went over nuances of similar problems, it could be hard to discern the differences in real time.

 

It also didn’t help that during lectures, I was too busy copying notes from the board, limiting my attention to the essence of the lecture.

 

But all of these fragmented pieces would come together beautifully during finals (and often not before this). I now understood how to apply the equations in the appropriate time and situation. I could understand the problem formulation, the principles that applied to it, and the method to solve it. This integration, to me, was the pinnacle of learning. I finally grasped what I studied.

 

Yet, truthfully, I did not have to wait until finals for this knowledge-alignment to happen. It could have taken place throughout the semester; I just did not have the wisdom to try seeing the big picture. If I could do school over, I would reflect more to understand the context of what I learned each day.

 

The Growth of the Mind

 

In Before Learning, I mentioned Mortimer Adler’s—author of How to Read a Book—definition of learning as the process by which the gap or inequality between the mind of the teacher and the student is closed. Once this gap is closed, though, equality is reached, and a learner can then evaluate and judge the situation for herself. She may agree or disagree with the teacher, fully or partially. The bottom line is, this post-learning experience is a crucial part in independent thinking–to think for oneself and not be a mere reflector of other people’s thoughts.

 

In reflection, we organize knowledge into a mental framework or worldview. Perhaps before, we only knew one side of an argument, but after learning, we see another side and gain perspective on our original position. Perhaps we gain wider horizons on how the world works. A life of continual learning means a continual shifting of this mental structure, not always drastically, but a shift nonetheless. This is the growth of the mind.

 

The pace of schooling these days could well prevent a student from integrating all these bits of knowledge into a coherent set of insights, if she didn’t take time to reflect. Thus, I’m advocating a carving out of time to do this slow thinking in one’s life schedule.

 

Contextualization and Connection

 

Personally, reflection is about two things: contextualization and connection.

 

Contextualization is about understanding the bigger picture, the context in which a particular subject resides. It’s about answering these questions: Why is this subject important? What problem does it address? What problems does it not address? Are there limitations to its proposed solutions?

 

Usually, this bigger context is a real life issue. In scientific journal papers, the biggest context is usually the introductory paragraph, big statements like curing cancer, solving the energy problem, etc. The subject matter that we study, though, is usually a subset of a subset of the solutions, meaning that there is a cascade of contexts between the biggest picture and our subject matter. Developing this mental framework takes time, but will distinguish those who excel in understanding from regular learners.

 

Connection is about linking the subject matter to other adjacent topics within the same context. How does this material connect with what I already know? Does it complement, expand, or contradict my previous understanding? How about its relationship with other approaches or propositions? What other disciplines are relevant to this subject?

 

This approach applies some divergent thinking. It would also help prevent thinking about something in a single narrative.

 

Maybe there is one more dimension to reflection worth adding here. It’s personalization—how does this learning change me as a person? Am I different? What would I do differently given this new understanding?

 

Reflect to Gain Wisdom

 

There are ways to develop a habit of reflection in life. I’d like to suggest here a few tips on how to do this practically.

 

For students, reflect often on what you learned in class that day. Do it often, daily or weekly (monthly or quarterly is too long, in my opinion). Pushing it further, write down your thoughts—a line or two—each time. This will help you retain information.

 

When the quarter or semester is over, ask yourself, what new understanding did you gain compared to the previous semester? How did the class connect to other subjects? Concurrently, this reflection would also help you find interests and explore a potential career in the future.

 

For the general population, take time to ask yourself, have I learned anything recently? Am I growing? Are my skills developing? Without the structure of formal education, we can get lost in just doing the same things week by week, month by month, and year by year. It’s important to take stock on our growth process in all aspects of life and work.

 

For readers, after reading a book, ask the following questions:

– What did the author propose?

– What problem did he address? What didn’t he address?

– What truths are proposed in the book?

– Do I agree, fully or partially? When does that truth apply, and when does it not apply?

– How am I changed as a result of reading this book?

 

Taking the time to do this instead of rushing to another book will help you remember the content of the book longer. Adler’s books, for example, influenced me in formalizing a structure of post-learning reflection to enhance wisdom. It taught me that there’s work to be done before and after reading a book, and that I am obligated to form an opinion/position.

 

 

Reflection is key in the art of self-learning, serving as guideposts to keep us both motivated and self-aware. If I could share one tenet to live by as a learner, it would be this: Study to be smarter, Reflect to be wiser.

 

Photo credit: FreeImages.com