A Little Learning VII

One way or another, you need to break the illusion that you’re trying to run a sprint. Once you free yourself from the illusion, you can finally start to free yourself from the short-term trivialities which previously distracted you.

Short-term is a relative matter, of course. Any goal can be short-term relative to a larger objective within which it is a subgoal, while still having a long-term relationship to its own subgoals. This can make it difficult to figure out how to direct your studies fruitfully. If you want to figure out which of two alternative priorities is a short-term triviality, you can always trick yourself into believe that the immediate, urgent subgoals which fit into some higher-order, long-term goals are “short-term” and the goal which you have for next week or two is “long-term”.

Unfortunately, this means that a certain kind of cleverness actually hinders learning. When we face challenges, we face a cognitive trade-off between brainstorming new ideas about how to overcome the challenge and careful scrutiny of the solutions we already have (figuring out their strengths and weaknesses, rehearsing how best to implement each, and ultimately choosing and executing the best solution). If someone has a knack for finding quirky solutions that unravel knotty problems which resist more obvious methods, we call him “creative” or even “genius”.

indigo-closeupBut the problem is that in the modern age you spend 1/4 to 1/3 of your life undergoing various forms of education and training, during which your trainers will set challenges for you to overcome. The challenges are not their for their own sake, but for you to exert effort overcoming them.

If all children were born retarded, they would think about these challenges with the simple-minded docility their teachers hope for. Unfortunately they aren’t and they don’t. Some see through the futility of the training exercises too easily, stop caring, and stop trying. Others take the challenge seriously, but only because they have seen through the futility of the training exercise and spotted the utility of some short-term extrinsic reward they’ll get for succeeding. Thus, they want to overcome the challenge; they may even want to overcome as many challenges as possible; and the want to do it with minimum effort.

No one, I hope, would start strength training and then re-paint the labels on the barbells to help their lifts. No one would drive a hydraulic forklift into their gym in order to lift more weight. But nine times out of ten a clever student who has figured out a clever way to do more schoolwork in less time, a student who prides himself on his ability to ignore all the little distractions and focus on his long-term goal of getting an A on his report card next month, is doing exactly this.

For example: when we are little we are told that if someone doesn’t know what a word means, he should consult a dictionary. However, most children quickly learn that with many words, even if they are unsure of the meaning, the precise meaning of the word doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence very much. Further, the precise meaning of the sentence doesn’t change the precise meaning of the paragraph, which doesn’t change the precise meaning of the chapter, which doesn’t mean the precise meaning of the book.

And as far as the book goes — its significance is not to be understood, but to be transmogrified into a book report, whose only significance is the grade it earns, whose only significance is its effect on the child’s final grade for the semester, whose only significance is whether his parents are cross when they see the report card.

Therefore the very cleverest children see that the problem posed by a difficult book is to be solved not by looking up words and understanding the reading, but by ignoring those seductive short-term solutions to the immediate problem (reading the book) because they are inefficient solutions to the ultimate problem (receiving a good grade).

But the clever little tyke has shot himself in the foot. He is thinking on far too short a time-scale. Every word he understands will appear in books he reads for the rest of his life — and the more he understands, the more he will read, and the more useful each of those words will ultimately be. His grade will have no further ramifications after the school years ends, except insofar as they are correlated to other useful traits. (Traits like conscientiousness. And cleverness.)


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