A Little Learning VIII

gettyimages-590648955I think by now my point should be clear: to pursue excellence you must overcome obstacles, but in a very peculiar way. You need to devote yourself to overcoming each obstacle as though nothing else mattered, as though it were a matter of fundamental importance. But you also need to remember that none of the obstacles you overcome actually matter in the least, and that they have been created ex nihilo solely to force you towards more strenuous exertions.

If nothing else mattered but the obstacle, it would of course be perfectly natural to look for the quickest, surest, easiest way to overcome it. But if the “quickest, surest, easiest” way isn’t quite as strenuous, or doesn’t exercise quite as many of your developing skills, such a solution will rob the exercise of any benefit. On the other hand, if you are vividly aware that the only purpose of the exercise is to exert effort, it becomes difficult to exert more effort to overcome the obstacle than you would have exerted without the obstacle.

It takes a certain kind of mental fortitude to respect the spirit of a rule, rather than its literal meaning (only) or the consequences of disobedience (only).

The correct attitude requires, if anything, more discipline in academics than in other pursuits. The value of knowledge is much more ambiguous than the value of better-defined skills. Typically skill X has a clear instrumental value: it allows you to do Y. Why doing Y matters is neither here nor there. The mere fact that Y exists as an aspiration for beginners who are practicing X gives their training structure and focus. If they can’t yet use X to do Y, they haven’t yet mastered X. This creates clarity about the outlines of the skill, pricks inflated self-assessments, and strengthens honest self-confidence.

Knowledge lacks this clarity. For one thing, the instrumental structure of any program of study tends to look more like a web than a pyramid. If you are, say, studying a language, understanding the language’s grammar will make it easier to read, which will make it easier to learn new vocabulary, which will make it easier to converse, which will further solidify your understanding of its grammar. So the ultimate purpose of learning more grammar is… learning more grammar?

Yes and no, yes and no. Out of all “academic” studies, learning a language is probably the closest to athletic training in that it has a clear instrumental significance. At the end of the process you are proficient (maybe even fluent) in a language which you didn’t speak before.

Even so, learning a language has a web-like structure rather than a pyramidal structure. When you memorize a new word, you won’t be fluent after you’ve learned the new word. And while the new word may be useful in a number of  other ways, none of those uses lead directly to fluency either. (In fact, there is no single discrete step after which you have finally and decisively achieved “proficiency” or “fluency”.)

The advantages of the new word are much more diffuse than that. It will give you a vague sense of the meaning of thousands of sentences you wouldn’t have understood at all, otherwise. It will make thousands of other previously-vague sentences crystal clear. Your ignorance of these thousands-upon-thousands of sentences never would have inconvenienced you very greatly. If you hadn’t tried to learn a new language, you probably never would have been aware of your ignorance. So it seems peculiar to say “You should memorize this new word, it will be really useful — you’ll slightly understand thousands of sentences you don’t need to understand at all!”

What’s the point of vaguely understanding a few thousand sentences in a foreign language? Well, maybe it will make it easier for you to learn and remember other words (and grammatical paradigms, and stress patterns, and so on). What’s the point of understanding those words, then? To clarify a few thousand more irrelevant sentences? Okay, fine: but then what’s the point of the whole cycle, though?

bird252520caught252520in252520web252520spider252520approaching25252001_thumb25255b225255dYou’re weaving a web. It may seem pointless when you lay down the first strand, but by the end you may be catching surprising things.

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