The Toolbox (A Little Learning IX)

As the years go by I’ve switched between multiple learning-strategies. Invariably when I experimented with a new strategy, and it worked, I would accept that as a vindication of its inventor’s explanation of the logic of his strategy. Then I would shake my head in despair that I hadn’t heard of it much sooner and try to share my amazing “discovery” with anyone who cared to listen.

Until the next strategy came along.

It took me a really long time to understand what was going on. There may be some study-methods that are strictly superior to others (especially for certain purposes or certain students). But in general, different approaches are just different. No advantage without a drawback. The eye can only see so much, the mind can only think so much, there are only so many hours in the day. Intellectual discipline is mostly about training your eye to ignore some aspects of a topic in favor of others.

When I was still a teenager a mentor mocked the editorial introductions that are typically found in front of classical books, and encouraged me to skip straight to the main text. What a revelation! I had been struggling with those dry, meaningless introductions with zero interest or insight. By the time I got to the main text, I was frazzled and running out of time. “Oh,” I thought, “there’s a reason why we read collections of Aristotle’s writings and not collections of editors’ introductions to Aristotle.”

Jumping straight into the text, I landed on my own two feet and quickly oriented myself to the questions that motivated the author. I worked out what was slightly puzzling (and finally started to learn how to reason) and skimmed over what was truly strange. I misunderstood most of it (not that I necessarily realized that at the time…), but I was enjoying the material I was studying, and finishing with time to go back, review, and reflect.

Many, many years later I had the opposite discovery. After coming back to certain of my favorite authors over and over again, trying to clarify my ideas, I realized that my experience of the editorial introductions was now entirely different. I zipped through them quickly and in the process was reminded of a great deal I had forgotten, learned many points that I should have been aware of already, and was able to neatly skim over various traditional or popular interpretations to see where my own reading resembled or diverged from these.

The editorial introductions weren’t useless, they were just useless to someone who was starting from zero. It was as though I had been browsing the index, from A to Z, before starting on the main body of the text. A good index is the literary equivalent of a sniper rifle, but it takes a long time to learn enough to have a reason to use one.

You can make the same point about reading history for understanding versus reading history for dates, names, and facts. You can’t possibly absorb history before you have some sense of why it’s interesting or important. At that stage it’s key to know, for example, that you can “repeat the material in your own words”, i.e. say the same thing multiple different ways (because what you grasped was an idea, not a sequence of letters). But when you’re saying something in your own way, you’re definitely dropping out all the details (1715, Sans-Souci, William of Moerbeke), because the details are precisely what can’t be changed without changing the facts. And you’re dropping out nuance and precision, because “your own understanding” of new material can at best be one of several reasonable opinions whereas the point of carefully piling up the evidence into a rigorous case is show that each plausible alternative to your thesis is ruled out by the available evidence.

Personally, I got used to learning material this way, reconstructing it in my own words to digest it. Then for a long time I was frustrated and handicapped by my spectacularly poor mastery of the detail. It turns out that once you start to fill in the gaps in your knowledge, you start to get your own ideas about what happened, and then it’s really important to know whether X happened before Y or Y happened before X, ‘cuz X didn’t cause Y if Y came earlier. I sort of half-expected other people just gradually sorted out these facts in their minds as they learned more and more about the world. Maybe some people do; but in my case, I was frustrated nearly to the point of shame that I couldn’t remember the basics.

That’s where drilling comes in. Earlier I had been drawn more and more into the view that any time spent drilling or memorizing, unless aimed at overcoming some petty hurdle like a test, was misspent. It always made sense to let the details slide and use extra time to acquire additional general knowledge (or review it). But again, that was only true to a limited extent, for a narrow reason.

When I was first studying human history, I had absolutely no business forming an opinion about whether or not X caused Y. So I didn’t really need to know whether X came before Y or after. And since I couldn’t do anything useful with the factoid it would have been tough to force myself to retain it. Once I had different needs, a different study-strategy quickly paid huge dividends.

(The funny thing about “general sense” versus “drilling” is that I independently “discovered” one strategy or the other in multiple different fields before I finally put together that the two approaches complement and facilitate each other in every field.)

Some strategies don’t sell themselves as study-strategies but rather as advice about what’s worth knowing or as introductions to a new field of study. But branding and being are two entirely different things; very often the popularity of a canon or a field turns out, on close analysis, to owe its popularity more to its success as a study technique than its formal claims.

Consider Read Old Books. Whether that phrase makes you think of multi-gig downloads from /pol/ or the Froude Society, at least half of the right-wingers I know have experienced the spiritual benefits of avoiding modern garbage for out-of-copyright gems. — But then when I see examples of what the most prolific old-book readers have been up to (what they’ve been reading, what lessons they’re drawing), I find it striking how often you could re-describe the project as Read Primary Sources. For people who have never read primary sources, taking a few shots of the top-shelf stuff can be a heady experience.

The reason it’s heady is because there is no way to understand a secondary source (where it’s right) or see through it (where it’s wrong) unless you have a good mental model of the kinds of primary sources the argument might/must be built on. When you’re used to pop-history (just two or three steps above Just-So Stories), primary sources are like manna from heaven. If you’re particularly enlightened by reading a certain source, it’s hard not to think you’ve unearthed a neglected masterpiece that ought to be memorized by high-school students. A few weeks later, maybe you realize there are thousands of letters or manifestos, or whatever, that are exactly like it. And then after you’ve gotten through five of them, you’re ready and willing to read the research of some poor fool who spent decades reading them all.

Try to scrutinize any amazing new approach to learning that seems to be working well for you. A hammer might seem like a god-send to you if you’ve been trying to build a house using only a saw. But once you’ve gotten sufficiently frustrated trying to build the house with only a hammer, it may be that you’ve hammered in all your nails and it’s time to switch back to the other tool.


[I’m still categorizing these notes together as “A Little Learning” to make them easy to find, but I’m going to try to stop developing themes across multiple installments in the series. From now on they will be self-contained.]


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