April 24, 2003
The Learning Channel

Pretty much anyone who's made it all the way through high school and into college has heard it in one form or another from various professors:

Learning does not need to be fun. Learning is not supposed to be fun. Learning is work, and therefore never will be fun. Trying to make learning fun simply dilutes the knowledge that must be imparted, makes the lessons less relevant and full of unnecessary "fluff", doing the student a disservice in the long run.

In my case it usually came from tenured professors trying to make me read Thucydides or Marvin Harris. Yet they couldn't have been more wrong. As so many people often do, they were mistaking schooling's primary job. School isn't supposed to teach you facts, it's supposed to teach you how to learn them.

"You and I will never be rich," was the way a dialogue went in one of my Arthur C. Clarke books, "not because we're dumb, but because we don't know how to be rich. The rich are rich because they like to make money. You and I are not rich because we like to spend money."

On the face of it, the assertion seems absurd. Everyone likes to make money, because money is where it's at. Money gets us food, clothing, fast cars and cheap women (or, if it's your taste, expensive jewelry and obedient men), fancy boats and cool toys, and... well, if you run the list off in your head why money is important, I'll bet most of you find it really is about how you want to spend it.

In spite of what our jealousies make us feel, most rich people are rich because they really do like making money. They're all about investment opportunities, tax shelters, savings vehicles, bond issues, retirement goals, and all the other myriad ways money can be turned into more money. Rich people who stay rich typically spend very little. Sam Walton was famous for his worn out pickup trucks, Madonna is well known for never having any cash when she goes out, and LL Cool J pays cash for a Honda instead of a Humvee.

In other words, the rich get that way not because there's something intrinsically or genetically special about them, but because they are willing to sacrifice both great and small things for their one true love: the acquisition of more money. They enjoy making it, far more than spending it, and that's what makes them different. There really is no blue in their blood, no special gift bequeathed to them simply by birth.

Knowledge is, of course, a kind of wealth. Coming from the physical side of anthropology, I learned early on that in spite of many long and strenuous efforts, anthropology (and pretty much every other science) has been incapable of proving a link between sex, class, color, or religion and intelligence. Black, white, red, yellow, male, female, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, and all in-between have the exact same brains between their ears.

It did, however, lead me to a kind of problem. Accepting the position that there is no genetic cause for stupidity still left me with all these quite patently stupid people milling around causing trouble. Even weirder, people would call me "smart" even though I certainly felt, and occasionally acted, as dumb as the next guy. How can it be that the same organ that allows Steven Hawking to mathematically prove that black holes emit radiation also allows Tammy Fae Baker to believe the world is only 7500 years old?

It was a personal revelation that lead me to the answer. I was sitting in a waiting room while Ellen got her glucose test. I had forgotten my copy of Thucydides (which, fifteen years later, wasn't anywhere near as head-crunchingly boring as I thought it was when I was 19), was instead reading a statistical textbook on the environmentalist movement, while wishing I could finish up both so I could start on a new analysis of the Iranian revolution. In a flash, I suddenly realized something.

I was smart not because of any particular combination of genes, and not because I happened to be white or male, I was smart simply because I liked to learn. And not just about one particular subject, but anything. I was interested in how they made cereal, why an aluminum can has a funny pinch on one end, who Imam Ali was, how a steam engine worked and where the Bible was written. I wasn't upset about books I had to read, but that I had no time to read all the books I owned.

The more I thought about it, the more the hypothesis seemed to hold up. Everyone in my own personal life whom I considered "smart" enjoyed learning for its own sake. Maybe not about Everything, but certainly about one or more Somethings. Conversely, people who I considered dumb got that way in my mind because they had proven unwilling to learn oftentimes the most basic things.

It also provided a nice explanation for stupidity in its more general sense, without having to rely on the ugly crutches of racism, sexism, or religious discrimination. People believed dumb things not because they were brain damaged, or female, or black, or Christian, or any of the thousands of other trivial things that differentiate us. They believed dumb things because they'd lost interest in learning. Lost the taste for it. Their world had frozen in an amber-hard gem of belief, now incapable of being reshaped even as it slowly went cloudy and scratched from age.

Worse still were the people who'd never gotten the chance. Critical thinking is a skill hard won by humanity, one which entire cultures have learned, forgotten, re-learned, and forgotten again, sometimes at the cost of millions of lives. The chimpanzee lies very close to the surface in all of us, and it can take frighteningly little to turn it loose.

Human beings have to be taught to think. It quite simply does not come naturally to us. History has proven again and again that without years, sometimes decades, of drill we will many times lose the ability to think for ourselves. When this happens the best that can be hoped for is a culture of poverty and entitlement. All too often it ends in the abyssal hell of the fanatic.

This is why learning must be fun. A society may decide the minimum number of things it's important to know, but without the will, the knowledge, the passion of learning the only result is a person with a minimum knowledge of things. A bad teacher forces in dry facts and mistakes knowledge for education, blaming ignorance for the sleepy heads and glassy stares. A good teacher instills a love of the mechanisms of learning, understanding knowledge will take care of itself, far beyond the time and space of the classroom.

Even more important, while it is possible to lose the ability to think critically, love learning, it's also possible to get it back. A person can't simply stop being black, or female, or Jewish, or any of the hundreds, thousands of other stupid, useless things that entire swathes of humanity have been written off over. It's not easy, not by a long shot. Critical thought is to our intellect what enlightenment is to our spirit. Re-learning it is probably one of the hardest things an adult can do.

But it is something anyone can do.


Posted by scott at April 24, 2003 10:27 PM

eMail this entry!

Learning doesn't have to be fun, but the best instructors know how to make it so that you WANT to learn. You become much more proficient in things when you are interested and spend time on it. Hmm...I have to dig out the rant I started to write about this a month ago.

Posted by: Da Goddess on April 24, 2003 06:49 PM

I think it is time for some funny stuff. You are beginning to take yourself a little too seriously.
Happy 35th Birthday!

Posted by: Pat on April 25, 2003 12:07 PM

Yep, I agree, in high school I didn't like learning much cuz the classes weren't fun. Well, I did LOVE math for some reason. Even college didn't motivate me much. I have more of a desire now to find out much more about things I have no clue about, on my time, and not forced on me. I was (and surely still am) a BAD test taker. I would know most of the stuff I learned in schooling, but come college and tests, I couldn't do it. BAD scores left and right. But after the exam, I'd be like, "oh yeah, the answer was this and that." Sucked.

I'm a firm believer of your GPA being a VERY inaccurate rating of your intelligence.

Posted by: Battie on April 25, 2003 01:59 PM
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