Category Archives: learning

An Education to Remember

I’ve taken twenty college courses in the past three years. Like most college students, I’ve forgotten the majority of the material I “learned” during these courses . . . and what good is a forgotten education?

Google’s first definition of education is “the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.” Ouch—that sounds like something I’d want to forget. Google’s second definition is “an enlightening experience.”

Enlightening experiences are memorable. Sometimes they occur in a college classroom, but rarely when the student feels as if he or she is being force-fed information that is key to passing a test and nothing more.

The few classes I’ve had that were truly and consistently memorable had enlightening experiences at every turn. They made me feel as if I was discovering the material on my own. These classes involved higher concentrations of self-directed learning, in the form of original research or individual exploration.

Though I forget facts and dates and names, I remember the thrill of discovery. Very few classes have influenced my behavior after the final grade is in; those few made me care about the subject more than the grade. Those few successfully transmitted enthusiasm from teacher to student, and fostered a personal interest that will live beyond the classroom.

Have I truly forgotten my education? I prefer to think that I only retain the good stuff.


What do Grades Really Measure?

Everyone knows that getting high grades is getting good grades. A high grade is supposed to show that you really understand the material in an academic course. It’s supposed to reflect your intelligence, or your talent, or both.

These are not what grades really measure. Talent and intelligence and understanding all help in getting good grades, to be sure—but they’re not fully necessary.

Academic grades measure dedication. Without dedication—the will to go to class, stay on top of assignments, and struggle through the challenges—Einstein would fail at physics.

I’m finishing a tough course right now. Calculus II, and we’re doing infinite series, which are perplexing to me. I have little talent nor mathematical intelligence (I only imitate math, I don’t create), and I often feel like a Chinese Room when it comes to math problems. I would be doomed if grades didn’t reflect dedication.

I am dedicated. Up until recently, I wondered whether willpower could make up for lack of talent and interest. It can—to an extent. And I wondered whether I could succeed by willpower alone in a subject that doesn’t come naturally to me, or whether I’m bound by fate and genetics to do what I’m good at and interested in.

This weekend, I accidentally convinced myself that there’s no substitute for passion. I had two things on my mind: Tuesday’s math test, and a video for film history that was due a week later. What did I do? I spent 17 hours editing video, and 3 hours struggling with math.

The difference between these two activities was passion. When you’re passionate about something and actually want to do it, you end up giving it more of yourself—even your spare time. And putting in all those hours is what it takes to become a master. So I don’t think I could ever be that successful in a subject I’m not passionate about or talented in. The fire just isn’t there.

A lot of college and growing up seems to be about finding the place you fit in the world—that little niche where you’re talented, passionate, and better than most other people at doing what you do. A grade can help you find out what you’re good at. We’re all naturally dedicated to something or other, and when you find what you’re interested in, you tend to notice a change of focus—away from trying to motivate yourself just to do the homework, and more towards building a beautiful final product, be it a movie, a program, or a thoughtful new idea.

Learning Like Ancient Greeks

I hear a lot of stories in history class, and one of them was this: There was once a successful student who graduated from our college and started his own small business. Feeling a duty to support his college community, this businessman began hiring graduates from our school. After a while though, something made him change his mind about our people. Today, this man refuses to hire technical graduates from his own school, for one and only one reason:

They can’t communicate. They can’t write, and they can’t convey the knowledge they have, which renders that knowledge useless.

Learn to write!” proclaimed my history professor, and then went on to tell us why the Ancient Greeks were the founders of abstract, scientific thought.

I had three years of competitive communication experience in high school. Debate was one of the most intensely educational experiences of my life. As it turns out, debate is also the agreed-upon reason why the Ancient Greeks were ahead of the curve when it came to scientific thought.

Greeks loved to debate politics. In Greece, you couldn’t just state your case—no one would listen. You had to defend it. You had to understand your arguments well enough to be capable of withstanding the fire of an opponent’s rebuttals. And you learned rhetoric, articulation, and eloquence along the way. Eventually, the Greeks moved on to debate other topics—like scientific theory. The rest is history.

I say we should learn like the Ancient Greeks. Debates should happen in our classrooms regularly. Competition brings out the best in people, and it becomes painfully obvious extremely fast when a debater doesn’t know their own case. Debate is the fastest way I know of to learn a topic inside and out, and as a side benefit, you learn to persuade an audience despite the fact that another human being is trying their hardest to undermine your case and credibility. That’s educational.

Oh, and for those who haven’t tried it, debate just happens to be one of the funnest things in the world.

Learning Always

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Learning never exhausts the mind. -Leonardo da Vinci

Every time I step out the door and into the woods, something new greets me. The sky and the weather are always changing; the secretive wildlife sometimes pop into view and then disappear again. I caught a spotted salamander one foggy autumn day, and now I know they exist. Another day, a bright winter morning, I glimpsed a golden crowned kinglet—a small, peppy bird—flitting through the bows of a neighbor’s old red pines. I find something new most every day outside, and with every new critter I find my horizons broaden, becoming just a bit wider than they were before.

Most people are addicted to their Facebook accounts, their emails, or perhaps the TV, because they want to be kept up to date and not miss out. These mediums enthrall us because they are ever-changing, always providing us with new and interesting material. I find the woodland more fulfilling, but part of my appreciation is grounded in the same need that keeps us glued to computer screens—human beings require new information, new experiences, and new ideas to keep themselves bright and engaged. The same is true for animals in zoos—zookeepers are always trying to think of new ways to enrich the animals to keep them from getting despondent. Though we humans have considerably more freedom than zoo animals, a non-enriched mind can feel a lot like a cage.

This is where lifelong learning comes in. We’re not meant to shun books once we graduate. Learning is its own reward. If you’ve been struggling with your writing and feel you have nothing to say, perhaps you haven’t enriched your mind with new ideas recently. Where to start? Well, we all have opinions on controversial issues. Reading something that you disagree with is a great way to get your blood pumping, fill your mind with new thoughts, and chances are you’ll be bursting with words before long. Try to keep it civil, though.

My second college semester begins in two weeks, and there’s one course in particular that’s bound to be entertaining and will probably contribute the most to my writing. It’s called Politics of Life and Death, and it looks like we’ll spend the whole semester arguing about controversial, unresolved and emotion-packed issues such as abortion and assisted suicide. As a former debater, this sounds like great fun to me. You may hear about it in upcoming posts.

Learning should be memorable; there are unique ways for all of us to enrich our minds. I take inspiration from a walk in the woods, a good book, a surf on the ‘net. Find something that works for you, make a habit, and be learning always.