Learning To Learn

When I professed philosophy — back in the Dark Ages — my goal was always to help my students think for themselves. The greatest compliment I ever received came after I retired and I read a review of one of my books on Amazon after a former student bought my book because he had taken several of my classes and always wondered what my views were on key issues. I never gave it away in class, he said. It was my hope that this would happen, that my students would not know exactly where I stood so they could find their own footing. After all, if they knew where I stood that might simply pretend to stand there as well in order to get a good grade! Heaven forbid!

I never saw my chosen field of philosophy as a subject to be taught in and of itself. Not at the undergraduate level anyway. I was never going to have that many majors and there would be hundreds of students passing through my classes who would never even take another philosophy course from or anyone else. But if I could use the subject matter to get them thinking that would be a triumph indeed! That was always my goal –though I dare say my own private thoughts on key subjects must have crept through from time to time! I am an opinionated bastard as you already know if you have been reading my blog.

Another key feature of my goals as a college professor was to hope that after my students left my classes they would continue to learn and grow. In several cases I know about this has in fact happened. College, after all, is not the be-all and end-all of education. Education, properly conceived, takes a lifetime. Students should be taught how to learn. They should be taught how to think, not what to think — as Charles Van Doren wisely said long ago. He also said that we who teach should guard our students from the “thugs” who want only to ensnare their minds and make of them large puppets, mouthing their instructor’s words and adopting their thoughts. I did not want to be thought a thug!

I have said in print that the purpose of education is to put young people in possession of their own minds. This is vitally important, but it is also something that apparently I share with very few of my fellow professors. The stories coming out of the Ivory Tower of late is that faculty are more concerned about indoctrinating than they are about freeing young minds. For growing numbers of them it is vitally important that the current cultural malaise be radically altered, that students be made aware of the ills of Western Civilization, of capitalism, of colonialism, of the rape of our precious earth — all of which they put down to “dead, white European males” who should be set aside and ignored henceforth.

These are all important issues. But if we focus attention on how learning takes place rather than what it is we are teaching we take a step in the right direction, though I would prefer that my students read books that are worth reading. Great books are great teachers.  Whether we agree with them or not, those dead, white European males had important things to say. They should not be read in order to agree with them — after all, they didn’t even agree with one another. They should be read in order to use their thoughts to engender thoughts of our own. Reading what great minds have written down will help students become more aware of the complex issues mentioned above. And it will provide them with the tools they need so work toward solutions of those problems rather than simply getting all worked up about them.

In any event, these things have always seemed important to me and I still think the basic reasoning here is sound. There is a movement afoot in our colleges and universities that has me deeply concerned as many of you are aware. And this is not because there are so many who disagree with me, it is because they are convinced that in this day and age the most important thing is to revolt against the past altogether and adopt new ways of thinking, ways that the professors will lay out for their students — thereby confusing education with indoctrination. Clearly, this is not the right way to go about things. Not if we want them to become thoughtful, engaged citizens of this Republic.

19 thoughts on “Learning To Learn

  1. Hugh, learning to learn is a mantra of yours. Those who live well into retirement continue to feed their learning.

    With very few exceptions, I feel I furthered my thirst for learning in every class. Even they were not my major, a Speech class, a physics class, a world literature, a psychology class, eg has helped me throughout my life.

    To your point, those who have a love of learning are not frightened by what they don’t know and are willing to question things, especially politicians like the President who make up data to support a over-sold solution.

    From what I have read of your words and passion therein, I bet your classes were enjoyable and engaging. All the best, Keith

    • Thanks, Keith. You and Jill were fortunate enough to have been steered into classes outside your major. The trend these days is to eliminate those courses as irrelevant and increase the number of major courses. The general courses that remain now trend toward doctrine as more and more professors feel deeply that our civilization is rotten at the core and needs to be replaced. By what? That is not clear. It is not unlike Russia in the early part of the twentieth century in many ways. It is Facism in disguise as the young are being told what to learn and not how to learn on their own — for the most part. There are obvious exceptions.

      • It is a terrible thing to limit a persons education to a narrow path. Why, where will the next great scientific discoveries come from if we don’t teach people to question, to study, to go beyond what is known? And what about literature … where will the next great writers come from? Surely not from those who are taught to only think in one way.

      • Thanks Hugh. Good points. Using a Venn diagram, innovation and creavity occur at the intersections of disciplines. If we stay in our collective circles, countless opportunities are missed.

      • The humanities, including such disciplines as philosophy and literature, have been under fire for some time now as departments diminish in size and the more “practical” disciplines prosper — including such things as “Sports Science,” would you believe? There have been any number of books about the trend downwards and it is deeply disturbing for the reasons you note.

  2. My first year in college, I was lucky to have 3 professors who taught me to use my brain for something other than to keep my skull from collapsing. One taught Political Science, one taught Literature, and one taught Philosophy. Each of these three were passionate about their subject and it came through in their teachings. I had begun college to earn an accounting degree, with no thought to anything else, but after the first year, I signed on for a double major in Accounting and Poli Sci. It might well have been philosophy (it did lead me to a lot of reading such as Kant, Nietzsche and others) but the Poli Sci grabbed me just a bit harder. All three of these men taught me not WHAT to think, but HOW to think, and I have been forever grateful. That, as you say, is what is being lost today and the end result is that we will inevitably end like a colony of bees, with most being workers or drones, and a very few ruling the hive. I find this unconscionable, but am not quite sure how it can be turned around. Good post, my friend!

  3. I find your blog interesting.

    “They should be taught how to think, not what to think.”

    Good thought. So, how should one think? Is it possible to answer this question in a few sentences? At least the central point?

    • One should think critically: demand evidence and attempt to refute until it is no longer possible. If we cannot find fault with an argument there is reason to believe it is sound. It goes back to Socrates!

  4. I don’t suppose that you ever thought that any of your Students of the highest order would abandon Higher Education and retreat to an Agricultural lifestyle on the Farm, precisely in order to AVOID everything that your vaunted Higher Education espouses as a matter of ‘philosophy’?

    • Sometimes, the finest Philosophy is Silence after the Study, and a retreat from the vain aspirations of State, Society or Faith. Skepticism.

      • Depends upon what Free Time one can defend against the encroachment of the world, duty, family or debt. Only a full-on retreat from all such Bonds can make an Independent Thinker…Philosopher. All such Bonds are but a compromise to Philosophy, which the very few afford, and fewer admire or enjoy..

      • It’s not the Philosopher in Plato’s Republic who pursued the way of men for Ambition, but of a kind among the Best who were driven to the outskirts of Society to survive on their own wits, by stealth and cunning or crime, against their contemporaries till their lives were mostly spent (40 or 50 yrs), who afterwards were Called back to Service, having drank deep of their Contemporary Experience to know how to truly SERVE the General Will. The world will await for such a Man, methinks, till the very end…and call such a Man the One last standing.

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