By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty.
As a human being and a person in the knowledge business both as student and teacher, and as a worshipper of books, and libraries, and book stores, and finally as a great fan of good old Socrates, the creator of the Socratic Method, and founder of western philosophy, I often enough find myself worrying about how the learning process works for I want to continue learning new things as well as hang on to what I’ve already learned.
But you might be asking yourself, my dear, exceptionally sweet, always forthcoming Turtlett, “What’s there to worry about? By your own admission, you’ve got it. You learned what you’ve learned and you’ve then gone ahead and stored your learning where you can summon it up whenever you need it.” “That’s possible,” I might reply, though a more likely response would be that learning’s not quite so easy. Firstly, let me mention that I’m perfectly capable of forgetting things I think I’ve learned; and secondly, if I do forget things, maybe that’s because I didn’t really learn them or learn them as well as I thought I’d learned them. This explanation surely makes a great deal of sense to me, even if my imaginary interlocutor remains entirely unconvinced.
But I also reminded myself that another major cause of my concern stemmed from remembering the example of Socrates and his confession of ignorance. For I can never entirely forget his famous declaimer that he knows he knows nothing. Let’s think about this for a minute. I mean if Socrates says he knows nothing, how can I claim to know so much, indeed, how can I claim to know anything at all? Surely a conundrum of sorts, at least for me, and very possibly somewhere down the road, for you too, my ever thoughtful readers doubling as intrepid explorers and exemplars of critical thinking’s joys.
So, wandering lonely as a cloud over a wine dark sea as more dilemmas leaped out at me like hungry lions waiting for their favorite midday meal, a new thought suddenly flashed in my brain bringing me some small comfort from my concerns. As this new thought increasingly occupied my mind, my worries about learning and knowledge seemed to lessen.
And here’s why. The idea that hit me so suddenly was amazingly simple and yet extraordinarily helpful in sorting out what learning and knowledge are all about, and hopefully you’ll find this idea helpful to you too. Again, the idea is extremely simple or at least simple to state. Here it is. Learning involves seeing patterns in the information or data or material we’re thinking about.
In other words, facts are facts and in theory we can approach each fact as an entirely separate sort of thing and commit it to memory. But that’s not learning; it’s memorizing. By contrast, learning entails seeing the connections or patterns between facts or between different things which in turn tells us what they mean. Reading or listening to stories provides a gazillion examples of this sort of experience.
In a story, we’re introduced to a series of main characters who find themselves in a particular setting with a singular goal they’re trying to achieve or an issue they wish to resolve. They create and initiate plans to realize their objective. And at the end of the story we find out whether or not they were successful. In many ways this sounds like Aristotle’s famous statement about stories having a beginning, middle, and end.
Reflecting on a story reveals to the reader or listener how the beginning is linked to the end and how other elements of the story form a variety of patterns. We can notice how two characters operate either in similar or in very different ways. We might even realize that they do both: they act in similar ways but also in contrasting ways. We can discern patterns with respect to the characters and the setting and how the things the characters say foreshadow the story’s end.
I had just such an experience in class the other day watching a film called “A League of Their Own.” Although I had already seen the movie a bunch of times, it was only this week that I noticed early on how the main character, who was the team’s star, was going to get into an increasingly ugly argument with her sister who felt her star studded sib was hogging the stage—or rather, the diamond. This time around I also understood the ending much better as I saw far more clearly the pattern that linked the sisters and thus could appreciate in a deeper way the twist the ending provided.
The same sort of people patterns we see in a movie or novel or short story can also be found in real life whether in the news, in politics, at work, and/or at play. You might also find them in a painting, in a song, or in an amazing cloud formation as you look over Lake Michigan very early in the morning and see the rosy fingered dawn first breaking through the still largely dark night sky.