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Posts Tagged ‘learning’

Have you found yourself stating a fact in a conversation–say some arcane statistic from baseball, the conjugation of Lithuanian verbs, or the air speed velocity of an unladen African swallow–only to be asked how you knew such a thing?

The latter of that list illustrates the kind of exchange that often happens:

The question as to how someone knows a particular fact generally carries specific implications with it:

1. Is that in fact a fact?

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As the saying goes, 78.6% of all statistics are made up on the spot–including this one.  One reasonable implied challenge in the question above is in regard to the accuracy of the fact being cited.  Take the origin of the Guinness Book of World Records.  Said tome was marketed as a way of settling disputes in bars.  Today, with smartphones as ubiquitous as opinions, a world of information is available at our fingertips–or, at least, thumbtips.  Verifying a statement is easy, so long as we understand the difference between reliable sources and otherwise.  The person who can quote facts from memory is treated as something of a fossil, someone who wastes time and effort by storing knowledge in a biological hard drive.

What this postmodernist view fails to comprehend is that absorbed information becomes a part of the person holding it.  Who you are is a combination of your memories and your personality.  The more diverse and expansive the former is, the more the latter can make of itself.

2.  How is something learned?

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One method of learning is research, the act of combing through available sources to find the desired fact.

Another is that dreaded plague of childhood:

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practice.  Whether it’s threading a needle, producing pleasing sounds from a musical instrument, or hitting what you aim at, learning is often a process of doing the same damned thing over and over until the skill is mastered.

The other method, namely experimentation, is illustrated by the first image in this article.  Yoda’s claim that there is no try is silly pablum, evidence that George Lucas would have made a better film if he’d never heard of Eastern mysticism or Joseph Campbell.  There is indeed try.  Try is what we do to find out if a given notion is possible or practical.

But in all of these, the essence is work.  And that’s why some are astonished when a person comes out with some curious bit of lore.  It disturbs their settled laziness to find that someone else put forth such effort.

 3.  How do you know that?

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But the most common meaning of titular question is to express surprise that the person addressed has absorbed a particular piece of knowledge.  An example of this comes from my experience discussing Tarot cards with a writing acquaintance of mine.  She was shocked to learn that I know anything about a divination practice, since she held a view of me more suited to the fellow with the pointy ears.  And that’s the point here.  When we find that someone knows a fact that isn’t in keeping with our view of the person, we feel offended.  How dare a person not conform to our theoretical model of the person?

Instead, we recall Aristotle’s opening to the Metaphysics that we all desire to know by nature.  While we may justifiably explore the path a person took to knowledge, ultimately, its possession should come as no surprise.  Learning is one part of the essence of being human.

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When I was a child, I took mild amusement in the advice that adults feel compelled to give children. It was always predictable. But reading H. P. Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter stories today, it occurs to me that most of that advice comes from a desire of adults to relive their own childhoods. The problem, of course, is that if we really could go back to the days of our youth, we’d probably forget all the wisdom we think we’ve accumulated. Thus all the words of counsel, given in an attempt to play with someone else’s young life. With that in mind, I hereby belly flop into the subject and pee in the pool:

1. Play

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I played a great deal as a child. More precisely, I wandered for miles, making up stories that appealed to me. But sorry, kids, play, by itself, counts for nothing. What matters is what you learn from playing. A lot of my writing today comes from stories that I worked on as a child. What I figured out was how stories had to be structured. And since I was walking around my neighborhood, I also learned that stories needed chapter breaks and timing to be done until next time when I got home. Unlike the children in the picture, you should find time to play alone. You need to become yourself. More on that later.

2. Learning

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The earlier you learn something, the easier it will be–at least, that’s how you’ll remember it. But the more you learn early on, the more you’ll be able to learn later. For example, find people who know other languages and pester them until they teach you. When you’re an adult, learning languages becomes much more challenging. The same is true about mathematics. Read lots of books. Read mine. Read the ones your teacher assigns, but pick others that you run across. Hunt for more. Above all else, believe that everything you learn will be useful to you in the future. You may not see it now, but that is true.

3. Society

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Remember that bit about being alone? Well, you should also be sociable with lots of people. They can be useful to you. But be friends with only a few. I don’t mean Facebook friends. I mean something else. Imagine the sort of person you’d be willing to journey across the country with after the zombie apocalypse gets going. The kind of person you could trust and tolerate through that experience is a friend. There aren’t many of them in this world, and the ones who would be my friends aren’t necessarily the ones for you.

4. Identity

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The fellow there is Ralph Waldo Emerson. One of the things you should read is his essay, “Self Reliance.” But if you don’t learn any of these other lessons, learn this: Be yourself. Yes, you have to fulfill a lot of expectations of others, but those are chores. You have to help others and avoid harming them, but that’s morality. The key duty is to figure out what you expect of yourself. You’re the one you have to please. That’s especially true when you’re considering the people you will spend time with. Whether you’re attracted to someone or you are being a friend–and it’s best if those two go together, ultimately–trying to change yourself to match the other person is a fool’s errand. You’ll lose yourself and not gain anyone else.

Too many children and adults these days can’t read these many words. If you’ve made it this far, you got the point, and I’ve said enough.

Now go and sin some more.

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