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On Learning

Bill Meredith

"We find ourselves in a bewildering world." …
Stephen Hawking, A Short History of Time, 1996.
"Young children have no sense of wonder.
They bewilder well, but few things surprise them."
Annie Dillard, An American Childhood. 1987.
"There were harebells, tiny lanterns, cream-white and almost sinful-looking,
and these were so rare and magical that a child, finding one,
felt singled out and special all day."
John Steinbeck, East of Eden, 1952.

(May, 2015) Recently I saw an interview in which the writer, E. L. Doctorow, was asked how he was able to think up new ideas for his novels. His reply was, "How can I think about my brain when it’s my brain that’s doing the thinking?" It was a clever response, and it ducked the question neatly. I’m sure Doctorow knew at least part of the answer, but I suspect he also knew that it involved technicalities that would quickly become boring to his audience.

Questions about how the brain works are often called the last frontier of science, partly because of Doctorow’s observation… it took a long time for us to figure out how to study it. Only a few centuries ago, many things were like that; they were unanswerable with the techniques that existed, so they were simply called miracles. How does a seed grow into a beanstalk or an oak tree? Why do broken bones heal sometimes but not others? Why did the girls who milked cows rarely get smallpox back in the 1600s? Nowadays, most students have been exposed to the answers of these questions by the time they finish high school (although they may not be able to recite them on SAT tests). The answers are known, at least by somebody, so we don’t call them miracles any more.

If all goes well, in a few weeks I will watch the month of May slip from the future into the past for the 82nd time. You might think that, having done it so many times, I should know how to go about it by now… but, like Dr. Hawking, I find myself in a bewildering world, and the longer I’m in it, the more bewildering it becomes. Throughout my early years, I was learning more than I forgot; but somewhere along the line the balance began to shift toward forgetting. It has reached a stage now where my mind feels like it has begun to leak; I still learn things, but I don’t retain them like I used to. The people who study brain science say they expect to figure out how this works within the next ten years, but then it will probably be at least another decade before they are able to cure it. For those of us who have already started our 90th decade, this timeline gives little comfort.

Perhaps my mind dwells on such things because I have recently met a new friend. His name is Declan, and I met him about four months ago. The first time he saw me, he cried. I knew there was nothing wrong because a minute earlier his brother had been kissing him and shaking a toy for him; he cried because I was an unfamiliar face, and at that age his brain was pre-wired to interpret any unfamiliar face as a potential threat. I knew that, so I smiled, avoided sudden movements, and spoke very softly to him; and soon he allowed me to hold him, as long as I kept him in a position where his mother was visible. He could not control his arms well enough to reach for me, but he could grasp my finger if I placed it in his hand. Since then he has grown, and has developed connections between neurons in his brain which are beginning to coordinate the control of his arms and hands. The last time I saw him, he reached out and pulled my beard, and smiled… not because he had learned to recognize me as an individual, but because his brain cells are making normal connections, following the genetic patterns they inherited. As Annie Dillard observed, he is still too young to have a sense of wonder, because everything he sees is equally new to him. The actual learning will begin soon. Scholars agree on a broad outline of how it happens, but the actual details of the process are still unknown… and I find a peculiar pleasure in realizing that, for a little while yet, I can still classify Declan as a miracle.

In order to think seriously about anything, whether it be ecology, art, philosophy or economics, you must start by defining your topic. So I looked up "learning" in several references, and found general agreement that learning is "the process of gaining knowledge or skill by studying, practicing, being taught, or experiencing something." A slightly more technical reference added that learning does not include behavioral modifications that result from developmental changes, such as the normal growth of neuron connections like those Declan is undergoing. Because of the growing neural synapses, he is beginning to learn that differences exist. His 4-year-old brother and the family dog are both about the same size and both run around and make lots of noise, but they are not the same. That may sound trivial, but it is the beginning of a process by which he will learn to understand the world. He will have to learn that things differ: they are hard or soft, big or little, round or square, red or blue… and then he will have to learn words for all those qualities. At the same time, he will have to learn names for the things that have those qualities: the kitten is soft, the table leg is hard, Daddy is big, the sky is blue. Simple? Try doing it yourself in Spanish or German… or Mandarin, if you really want a challenge. And remember that the neural connections that operate his tongue and vocal cords will not be completely developed until he is two years old.

There will come a time when Declan’s sense of wonder will appear. It happens at different ages and occurs to varying degrees in all of us, and is easier to describe than to define; John Steinbeck’s description of a flower, quoted above, captures it well. Declan’s sister reacted with wonder the first time I showed her a tree frog; she was three, and when I placed the tiny creature in her hand, it disappeared. She looked at me with her mouth open in amazement, and then squealed with delight when the frog reappeared on her sleeve, where it had jumped. She now examines every new flower, bug or rock that she sees, and regularly brings new discoveries to share with me. She has become a learner, and will be so all her life.

Sometimes, of course, learning is painful; as Mark Twain once said, "A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn no other way." I don’t recall carrying a cat that way, but I was stepped on by ponies, pecked by chickens, kicked by a cow, and bruised by various kinds of machinery in the process of learning to survive on a farm; and those experiences taught me a lot about how to survive at work and in a social setting. Learning, once you get into it, transfers from one activity to another. But there are limits to what can be learned, and they vary from one person to another. When I was six, my Dad showed me where to put my fingers on a guitar in order to play C, F and G7 chords; and soon I could play songs by ear. But learning to read music came very slowly to me; I had the desire to learn, but not the gift for it. Even if I had started serious lessons as a child, I never could have played like Andres Segovia, Django Reinhardt or Manitas de Plata. They had the gift.

Understanding learning is something we have yet to achieve as a nation, and it is sorely needed. Every day, both national and local media present articles about the failure of our schools to achieve uniform test scores and to raise graduation rates, and it will be a topic of contention in the coming election cycle. Equal opportunity is a noble goal, promised by our Constitution; but even if we had opportunity, equal achievement is impossible, because every child is different. Some are gifted; some are more able to learn than others; some have what we euphemistically call "special needs." In my first month in school, I could see that some children learned faster than I did, and others more slowly; and I saw that occasionally the fastest learners were also the best athletes, but not always. Each one of us is unique; and it is not possible to design an educational system that could bring all of the children in a nation of 300 million up to a single standard in a given amount of time. At heart, both we and our leaders know this. We keep trying for the worst of all reasons: a more effective system would cost more than we are willing to afford.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith