Learning to Learn

Knowing how to learn is a great skill. I wanted to write an article about film but I was completely ignorant about film theory. So I took a couple of weeks and taught myself film theory.

The article was accepted for publication with cosmetic changes 15 minutes ago. Both reviewers praised my deep knowledge of film theory.

I’ll soon be submitting my first article on Basques. I wonder if people will notice I’m a neophyte.


22 thoughts on “Learning to Learn

    1. I usually pretend I’m a professor teaching myself a course. Get textbooks, assign homework, do tests, grade them. Redo if a grade is low. It’s fun.


  1. I think learning how to learn is the most important benefit of a liberal education. The president of my undergraduate college told us a story, possibly true, of someone he knew around the time of WW I who found a job as a typist. The people hiring him wanted to start immediately. It was Friday. He told them he could not start until Monday. They had no one else, so they agreed. On Monday he arrived and found a large backlog of work to do. He attacked it and finished it is far less time than the employer has anticipated. They asked him why he could not start Friday when they needed him. His answer: “I had to borrow a typewriter and learn how to type.”

    This was presented as an example of the advantage of a liberal education. I agree completely.


    1. Very true. Liberal education is supposed to take people from “but I don’t know this!” to “this is something I haven’t yet bothered to learn but I can start learning right now.” It’s life-changing.


      1. “Liberal education is supposed to take people from “but I don’t know this!” to “this is something I haven’t yet bothered to learn but I can start learning right now.””

        I completely agree that that was the ideal, but it also requires skills that …. are young people getting them? You need to be able to hear “That’s completely wrong! This is how you do it” at times (and pay attention and learn). People handicapped by non-stop praise…. can they do that?


        1. Of course, it ultimately rests with whether people want to get educated and become successful or not. I have no idea what it is that separates people who try from those who don’t. I’m seeing people who would rather moan than take really good opportunities all the time. And I don’t get it.


        1. A liberal education is an education in which one learns several diverse subjects. The goal is to approximate, as closely as possible, the “Renaissance Man” ideal.

          For example, if in a standard college/university cirriculum, it will include courses in philosophy, mathematics, history, anthropology, mastery of more than one language, literature, physics or chemistry, and biology. Additionally, it includes skill oriented courses covering, at the very least, in depth writing and, nowadays, computer programming. Some of these courses could be replaced perhaps by art, music, dance, or psychology.

          I am somewhat disturbed that in other countries, undergraduate students study only their specialties and little else. However, it may well be that in those countries secondary education is more in depth so that students have the breadth portion of a liberal education. I hope this is true.


          1. I went to school in a country where undergrad education is highly specialized, but got my PhD in the US. Now that my Eldest finished high school — in a state with excellent (by American standards) public schools and we’re in a good school district and he has a 4.0 GPA– I can tell you with certainty that he has learned far less overall, with both less breadth and less depth, than I did in my own high school. It’s actually quite sad that capable kids don’t get to have their butts kicked with some serious challenges until college. What is called liberal education here is what I had in high school; most of this stuff isn’t rocket science: native language and literature plus two foreign languages plus a year of Latin; math, physics, chemistry, biology, geography, computer science; history, philosophy, sociology that included a year of political economics; art, music, PE. All this stuff is totally doable in high school, as in, the students are capable of learning this stuff in high school. There’s really no need to shell $60k per year for room and board at a private SLAC to gain this breadth.


              1. To be fair, in the US you can actually customize your highschool education quite a lot. For instance, at our local highschool, a kid could have learned three foreign languages for four years if he/she wanted to. There is an excellent program in performing arts (bands, orchestra, chorus, theater)–really, top notch, amazing that the quality is available in a public school. The art department is full of enthusiastic young teachers and pretty well equipped. Kids advanced in math can take two years of calculus, and once they’re done with that, if they need more challenge, they start going to the university where I teach and take college-level classes. There is a variety of AP courses one can take that, after taking the final AP test, counts for college credit nationwide.
                However, the actual requirements for graduation are fairly minimal (4 years of English and math, 3 years of a foreign language, 1 science-ish course per year, 2 semesters of PE and 1 of health class, and I think there rest is up to the students). Unfortunately, this means that most kids receive a highschool diploma with many very easy classes and very little breadth and depth. And even so, so few kids have 4.0 GPA.


  2. Most fields it is possible to get up to a good level of knowledge in a few weeks to months of intensive study — even for someone not blessed with above-normal intelligence. By “good level of knowledge” I mean that you can follow the debates in the field, can write intelligently about the field, and can use your knowledge in an academic paper, as you did.

    In my experience, it’s a complete myth that you need years and years of study and matriculation to get up to speed in most fields. That involves just a lot of wheel-spinning and dead ends, and most of what is taught in many schools can be safely ignored if you are an autodidact as it’s either irrelevant, incorrect, or ideological.

    For instance, I knew very little about design a few years ago. I read the best-rated (by actual designers) textbooks I could find, studied design books, learned about UI/UX, tried designing a few things myself, and somehow, without years and years of schooling, became pretty knowledgeable about it. I’m no expert, but it turns out — as in many fields — neither are the experts.

    This long discursive comment went the circumlocuitous route to saying that most fields of knowledge are assiduously guarded by those who wish to preserve their privileged social and intellectual position. However, they usually only guard the front gate; there are plenty of side entrances and back pathways to the same place, and though the gate guards might never recognize you as knowledgeable or your insights as relevant, if all you care about is erudition and not recognition you can learn much without all the dues-paying which is itself a huge waste of time and intellectual effort that you can then put to better use — i.e., getting smarter faster.


    1. Most fields it is possible to get up to a good level of knowledge in a few weeks to months of intensive study — even for someone not blessed with above-normal intelligence. By “good level of knowledge” I mean that you can follow the debates in the field, can write intelligently about the field, and can use your knowledge in an academic paper, as you did.

      I will gladly send you paper copies of some of my research articles. I will be profoundly impressed if you can understand them in a few weeks, unless you are a professional topologist.


      1. I don’t know Mike’s background, but Alex the Physicist and I are theoretical physicists by training. We are not professional topologists, but I am willing to bet money we could understand your papers just fine in a few weeks. (Sorry David, but I often encounter mathematicians who think no one but a professional mathematician could possibly know any math. I beg to differ. Plenty of people gifted in math go into sciences or engineering.)

        I personally think my own papers are written so that a person with some science background can understand the main points even if they cannot follow the math. I’ve had my highschool son read through a few of my papers and he was able to grasp some key ideas simply by skimming through the papers and relying on his highschool chemistry knowledge.


      2. As a former graduate student in mathematics, It would be very difficult for me to understand an algebra paper, except for linear algebra.

        It would be less difficult in topology, although I’m more a applied mathematics/differential equations/linear algebra/statistics/cégep teacher kind of mathematician.


  3. In the liberal arts and sciences, theory is theory and tends to run along the same lines in different fields and once you have a good knowledge of the theory of one field it’s not that hard to pick up another.
    A reasonably smart person doesn’t need years and years to get up to speed in any particular field, but they do need years and years of the right kind of learning (including a deep knowledge of the history of theory in a particular field) to get to the stage that they can get up to speed in a new field in a hurry.


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