Learning is a Good Thing

Everybody loves to learn; everybody does learn all the time. Learning is power, and the recognition of this growing power is the self-rewarding joy of learning – there is no greater motivation than one’s own growing ability to control one’s own life.

Motivational tricks and games, and especially dishonesty of any kind, do not teach. Instead, they confuse the goal of learning and obscure the innately self-rewarding relationship between positive behavior and positive result. Just teach, for goodness sake. Teach until the learning becomes self-fulfilling in the life of the student so that the teacher becomes essentially unnecessary.

Oh — well — that’s probably why so many teachers don’t.

I’ve had college students get really mad at me because they thought they understood how school is supposed to be (memorizing answers so you can get a good grade) and I kept asking them questions that they had to figure out the answer according to how the process works.

Also I’ve had students write to me, sometimes decades later, to tell me that learning to think about how things work changed their whole life experience. It gave them the freedom and the tools to take charge of their own lives.

Now that’s a good thing.

And the best thing is that anyone can learn to understand how things work.

Power in Community

This is a quote from The Caucus, John Harwood.

“Stuart E. Eizenstat, a lawyer who is a veteran of the administrations of Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, praised Mr. Obama for bringing to the task three critical elements of presidential leadership. The first two, he said, are high intelligence and the ability to connect disparate issues in a larger framework.”

I’m interested in the ability to connect disparate issues into a larger framework. Whether or not we are pro-Obama, we are living in a time where it seems like every other person has an axe to grind, and may not have clearly thought through the cause of the problem or the result if we fix it the way we want to. But we all know there are a lot of problems.

We are so accustomed to linear thinking in our culture, that we sometimes get the idea if everyone does one good thing at the same time, all the good things add up to a good result. Clearly not. If our economists had thought about the implications of their actions outside of their own circle of expertise we probably would not be reaping the results of their mistakes.

We also know there is more power in a group of people working for the same cause than in a bunch of separate people working for different causes. So, if we were to all do the most important good things together — that might bring a very much more satisfactory result.

But it is indeed difficult to think of them all together, so we are lucky to have a President who reportedly can do just that. Not that we should all follow lock step behind Pres. Obama. I have a few complaints myself. But it’s good to have someone up there who can connect the dots between our own enterprise and those of other people.


Today I want to tell you a true story that happened in South Carolina about eight or ten years after the school system there was integrated. I went there to teach college freshman biology. I had many sad students; most of them I consider to be the casualties in that very long journey from a slavery culture toward something better, but not the heroes we hear about; these were the everyday troops in the front line, with no script to follow, just trying to live their lives in a culture that didn’t make sense. I had one student who could not write a sentence — not even words. At one point my boss suggested that I should just pass the students on through.

I also had some very well trained students who in fact taught me a thing or two, and several more who thought they should teach me a thing or two about teaching, but that’s a different story. This story is about one of the top students in the Education curriculum, I will call her J, who was sent for her student teaching experience to the brand new show-case integrated grammar school. The top teachers had been brought to this school where J would be doing her student teaching. She told me the story. J and the Teacher were both white.

Teacher gave a reading assignment to the class, I think it was third or fourth grade: “Use the word flow in a sentence.” Most of the white students correctly interpreted the assignment to use the word f-l-o-w, as in water flowing in a stream. Most of the black students incorrectly believed they were to make a sentence with the word f-l-o-o-r, as in the baby sat on the floor. This response would not surprise any person who is familiar with variations in southern accents. My friend J. went home after class that night and did what student teachers are supposed to do. She designed a lesson plan that would allow all the students to understand the assignment and get the correct answers without embarrassing any of them. And of course she submitted her lesson plan to Teacher.

Teacher told her not to bother trying to teach this lesson because: “They can’t understand it anyhow.” Eventually I realized that the little black kids also believed they couldn’t understand. So they didn’t. And they were passed on through without learning the skills.

Now that was, what, at least 30 years ago, and it is water flowing under the bridge, but the reason I’m telling about that old experience is a recent experience of my own that involves a library (not local) and a technology. After about a year of trying to learn how to use this technology, I finally understood what was happening. Every person who tried to teach me how to use it — they each told me something different. Why did they each tell me something different? Because they thought I would not be able to understand it properly if they explained how the system actually works, so they just told me how to push the buttons. But you know — I’m not dumb. If someone were to use the right words in the right way, I can understand things. And the only difference between those little black kids and the white kids was — they were understanding a different set of things.

And the reason I am telling you THAT is because I believe our leaders — primarily politicians and corporations but also some educators — are doing precisely the same thing to us. Do you think that could be because our ignorance gives them more power? Do you believe you can’t understand the important issues of the day? I mean understand how things work — not only what buttons to push, but really how does it work?

I think you can.