The Love of Learning
The Benedictine value we are focusing on this year is the love of learning. Our topic is not learning as such; it is the love of learning.
I love this phrase, "the love of learning," because it undercuts the myth of objective, dispassionate, value-free intellectual inquiry. Learning should be passionate; it should be an affair of the heart. We learn-and we teach-what we care about, what is important to us.
The love of learning has "Benedictine" written all over it. For many people, the image that comes to mind when we say "Benedictine" is of a monk in a scriptorium, illustrating the love of learning by copying precious manuscripts, and so preserving the ancient classics and culture during the Dark Ages in Europe.
The love of learning is also a defining mark of the Catholic tradition. Catholics regard their faith as something to think about. "Faith seeking understanding" is St. Anselm's famous phrase. Catholics see faith and reason as compatible and mutually supportive. The early Christian thinkers eagerly embraced intellectual conversation with the Greeks. Catholics throughout the ages have wanted to dive into dialog with their surrounding culture. Catholics love to learn, which explains why the first medieval universities were indeed founded "out of the heart of the Church," and why today there are 234 Catholic colleges and universities in our country.
So, this year's topic suits us perfectly as a Catholic Benedictine college, and I'm anxious to get started.
What does the love of learning mean, and how can we best promote it here at St. Scholastica?
Let's start with some definitions. By "love" I mean not so much the satisfaction of desire, as the directing of attention from the self to the other. "Love" means getting outside ourselves, being drawn out of ourselves. Sometimes this is a pleasant experience-think about falling in love-and sometimes it is hard work-taking care of aging parents or attending to sick children in the middle of the night. In the end, love is a commitment more than a feeling. Loving is a matter of subordinating our interests to the needs and demands of the other. Love's desire is the desire to please the beloved.
By "learning" I mean seeking the truth.
What do we mean by truth? We sometimes think of truth as a simple correspondence between our minds and reality. The table is "out there," and the idea of the table is "in here." If what is in here is an accurate representation of what is out there, then we have the truth. I remember during my sophomore year in college looking at a shelf of books and thinking that if I could just get what was in them into my head, I would have learned a great deal. I thought learning meant filling up my head with the content of the books.
But, as philosophers and psychologists have taught us, learning is a more complicated and interesting activity. As the saying goes, education is not filling a bucket; it is lighting a fire. The mind is not simply passive or inert in its interaction with the external world; it is always busy organizing, contributing, referring, and inferring. Truth is in part a response to what is outside the mind and in part a construction of the mind. The mind is an active agent as well as a recipient.
Learning thus goes beyond simple memorization of facts; it includes understanding, making sense of the facts, seeing relationships, patterns, implications. Learning is a creative activity; we contribute something in the process. Truth-seeking, in other words, involves an investment of ourselves. Learning is an intimate activity.
Truth-seeking is also social. Sometimes the creative activity of the mind serves us well, but sometimes it is delusional. One way we can distinguish good thinking from confused thinking is through the checks and balances of a community of inquirers. If you have surfed through Wikipedia on the internet, you see the fascinating experiment that is unfolding. The truth about things is being defined, corrected, corroborated, advanced in a massive encyclopedia that is being written by a vast community of interactive learners. We help one another find the truth.
Truth-seeking is also social in the sense that it occurs among people who come from different cultures, beliefs, and experiences. Through these others we learn the full truth about what it means to be human. This is one of the reasons we emphasize diversity at our college. Truth is a social construction, and its pursuit is a community event.
When we talk about learning, therefore, we are talking about something intimate, something communal, something important. Intimacy, community, importance-what's not to love?
Well, there are also difficulties and dangers that lurk in learning.
First of all, as Socrates taught us, the willingness to learn requires the awareness of and admission of one's ignorance. I am ready to learn only when I realize my errors. Socrates is portrayed in Plato's dialogues as a "stingray," because he had the effect of stinging and stunning people by showing that they were ignorant about things they assumed they understood. He would ask someone, for example, what justice is, and then, through a series of probing questions, he would systematically dismantle their answers and so lead the poor person to the clear realization that his or her original understanding was simply wrong. One of my professors in graduate school had the unnerving habit of rephrasing an argument in even stronger terms than the author-and then showing why the reasoning was wrong. It's embarrassing to have your argument raised up before it is razed to the ground! Having our ignorance so clearly demonstrated is not a pleasant experience.
A second, and related, difficulty is that learning is often painful. Learning is hard work. It requires us to wrestle with texts that come from other times, other cultures, other worldviews. We have to learn new languages and new alphabets even to have access to many of the ideas.
Learning requires us to understand different ways of thinking, different ways of organizing reality and making sense of the world. Think of the different criteria of truth that are at work in science, in mathematics, in poetry, in ethics, in religion. The pursuit of the truth is not via a single, simple path. The journey is highly complex, and requires many changes of clothing. Learning requires sophistication and facility in moving among different modes of thought and knowing when to apply the right method to the appropriate field. If, for example, we read biblical claims in scientific terms, we will conclude that the world is only a few thousand years old. Such skirmishing between religion and science is unnecessary once we realize that the two fields are making different kinds of claims that employ legitimately different criteria of truth.
Learning can also be disillusioning. Even when we suck it up and admit our ignorance, even when we are willing to put our shoulder to the wheel of hard work, still we may not always find consolation in what turns out to be true. The great thinkers usually incur people's wrath. Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud come to mind. Friedrich Nietzsche defined a philosopher as "a fateful person around whom snarling, quarreling, discord and uncanniness is always going on."
The Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that "in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain."
Loving learning requires a willingness to go where the truth leads us, even if it is not where we want to go. Before I give my major talks, I have colleagues read them and criticize them. I ask them to give me honest feedback-and then when they do, I often say "ouch!" The truth hurts.
Finally, we must always remember that learning can be downright dangerous. Pursuing the truth is often at the expense of an established order that protects powerful self-interests. Learning can be subversive. The two greatest teachers in the West, Socrates and Jesus, were both executed for their pursuit of the truth, for their love of learning.
So, when we ask about the love of learning, the question before us is this: How can we encourage students to fall in love with something that is often uncomfortable, painful, disillusioning, and even dangerous? We should start by acknowledging that nobody can make anybody else fall in love. Getting students to fall in love with learning is not entirely up to us, no matter how competent we are. Students must want to fall in love.
What we can do as a college community is to create the conditions that maximize the chances that students will be attracted to learning and fall in love with it. We can try to order the evening's events so that they enjoy the perfect blind date, and the match gets made. How might we do this? Well, this is the heart of the matter, and I look forward to your thoughts in our follow-up conversations this year.
Here are my three suggestions:
First, I think we need to create the right campus environment, one where we set high standards and expectations of our students. Our students need to know that we respect them enough to regard them as capable of learning difficult and wonderful things. We expect them to want to fall in love with great things, because we have confidence in their abilities. Last year on a flight I sat next to a young woman. Because we were on a Canadian Regional Jet where you practically have to sit in your neighbor's lap because the seats are so narrow, I could not help noticing that she was reading Plato's Republic. "You must be a student," I said; "otherwise you probably wouldn't be reading Plato." "Yes," she said, "I am a student; but actually I'd be reading this anyway. It's really good." Bravo for her, and shame on me! Let's respect our students by setting our expectations high.
The other side of high expectations is strong support. We need to work with our students over and over until they achieve greatness. One of our strategic priorities is to foster a "Culture of Achievement." This means helping students see that wrong answers can lead toward understanding, that mistakes are opportunities for further learning, that failure should not be an option. Creating a culture of achievement also means removing unnecessary barriers to student success. In a major that has capacity, for example, why do we set the entrance requirements higher than the overall College graduation requirements? This sends a confusing signal: You're good enough to be a graduate but not good enough to be a major. Some of our practices may actually discourage the love of learning.
My second suggestion for fostering the love of learning is to help our students see that what is true is also good and beautiful. The ancients understood this, and they held that truth, goodness and beauty are ultimately one. This may sound abstract and esoteric, but it is an extremely important point if we want to encourage the love of learning. We regard the truth. But we desire what we think is good for us, and we fall in love with what we find beautiful. It was not a bare truth that launched a thousand ships in the Trojan war; Homer tells us that it was Helen's beautiful face.
In his talk to American Catholic college presidents last April, Pope Benedict made an explicit connection between truth and goodness: "knowing the truth leads us to discover the good." In another address, he said that "the purpose of knowing the truth is to know the good."
Why are truth and its pursuit good? Because the alternative is evil. Although "knowledge hath a bloody entrance," the consequences of ignorance are much worse. Ignorance is not bliss. Plato thought that ignorance was the root of all evil. I don't go that far myself; I think original sin figures pretty heavily in the mix. However, ignorance does lead to a lot of bad things, such as witch hunts, false and dangerous stereotypes, deaths by preventable or curable disease, and the pathetic repetition of actions that history has clearly shown to be tragic. Careful thought and disciplined knowledge should lead to better results.
John Keats famously wrote that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty-this is all/Ye know on earth and all ye need to know." Why is the truth not only good, but also beautiful? Because knowing the truth can lead to happiness, and happiness is a form of beauty. Let me unpack that statement, the tail end first.
Beauty is a matter of balance and proportion. Whether we are talking about a beautiful space (such as the Library of Congress reading room) or a beautiful building (such as the Taj Mahal in India or Tower Hall in Duluth) or a beautiful piece of art or a beautiful face, beauty is a pleasing balance between opposites, such as complexity and simplicity, or novelty and predictability. Too much novelty and we are overwhelmed. Too much predictability and we are bored. Just the right balance, and we say "Wow! That's beautiful!"
Human happiness is also a matter of balance and right proportion.
One of the great themes in Greek thought and in the Christian tradition is that happiness consists in adjusting our lives to what is true. For the Greeks, happiness was not so much a feeling as a right relationship between humans and other humans and between humans and the cosmos. The Greeks identified fundamental laws of nature which, when we violate them, lead to disaster, and when we live in accord with them, lead to happiness. I am not talking only about physical laws such as gravity-though ignoring gravity will definitely lead to unhappiness!-but also about the deep truths about human nature having to do with right relationships and with right actions. This is a key to interpreting Greek mythology and Greek tragedy. Oedipus kills a man he does not know is his father and marries a woman he does not know is his mother. But his ignorance does not change the fact that he has violated two laws of nature, and he must pay the tragic price. Icarus, wanting to escape the island of Crete, fashions a pair of wax wings. Disregarding his father's warning not to fly too close to the sun, he over-reaches human possibility, melts his wings, and plunges to his death.
The Christian analog to this Greek insight about conforming one's life to the contours of what is really true is the idea of living according to the will of God.
On both accounts, the Greek and the Christian, happiness is a matter of integrity between worldview and lifestyle, between what we understand to be true and how we live. An analogy to this understanding of happiness may be found in the area of physical health. Every time we begin a diet or an exercise program we illustrate the point that our well-being requires that we live in conformity with certain basic truths: No tobacco, moderate alcohol, low sodium, plenty of exercise, fruits and veggies, and so on. Happiness is like that: living our lives in accord with certain basic truths.
The strongest evidence supporting this view of happiness is the human conscience, especially the guilty conscience. In Dostoevsky's masterpiece, Crime and Punishment, a young man commits the perfect murder. Nobody else knows of his brutal killing of a despised old pawnbroker woman. But he knows it, and it undoes him. He has committed a crime against nature, and he cannot live with his tortured soul. Only the peaceful conscience sleeps well. Two of Woody Allen's fils--Crimes and Misdemeanors and Cassandra's Dream--make this point in provocative contemporary terms.
If human happiness requires that we align our lives with what is true, then obviously we need to know what is true. After the fall of the Soviet Union, an elderly Estonian man confessed his confusion to a friend of mine: "I don't know what to believe now; I don't know what is real anymore." Can such a man be happy? This is why it is so important in our lives to find out what is real and what is only a shadow. As Oedipus taught us, ignorance is no excuse.
Learning is the process by which we move from ignorance to understanding; it is the pilgrimage from appearance to reality. Plato gave the classic expression of this insight in his myth of the cave. Prisoners are bound in a cave, facing a wall, with a fire behind them. Their view of what is real is restricted to watching shadows cast on the wall by the fire. Then, they turn and discover the fire, and realize that there is more to reality than they had previously understood. Finally, one of them breaks free of the fetters, exits the cave, and is overwhelmed by the bright light of the sun that illuminates everything vividly. This, for Plato, is the human process of moving from shadowy appearances to brilliant reality. This is learning. We might imagine our own work with students in these terms.
Pope Benedict said during his American visit that "to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love (intellectual charity)," because leading someone out of error to the truth is leading them to the possibility of genuine happiness.
The truth is both good and beautiful; it is desirable and lovable. This is important wisdom that we need to translate for our students.
My third suggestion for how we can foster the love of learning at our College is to model it ourselves. Nothing is so contagious as passion, and not infrequently, students will fall in love with a subject just because their professor is in love with it. This is true whether we teach the liberal arts or professional programs. To paraphrase Tolstoy: Every bad teacher is bad in a different way, but every good teacher is good in the same way. Every good teacher manifests a love of learning.
In my interview with faculty candidates, I always ask "What do you want your students to learn from having studied with you?" or "Why do you love teaching?" A true teacher will field such a question with ease and conviction.
But it is not only faculty who can model the love of learning. We are all in this educational project together. We who are staff can also show students the love of learning in so many ways.
· All of us can manifest intellectual curiosity and continue to learn throughout our careers;
· We can honestly admit our mistakes, because we love learning more than being right;
· We can try to avoid taking criticism personally, because the truth is more important than our egos;
· We can resist the rush to judgement, and wait on the evidence, because we love the truth more than simplicity or speed;
· We can listen carefully to the substance of an argument, independent of the speaker's personality, because we know that the truth may be spoken even by someone we do not like;
· We can refuse to spread half-truths or to trade in innuendo, because we love the true more than the sensational;
· We can show that it is possible to change our mind without "flip-flopping," because we know that learning is supposed to change us.
These and so many other seemingly prosaic actions are simple expressions of the love of learning, and their demonstration is not lost on our students.
These, then, are my suggestions for encouraging a love of learning among ourselves and our students: Create the right environment of high expectations and strong support, connect truth with goodness and beauty, and model the love ourselves.
The love of learning is central to our Catholic Benedictine heritage. It is at the heart of our work together as educators. Sharing and spreading this love is the greatest gift that we in the academy can give to the next generation and to the world. Let's help one another do it!
I'm looking forward to working with you in the year ahead.