Posts Tagged ‘learning’

I have never been an habitual reader of the Bible.  This is a failing, I know, but my carelessness goes back to my childhood, at a time when I suppose I identified the Bible with school assemblies – and I more or less hated school.  It is the same with our great authors – Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, et al ; I associate them all with school, and I have more or less ignored them all until comparatively recently.

As a result of all this, I am not like a cradle Christian, and for that I am somewhat grateful for my early life.  I am grateful not least because I spent so much time trying to make sense of the crazy world of the adults in my life that I became insatiably inquisitive about all things.  But, most of all, I became inquisitive about people and what makes them tick.  In other words, I am religious without being hampered by religiosity.

Of course, much of what I learned came from books ; for it’s all very well to observe behaviour in order to learn, but it is vain to try to invent theories that explain that behaviour without reference to greater minds who have given the matter more thought.  And in the course of my explorations, I have learned that it is also vain to trust the theories of others uncritically.  There are few experiences more depressing than a correspondence or a conversation with someone who quotes Shakespeare by the yard or the Book of Genesis by the metre ; or a blogger who pastes whole column-feet from Wikipedia.

With regard to my approach to learning, I recently came across two kindred spirits, and I stress that they are both far more clever than I ; and the second of those spirits is possibly far more clever than most people give him credit for.

DH Lawrence is not particularly well-known for his philosophy and his religion.  But I do recommend his very last book, published a year after his death.  It is called Apocalypse.  In it he addresses the meaning of the book, and compares his understanding with the many other opinions that have flourished since the earliest times ; opinions which range from the scholarly to the downright loony.  I have skimmed through Lawrence’s Apocalypse, as I usually do with a new book, and have only just begun to read it.

In the Introduction, there is a quotation which caught my eye : Lawrence wrote this :-

I am no ‘scholar’ of any sort.  But I am very grateful to scholars for their sound work.  I have found hints, suggestions for what I say here in all kinds of scholarly books, from Yoga and Plato and St. John the Evangel and the early Greek philosophers like Herakleitos down to Frazer and his ‘Golden Bough,’ and even Freud and Frobenius.  Even then I only remember hints – and I proceed by intuition.

Now here we have someone who is no mere book-learner.  He gathers information and proceeds to think about it ; and from his thinking he receives trustworthy intuitions – spontaneous realizations about the meaning of what he has read.  He does not feel bound by what he has read, but uses his readings as a springboard to deeper understandings.  He is a true seeker of knowledge.

Also he writes elsewhere that you can divide books into two classes : those that do not bear re-reading : and those that do.  A good book, he says, will offer new revelations at each successive reading.

Now all this is just what I should have said if only I had Lawrence’s skill with thoughts and words.  For, surely he is right on both counts.  For books by even the great writers are not there to be taken at face value ; they are not there to be slavishly believed and slavishly quoted from.  Even the greatest books are there to be intelligently interpreted and re-interpreted ; this is the secret of their greatness ; this is the seat of their power ; this is the key to the evolution of human consciousness.  Any other approach comes close to idolatry.

But there are limits to interpretation.  The aim is to allow the meaning of the original text to evolve ; to keep its spirit alive ; for it is the spirit that gives the text its life.  The aim is not merely to change the meaning of the text, for that is not evolution, but substitution, and that is likely to end in meaninglessness. I regret that many interpreters make that mistake.


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Atop the lonely mountainside
There sits a lonely child ;
The chill that penetrates his bones
Makes hard his soul and wild.

He thought him freedom he would find
When once he broke him free
From labours of the rocky climb.
But it was not to be.

Thirteen long years of study toiled
To learn the ways, the thought
Required ; that adults said they knew.
He sees that all was nought.

The liberation promised him,
By those whom learning thralled,
Scant record left ; now he could see
That ignorance him walled.

Forlorn he sat, that lonely youth,
Beside a wind-stripped tree,
His intellect was numb with cold
His mind and soul agree.

The wide warm world before him spread
Beneath his rocky perch ;
So many things unknown to him
Appeared in mists to search.

‘Twas there the knowledge that he sought ;
A-far from barren prose ;
‘Twas there the brooks of living flowed,
Where dwells the summer rose.

There, too, the creatures of the wood
Are born to roam and fly
According to their natures’ will,
So free from pedants dry.

How, far below, each lifesome thing
Did raise its smiling head !
Their gazes turned to meet his eye
And sullen hues were shed !

High-hearted now, he raised his soul.
Or did his soul raise him?
He cared not which nor gave it thought,
Such joy did fire his whim.

And with his soul, he raised his eyes
(Or did his soul raise them?)
And saw, above the kindly mist,
A sight worth more than gem.

A mountain tow’rd afar from where
His climb had left him sad ;
All clad in green and topped in white,
All for the new-woke lad.

Resolved he was, from that point on,
Exploring for to go ;
To seek belov’d enlightenment
And cast away his woe.

‘Begone!’ he cried as down he swept,
By rock and thistle foul,
Forever down to that old ground
Where doubts went cheek by jowl.

‘Let come that light!’ he cried again,
As through the town he sped,
“Which melts the gloom of pallid thought
Where doubt and dust are bred.’

Behind him left he bricks and slate
And streets of tarmac black ;
Such speed he had that all was blur,
No thought of going back.

Now on he raced, by path and lea,
Towards the vista seen
To offer promises of joy,
Of treasures bright and keen.

‘Cross moor and hill, through copse and fen,
By dells’ and dingles’ charm,
The young man scythed his merry way.
And learned he nought of harm.

His tomes were but a mem’ry now,
His pains a source of strength.
Long dreary hours of classroom talk
Were shrunken in their length.

So here at last, in Nature’s arms,
The spring of all that’s wise,
He felt he had come home at last,
Had won a mighty prize.

‘Mid scents and sounds, and colours soft
He felt the taste, the zest
Of perfect peace, once only dreamed.
So laid him down to rest.

Jamie MacNab 2012

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Back in the fifties, when the world and I were young, it was quite common for the BBC to broadcast interesting and informative tv programmes.  I learned much from watching, and listening to, impossibly clever professors of this and doctors of that discussing really important subjects.  Of all the delights that came with these discussions there was one which never failed to keep me rivetted to the screen and hanging on to every word spoken ; and this was when a member of the panel was a foreigner.  In those halcyon days, of course, to be both a  foreigner and a professor meant to be either a German professor or an East European professor.  Nothing less would do.

What struck me most about these foreign professors was that, although they expressed their brilliant ideas in a style of English that was in all technical respects impeccable, they were all handicapped by having almost impenetrable accents.  “How,” I asked, “Is it possible that they have learned the English language so excellently, and yet they cannot pronounce it properly?”  I thought, in my ignorance, that the pronunciation would be the easiest part of using a language.  I was to get clues to their difficulty much later.

Psychologists and neurologists seem to agree that the new-born child is equipped with a full set of cells for its nervous system ; from the brain to the furthest toe, all the nerve cells that will ever be needed are present.  But, although present, comparatively few of them are in full working order ; and this is particularly true of the brain, where our more complex mental functions are performed.  You can get an idea of this when you see how small a baby’s head is.  And you can get an idea of brain-cell immaturity when you see the baby making laughable attempts to control and co-ordinate the movements of its limbs ; for the limbs are directed by particular sets of brain cells.  It takes time and practice for those cells to mature.

And the movements of the muscles needed to produce speech are similarly immature at birth ; they too need time and practice to mature.  And those movements are complex and delicate, which explains, perhaps, why speech is comparatively late in appearing.

Linguists, like all scientists, are forever refining their opinions on the basics of their trade.  But they used to say that there are about forty to fifty distinct sounds that the human voice can make.  No language uses all possible sounds, but most use most of them, with distinct differences between different languages.  Thus English speakers will use (say) about forty distinct sounds, while German speakers will use (say) forty-one.  But several sounds used in English do not appear in German, and vice versa.

But what has this to do with clever professors not being able to speak English clearly?  Well, it boils down to a question of their age when they first learned to speak English.

Brain cells not only mature with practice, but they also have a ‘sensitive period’ in which the maturation can occur.  Attempts to teach a month-old baby to speak are doomed to fail because the cells controlling speech are not ready even to begin to learn ; the sensitive period has yet to start.  When the child does begin to learn it naturally learns to make those sounds that are peculiar to its native language ; it imitates the sounds made by its parents, and it quite quickly becomes fluent.

But it usually does not learn the sounds that are foreign to its parents ; indeed, if makes such a sound, its parents will discourage it.  And those foreign sounds might never be learned by the child ; certainly it will not ordinarily become fluent in them.

So, does all this mean that a German child can never learn good English pronunciation (or vice versa)?  Not at all, for the sensitive period for learning speech lasts until about the eighteenth year.  After that, the learning gets harder until it is all but defunct.  So, schools are quite able to teach a foreign language, provided that sufficient time is allowed for practice.

Well, all this I learned late in life, alas.  But at least it solved a mystery for me.  I now knew why Professor X had perfect English, all bar the pronunciation.  I also learned that there seem to be sensitive periods for other skills, and that they are not the same as for language learning.  So, when I meet someone who is pretty awful at maths for example, despite being very rational, I am slow to judge on his apparent lack of intelligence.  Not everyone who fails to appreciate good music is blameworthy in any way.  And people who lack the dexterity for delicate tasks are not necessarily at personal fault.

Generally, although we are able to understand our own shortcomings a little better with a little more knowledge, we would be wise to avoid the trap of failing to appreciate the knowledge of others ; knowledge of which we have almost no understanding, through no fault of our own.

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When we were young we were told that all the essentially good things we possess are gifts.  They are talents, and are not in any way due to any powers of our own.  If I can see the beauty of a colourful garden, it is not on account of anything I did ; if I am enchanted by the sound of a symphony, it is not because I made it possible.  I did nothing to create these gifts ; they were simply given to me.

And, because the gifts were given freely, we had a duty to use them fully and wisely.  And, although we did nothing to create these gifts, we are able to fashion them so as to enhance them.  But we ourselves could do little to fashion the gifts unaided ; we needed teachers who would show us how to do it.  And we had a duty to fashion, or train, our natural gifts ; these received treasures were not for hoarding, as a miser might do, but for using.  I am reminded of the words of William Cobbett : money is like muck, no good unless it be spread.  Likewise, our talents are no good unless they be used.  Or again, from an earlier writer, “Words without deeds are an abomination.”

But where did the idea come from?  What made people first think that our talents are gifts?  Why did they imagine that we ourselves could not have brought them into being?  Clearly, such ideas come from a good deal of thinking.

And, why the insistence that we should be grateful for them?  Why the emphasis on our duty to use them wisely and for the greater, wider good?  Clearly these questions (and the answers to them) arise from the acceptance of the idea itself.  But why should we burden ourselves with a moral responsibility?  Why not just accept the gifts without any inclination to be grateful?

Or, alternatively, perhaps our talents are not gifts ; perhaps nothing was given, and nothing received, either.  Perhaps it is a question of things being just the way they are.  Perhaps things are the way they are because they could not possibly have been otherwise.  If all things in the mighty universe came about by chance, then we have no reason to be grateful for anything ; we have no duty to make ourselves useful.

It doesn’t matter which view we take, we still have a mystery.





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What is a one-year-old grandchild but an elaborate little machine for turning damson porridge into smiles?  I suspect this to be true, because once or twice I have enjoyed a Royal Visit from the young lady and gentleman in question.  I have the damson stains on my shirt ; I have the memory of the little sticky kisses… I know it to be true.

But it was not always like this.  For when a child’s age is to be reckoned in mere weeks, instead of months, we are dealing with a very different creature.  The newborn child is so deficient of the experience of living in the world that it really is like a little machine ; a machine that is governed entirely by selfish desires ; a machine that that is almost entirely emotional ; indeed, a machine that displays only four states of existence :  unconsciousness : indifference : bliss : and rage.  It is unconscious when asleep ; it is indifferent when awake but not aware of any discomfort ; in bliss when recently fed and comforted ; and in a rage when its discomfort is ignored.

It is the rage that we tend to notice, for it becomes extreme in a remarkably short time.  The hungry infant is a terror to behold, with its red-to-purple face, its bawling mouth, its nearly-closed hard eyes, its clenching fists.  As the very observant Freud remarked, if an adult were to behave in this way then, unless you could outrun it, you would have no choice but to shoot it.  For otherwise it would certainly kill you. Small wonder that Freud shocked our Victorian forebears, with their idealized notions of childhood.

And yet, Freud did no more than remind us of an ancient truth ; that man is born steeped in sin.  He didn’t put it quite like that, of course, but  that is what he meant.  We are selfish, pleasure-seeking and aggressive in our very natures.  And it is that selfishness, that pleasure-seeking, and that aggressiveness which good parenting seeks to control and sublimate to more noble ends.

But, when you’re just a little Granddaughter or Grandson, who can’t even say, “I’m twelve munce old,”  ( let alone spell it) you don’t know any of this.  But you are very, very  busy putting your infantilism behind you – and fast learning how to be a lil machine for turning porridge into smiles.

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