Saturday, April 16, 2016

Limits of book learning.

When I was in college, and shortly thereafter, I was very hot on the wisdom to be found in books. I began reading Plato and some of the more modern chaps, hoping to fill the holes in my education and solidify the wisdom that I hoped above all attributes to possess.

You might have thought that I'd have been more wary. Not that the books were bad; I chose only the best, and I learned a lot. But I didn't figure in evidence of the limitations of book learning:

1) Real-world experience was an entirely different order of knowledge, which I knew since my old man was no college kid but still an extremely bright and accomplished guy -- and if I expected book knowledge to fill in my experience, that was not going to happen;

2) Books could only be as good as the reader, which my titanic struggles with trigonometry should have made obvious (I assume we had a good textbook in high school but I barely understood enough to know if it was);

3) A lot of books are written by numskulls, dimwits, shysters, con artists, thieves, dullards, dingbats, highbinders, gasbags, dodos, and miscellaneous knuckleheads, and they all have one thing in common: They want to sell books. So the blurb may be writing checks that the text can't cash.

I was reminded of all this when I saw this gem in the library the other day:

Now, for all I know, Teach Yourself Swahili may be one of the most revolutionary language texts ever written, one that has whole legions of English speakers babbling fluently in Swahili by page 10. Perhaps if I'd had books in the series about Spanish and French, those courses would have been Easy A's for me instead of difícil B's and misérable C's. But I doubt it.

If I have learned anything in life, it's that learning itself is hard. Sure, when you completely fall in love with a subject -- often something like fishing or poetry -- it may not feel hard, but if you looked at all the man-hours you put into learning it, you'd probably see it was a lot of time and thus effort. And how many things do we have to learn in life that spark real passion? Some people may be able to explain the uses of algebra eloquently, but does anyone love it? (I loved it more in retrospect when I ran up against the cheese grater of trig.) And not everyone will love a particular thing -- some people love to cook, but for others it is a horror show. I am suspicious of every attempt to make learning fun for kids, because at some point the fun is going to stop but the learning will have to continue.

Malcolm Gladwell touts the 10,000-hour rule, that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get very good at anything. I suppose that may be true. That would be five years of full-time work with two weeks off a year. But you have to work the right way. I don't think that spending 10,000 hours with Teach Yourself Swahili would get me to any real language competence, although I'd probably be able to get around. Except that the boredom would kill me before the five years was up.

One other thing I learned about books: It used to be a point of honor for me to finish any book I started. Not anymore. Life's too short. I encourage anyone to follow that rule, except with my books. You have to finish those. All the best stuff is at the end.

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