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The Joy of Learning

We experience the joy of learning in those moments when a conundrum is resolved, when an unanswered question finds its solution, when we move from ignorance to knowledge or from confusion to clarity. Sometimes the moments are quite simple, like when we learned what 4+2 was as little children or when we learned why leaves turn red in the fall.

Of course, we only have that joy of learning if we ask questions. It follows that if we want our students/children to continue to grow in their own joy of learning we have to listen more to their questions and spend less time giving them information they aren’t ready for. The latter will not only fail to promote the joy of learning, it will confuse the child into thinking that learning (which he hasn’t experienced, though he may have been told he has) is boring. Which it is, by definition, because he just learned something he didn’t want to know.

Sometimes the moments are quite glorious, the result of days, weeks, years, even decades of inquiry and contemplation – the resolution of an ongoing mystery, the settling of an unending issue, the discovery of a vital piece of information that completes the puzzle, the connection between ideas that seemed to contradict each other.

When that happens, the joy can be overwhelming.

I just had one of those moments, and its particularly compelling to me because the epiphany I’ve just experienced explains why epiphanies bring so much joy.

The reason is because the soul of man in its intellectual function (which doesn’t mean that part of us that goes to college to unlearn how to relate to people; it refers to that part of us that seeks understanding, which is the energizing force of the two year old’s mind) is impelled to move in the first place by a need (not a mere desire) for harmony.

We hate disharmony, disunity, disorder – however you want to put it. We hate confusion. We hate not knowing the answer to any question, though we learn to adapt. That is why math, which most of us consider only marginally relevent, brings out more tears and anxiety than any other class. We love math. What we hate is not knowing it. We hate not being able to find the harmony between the right side and the left side of the equation.

The quest for harmony is, quite literally, the thing that makes us think in the first place. Survival may make us act, but survival is a practical application of harmony. We want to be in harmony with the world we live in. If it trips us or runs us over, our harmony is broken. While the pain bothers our body, the sense of a broken relationship bothers our souls even more.

The quest for harmony moves the mind. When we see it in a person, we call it integrity and we admire it. When we see it in a painting, we call it beauty and we love it. When we hear it in music, we call it beauty, and we weep. When we see it in the government, we call it justice and we rejoice. When we see it in math, we call it equality and we exult. When we feel it with another person, we call it love and we live.

But that’s not the epiphany I just experienced. A lot of that came yesterday, while I was meeting with teachers at Veritas in Richmond to consult on curriculum.

This morning (which is when most of my epiphanies come), I was reviewing my time with the Veritas folks (which is how most of my epiphanies come), and I went over the elements of the learning experience. In it, there is a teacher, there is a student, and there is an action or idea that the student is learning. Classically speaking, when an action is being learned, the student is gaining mastery over an art. When an idea is being learned, the student is gaining mastery of a science (a domain of knowing).

So I got thinking: how does a student (say, me) gain mastery of an art? The easiest answer is to say that I practice it. But what does that really mean? What am I doing when I practice an art. This was the key moment. When I practice an art, I am imitating another master of that art.

But wait a moment. Imitation is what apes do, not humans. What could this mean. So I thought a step further. When I imitate a master of an art, what am I doing. I spend a lot of time thinking about obvious things because I’m not smart enough to think deep thoughts. So I tried to see the obvious elements of the act of imitating.

First, if I’m going to imitate something, first I have to perceive it. If I am going to imitate a master guitar player, I have to see and hear one play. If I am going to become a great swimmer, I have to watch what great swimmers do. If I am going to become a great thinker, I have to watch what great thinkers do. And the first thing they do, is perceive what they want to imitate.

Second, that perception has to go beyond my senses into my soul. I have to absorb it. This, it seems to me, is not something we choose to do or not to do. If we perceive something with the senses, we will absorb it into our souls like a tree will absorb water into its roots. It is the nature of our soul to do that. However, and this is a crucial point, the effectiveness of our absorbtion will be determined by the strength of our perception. Therefore, the most important thing for a learner to do when he is perceiving is to pay attention.

Pay attention!! The most important skill for grammar level students (and preschool children) to develop.

Once the soul has absorbed what the senses perceived, it passes it on to the intellect (the faculty that understands). The intellect then works over what it receives (it has nothing else to work with, except, maybe, itself) until it apprehends what it has perceived. That is to say, it gets it. It knows what it is, if only in part.

So if I perceive a swimmer with my senses and my soul absorbs the swimmer’s swimming, my mind then, over time and through varied experiences, gets to the point where it can say, “That is swimming.” That is a mini-epiphany and characterizes the child’s early years.

Now watch this. Since my senses have perceived and my mind has apprehended swimming, I am now able to do something extraordinary. I can take the idea of swimming out of my mind and express it myself with my body. I can swim! And if I perfectly imitate the master swimmer, I will be a master swimmer myself!

Of course, I won’t be able to perfectly imitate the master swimmer because that will take more practice until my movements are adjusted to the perfections of the master. Then it is conceivable that I could even improve on the master! But not until I’ve mastered the art itself.

I don’t have time to go into it now, but the same pattern is followed when you learn a science or any other idea.

Here is where my morning epiphany came in. The Christian classical tradition has always honored three modes of teaching. The most famous is probably the Socratic mode. The most abused is the rhetorical mode (giving lectures). And the most unknown is what I have called the didactic mode.

But, to be honest, I’ve never felt like the word didactic is the best word, partly because it is used entirely differently now than it seems to have been in the ancient world. Now it seems to refer to authoritative badgering of the students. Then it meant a discussion based on models.

The didactic mode goes through five stages: first, you raise to your students awareness everything you can about what he already knows about the lesson being taught. Second, you present types (examples, illustrations, etc.) of the idea being taught. Third, you compare those examples with each other so the student can come to see (to apprehend) the idea. Fourth, the student expresses the idea in his own words. And finally, the student applies the idea.

Elegant and unbelievably powerful.

Yesterday, it began to become very clear to me that in those five stages the child is following the same pattern outlined in the description of learning above. The teacher presents types to the student, who perceives them with his senses. The teacher guides the student in comparing the types, which assists the student in absorbing the types by impelling him to be attentive to them. The teacher then asks the student to express the idea in his own words, thus asking the student to demonstrate that he has apprehended the idea and can re-present it in words. Finally, the teachers guides the student in an application of the idea, thus finalizing or clinching the re-presentation of the idea not only in words but in actions.

The epiphany for me was two-fold. First, I had never so clearly seen the details of the parallel roles of the teacher and the learner in the learning process (now you can see why I have to stay at the surface level of life). Second, I had never so clearly seen how all learning – all learning – is imitation. Not aping the external movements, but this rather sophisticated version of imitating the idea that was embodied in external movements, gestures, etc.

So I lay in my hotel room bed rolling all these thoughts around in my mind when from out of the blue a word came to me. It’s a vast and huge and emormous word in the Christian classical tradition, a word I’ve heard many times. But this time it came up from behind and whispered the name I’ve spent years looking for to apply to this mode of learning by the contemplation and imitation of types.

It reminds me of Adam and the animals in Genesis 2. God, we are told, brought the animals to Adam and he named them. He was somehow able to see their essences and to give them names based on those essences! Wow!

But there is no evidence that he named an animal before it was brought to him. That’s what we often do to kids. We tell them the names of animals they’ve never seen.

Well, this lovely, quiet, peaceful, gentle animal approached in all its loveliness, quietness, peacefulness, and gentelness and whispered her name into my soul.

“I am Mimesis,” she said. “Come and learn.”

I mounted, I ride, I exult. I will never dismount.

Will you ride with me?

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