October 23, 2020

What is the point of learning anything?


You’re just going to forget it anyway. Well, perhaps not. But this proverb is common enough to sound about right. You might forget your organic chemistry or French poetry after the exams; it is unlikely that you will remember every inch of what you desire to know. Information is hard to retain because our minds work hard to compress and condense until we possess only what they decide we actually need- be it quotations crammed at the eleventh hour, or indeed months of revision. My evidence is that the stress of examinations appears to make the brain fundamentally reconsider what it deems ‘necessary’!

That is because ‘information’ and ‘learning’ are not the same. Information is disposable to your mind once it has passed relevance. It can be entirely sterile; it need not act upon the mind other than one’s desire to have it there. It can sit, unconnected in the pit of the mind, doing nothing. It is the act of learning itself- of tethering and forming connections between what you have stored away and what you actually think- that creates a place where knowledge can endure.  The vast fields and palaces of memory and imagination might appear ferociously hard to penetrate. But with every attempt towards the communication and development of ideas the mind improves its own technique. To put it simply, the acquisition of knowledge is both active, and passive: an athlete who retires will still be stronger and fitter than a person who has never exercised.

We never really stop learning. It is a natural need. We learn experientially in our skills, jobs and hobbies. We learn about social realities in our lives, principles and practices. Why then should you practice intellection if most learning is a natural by-product of life? The answer is that it has never been more important. Our society is now so intellectually complicated by conceptual systems of law, technology and politics that on all sides we are surrounded by the bizarre necessities of a digital age and modern life. Even hot button political topics like Brexit are defined by conceptual complexity. One cannot point to a ‘Brexit’ as one could a cow or a house. It consists of an attempt to consider the consequences of a conglomeration of laws, economic realities, treaties and historical principles which we are untangling. How could one comprehend such a thing without intellection?

But far more important is that intellectual learning is effectively a kind of conceptual engineering. We live in an age where it expected that individuals will build their own worldviews and values. The skills which intellection supports: self-awareness, conceptual acuity, analysis, and self-expression have never been more important. But learning is difficult. Much of it is almost ‘somatic’; that is to say principles must be matched to practices in the hope that eventually one will progress to a deeper understanding. This is an investment into a hidden future, and ultimately an article of faith. Moreover, it is a social process tethered to ambitions and institutions, and so sometimes one has to learn what you would rather not.

So why learn anything? Because it will improve your mind, as an athlete trains the body. It will help you understand yourself, never fully perhaps but better than before. It will help you to comprehend society better- where it has come from, how it exists now, and perhaps even where you can fit into it. But without learning there is perhaps nothing at all, or at least nothing which we can understand. Without utility nothing sticks in the mind and thus the purpose of good learning is to realise that nothing is more precious than knowledge. Then perhaps you might remember it anyway!