Learning Not To Learn

Several years ago my son gave me a moment of pause. I don’t remember specifically what it was that he said, but it was something where he was wrong, and was desperately trying to debate me into a stalemate.

We’ve all been there. We start out thinking we are on the correct side of an argument, and then the argument starts to turn against us. Rather than accepting that maybe the person with whom we are arguing has something we can learn from, we change tactics away from trying to win the debate, and instead start trying not to lose.

Once you flip in a debate from trying to win, to trying not to lose, you are also learning not to learn, as the process of ‘not losing’ dismisses the other side out of hand. Some people even start out this way – going straight to insults without any attempt to even hear the other side.

I told my son, “Intelligence is a great asset when used to explore, to study, and to understand the world around us, but when intelligence becomes a crutch against learning, it is a liability.”

I’ve been guilty of the same thing. We all have.

I was the big dog on my high school debate and forensics team. I had a cousin who was in the best program in the state. I overheard this cousin say to his coach once, just as a tournament was kicking off, “This should be an easy tournament. I’ve got Wally in several rounds.”

I’ll never forget what my cousin’s coach said in reply. “Don’t be so cocky. Wally is not very well coached, and he makes mistakes, but if Wally has a good day, there is nothing you can do about it.”

In retrospect, my cousin’s coach left out one more critical fact: I was lazy. I coasted through High School getting A’s and B’s without any real effort, and I approached debate and forensics with the same attitude I approached everything else. Whatever natural skill I had prevented me from improving, and was a liability rather than an asset.

It was not until I joined the Marine Corps that I developed any sense of discipline, and really I did not develop discipline so much as discipline was force-fed into me. I was truly surprised how much easier life became. I found that in college, if I simply did my reading, listened in lectures, and did my homework, everything was an ‘A’. The same basic rules applied to my professional life.

The real change was not so much the discipline as what the discipline enabled me to do – for the first time in my life, rather than using my intelligence to avoid needing to learn, I was using it to help myself learn more.

It turns out that intelligence + knowledge trumps intelligence by itself. To think of it as an analogy, intelligence is the strength of a blade whereas knowledge is its sharpness, and a dull blade does not know how important sharpness is until after it is sharpened. As a consequence, with people, many of the strongest blades stay dull.

I had a friend whose father had always told him he was a genius. If he did poorly in school, his father would tell him that the problem was that his teachers were not smart enough to teach someone of his intellect. This friend really is quite brilliant, but he is also very unaccomplished. Having known everything at birth, he never bothered to learn. And he still thinks he knows everything.

Some people say that I think I know everything, but if you go through my blog (and particularly if you look at my earlier writings and compare them to my later ones), you’ll notice several things. One is that the purpose of my blog is not to show how much I know, but to frame my thoughts in ways that help me to learn more. I don’t just market my articles in right-leaning groups for this reason; I market them in left-leaning groups as well. I do that because every once in a while someone will take the time to rationally challenge me, and while I love hearing positive comments about my writing, I learn far more from those who disagree with me, and who challenge me with reasoned, articulate, supportable arguments.

Another thing someone might see from reading my blog is that I often approach subjects more than once, and that how I approach them, as well as what I say about them, evolves over time. That is precisely because I am still learning.

Of course, learning does not imply playing dead. A good debate is a process in which both sides ardently defend their positions, and in which both sides examine the arguments from the other side. If an argument cannot be refuted, or is very difficult to refute, its likely that learning needs to occur, and that positions need to be modified.

I used to run into reasoned debate far more frequently than I do now. The politics of the day are not just driven by polarization of viewpoints – that has always been somewhat true. No – the politics of the day are driven by an inability of opposing viewpoints to co-exist.

99% of the time that I post on left-leaning forums these days, the only thing I get back are personal attacks. I’m called a ‘trumpster,’ a ‘trumpeter,’ a ‘part of the Trumpster Fire,’ or some other such thing. I’m often called a Nazi, a racist, or an <insert group> phobe ‘du jour’.

In fairness to the left, plenty of people on the right do the same thing, confusing insults with arguments, and attacking political opponents rather than conversing with them. Trump does this, and while part of me is like, “Yeah! Give them the old left hook!”, a bigger part of me recognizes that by using these tactics, Trump risks becoming a part of the problem, which then precludes him from being a part of the solution.

Trump may be able to solve many things, but he will not solve the polarization of modern American politics.

It’s OK to throw a name out there if the name is being used in a descriptive way. I sometimes call people on the left ‘fascist,’ or ‘racist,’ and then I explain to them exactly why those terms fit. If someone on the left wants to come right out and say, for example, that black people cannot possibly compete in the world unless good white people reach down to help them (and many on the left really do feel this way), I’m likely going to point out to them that they are not treating black people as equals. If one is going to throw out an insulting word, that person should also explain exactly why such a word is applicable. If you cannot defend the use of a particular word, don’t use it.

Too many people, on both sides of the political divide, are guilty of acting like they sit in some sort of moral enlightenment, from whose lofty perch they can just hurl insults at all the little people below them. I have yet to find someone who can tell me why they are in such a lofty moral perch, but in all cases they seem to have absolute faith in their moral superiority toward all who disagree.

I have bad news for such people, but if you cannot defend your moral superiority with reason and logic, you don’t have any.

Both compromise, and learning, require common ground. If two people can find some area of agreement, it becomes possible to start building commonality upon that agreement, to learn one another’s perspectives, and to develop policies that both people can live with. The United States Constitution was formed in this way.

Where there is no common ground, there is no transfer of knowledge, and no chance for compromise. If that is where our country has gone, then either one side will have to force its views upon the other, or the country will fracture.

Another cause of the political divide is the weaponization of words. Words have both denotations, as well as connotations. When people change the actual definitions of words (the ‘denotation’) in order to use how the words feel (the ‘connotation’) against their political rivals, that shoves a dagger into the heart of our social fabric. If we all agree, for example, that ‘racism’ is bad, but we have no shared definition for what the word ‘racism’ means, then while we all may hate ‘racism’ as a word, the actual behaviors of racism are free to flourish.

How is it that the phrase ‘what is good for the goose, is good for the gander,’ has been lost? If a particular behavior is good, than it is good no matter who does it. If, conversely, a particular behavior is evil, than it is evil no matter who does it. This modern notion that who does something is somehow more important than what that person does, and that we can place blame on group identity instead of individual actions, is absurd. There is no such thing as ‘social justice.’ Justice is either applied to each individual, with no regard for made-up social groups, or justice does not exist. The law is either equally applied without regard to race, religion, national origin, or gender, or there is no law. And if there is no law, then there is no nation.

If our country is to endure in peace and prosperity, we must all agree to use our intelligence to learn and grow, rather than using whatever intelligence each of us may have to avoid the need for learning. We must each, individually, commit to being better.

Look at the world around you. Watch how the young are being encouraged to become political activists. Is this teaching them to learn, or is it teaching them that they already know everything? Greta Thurnberg actually encourages students to skip school for political activism. She, and those who forward her, are actively teaching children not to learn.

Our colleges pander to identity groups, as if the members of some races, genders, or some other such ‘groups’, somehow have magic knowledge noone else – including college professors – could possibly possess. These groups are taught that feelings matter more than facts, and that facts are subjective. Are our colleges teaching these students to learn, or are they actively teaching them not to learn.

Learning is a skill that can be honed, but as a nation, we seem hell bent on learning not to learn instead. Nothing good will come from that.

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