the importance of understanding learning (for what it really is …)

Tim Lott has a good and reflective article in the Guardian this weekend.  The thesis of it, I think, is that learning ability is but a small piece of what society should see being a human really consists of:

[…] However, the prestige of those who achieve highly in examinations (Plomin’s studies focused on academic results) has much to do with our collective overvaluing of learning ability as a society.

I’m not sure he’s entirely accurate, though.  I don’t think we overvalue learning ability so much as misunderstand – or even misapply – its virtues.  And I speak of myself as much as anyone.

I’ve worked more than anything else in my life as a language trainer: just two languages, mind – English to the Spanish; then Spanish to those living in Britain; then English to a rather more varied cross-section of variously frustrated (occasionally frustrating) online learners.

In fact, the truth is that Croatian was my first language, till about the age of three.  Although I was brought up in a typically Miss Marple-style Oxfordshire thatched cottage, my isolated, then Yugoslav, mother – who spoke English very well – didn’t think at first to speak to me in it.  So as well as being a trainer, I also know very well the role of learner (a disconcerted young learner, at that).

To such an extent that later in life, that Spanish I mention above I learnt from scratch in the streets, shops and bars of northern Spain, whilst a smattering of class-based Russian (three sometimes desultory years, anyhow) followed a couple of years after I arrived.

As the trainer I describe, I’ve always prided myself on my ability to learn lessons.  But reading Lott’s piece today, I begin to question even my virtues in this.

He lists a whole host of seriously important qualities:

Academic skills are just a relatively small component of a whole nexus of traits that make up a well-rounded human being – including such qualities as empathy, emotional intelligence, imagination, kindness and curiosity. […]

And he’s right of course, but – I beg to differ on one point – he’s also inexact.  Learning ability, whilst perhaps defined by some as academic ability, if properly understood and applied can also relate directly to the qualities he goes on to contrast.  If society accepts that learning ability can only be measured quantitatively in the context of “highly intelligent people who were ill-functioning and dislikable human beings”, and that the alternative must be “many people, not the sharpest tools in the box, who nevertheless had dignity, integrity and self-respect”, then I think – as I said at the top of this post – we run the appalling risk of both misunderstanding learning ability and misapplying it.

Isn’t it possible to contemplate that the dignity, integrity and self-respect of the “blunter tools” came not out of measurably lower levels of learning ability but, instead, of such highly-tuned abilities, applied at a very early age to surviving the sadness and inequity of not being able either to aspire to what came naturally or pursue what might really have made the heart – and mind! – sing?

If there is one thing I have learnt, as a fairly unsuccessful trainer and learner both, it is that people are excited by, engaged via and in love with situations and other people who encourage them to play to their strengths.  We used to call them talents, these strengths; now the statisticians and reductionist pedagogues blithely inform us we only need 10,000 hours to become a genius.  Either way, I do know – from bitter personal experience and tragic observation of others – that when you allow someone to learn what makes them whole, there is no bluntness to be seen in any moment, nor any individual

It’s only when you force a person, a human being, a member of this species which, for example, is characterised by its astonishingly innate ability to learn something as beautifully sophisticated as language (for goodness sake!), from the ages of two, three and four, and to astonishing degree … it’s only when you force such a creature to accept that the world only requires of them the ability to learn how to make a hundred burgers an hour … it’s only then that they finally apply all that learning ability to crunching down their sharper potential in the face of a terribly blunting world and environment.

I don’t feel, from where I have lived my life, that people who are dignified, full of integrity and respect themselves, and on top of that are perceived as blunter in their intellects (a sort of noble savage, perhaps; it’s an extreme interpretation and maybe unfair to Lott’s thesis, but that’s kind of where I think I have to go even so) must necessarily be as described – even when society believes it fairly judges, with all the tools of the sharper souls amongst us, that this objectively is where they must situate themselves.

I’m clearly preaching what I fail to practise, of course.

In those objective terms, those terms I’ve already alluded to, I’m a poor trainer, because I’m unable to make a very good business of it.  And I’m a poor learner, because I keep on – year in, year out – stubbing my toes against similarly multiple stones.

But where I do admit that Lott is absolutely spot-on is in highlighting the importance of “empathy, emotional intelligence, imagination, kindness and curiosity”.  And reflecting on my own life, I now believe, justly enough I think, that I used to have all of these qualities at one time, too.

Yet, of late, I have to say, I feel they have leaked away.  My experiences over the past ten months have led me to understand that, actually, I am not a very pleasant person at all; that what has happened to me not only in the last ten months but also – maybe – much longer than that is as a result of my inability to come to terms with the reality that, for some unfathomed reason, I prize learning above sharing, intelligence (the cold, academic sort Lott identifies as forming part of our societal predicament) above true emotion, and talking about things above talking about people.

Nevertheless, in my small favour, I do have to share one more thing with you before I finish tonight.  I was watching the 2011 “The Muppets” movie last night.  The one which currently hits over 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes – even from the critics.

I didn’t stumble across the rating before I watched the film, but found the film – whilst watching it – so very watchable, engaging and ingenious that I saw it in one go.  I saw the weak parts of the storyline immediately of course (I studied Film & Literature at uni, so it’s hardly surprising), but the humanity of the puppets and people who appeared in the film – and were therein so gorgeously contained – swept me along, like all good Hollywood always has.

And I cried, over and over again.  Tears, real tears, streaming down my face.

It obviously touched me in some fundamental way.  They weren’t tears of laughter either, but tears on perceiving arrival: the arrival, the destiny, the fate of good people in a world which rarely likes to favour people who try to be good.

I have always, in a way, thought not just that I should be good but also that I could be good; and yet have never really felt I was able to do what the world asked of me in this respect.

That’s a bit sad, isn’t it?  I just wish I could change how I felt.  I really do.

Anyone know how I might?

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