Learning How To Learn

There’s an older pandemic than the one that’s defined our world for the past few years. An ongoing and ancient one, encountered every day. People, on the whole, don’t know how to think.

It comes across most clearly in the questions we ask. So many of them are either inappropriately general, or inappropriately specific, in terms of what knowledge is sought. The former indicate an inability to formulate the actual, particular question you want to ask. The latter indicate an inability to infer the generalised nature and form of the knowledge you seek. A deficiency of articulation, versus a deficiency of insight.

The solution, as with almost anything, is education — but here too, most people misunderstand what education is. Their concept is rooted in school, often because their education progressed no further, and so they missed out on the most enabling years which ought to be open to everyone, regardless of circumstances.

Higher education confers degrees only as a side-effect, and as a concrete expression of a more general ability: the ability to think, and thus to learn. This level of formal education isn’t a requirement for learning how to learn, but as its primary goal, it’s one of the more effective means of doing so.

We live in a blessed age of overwhelmingly self-directed learning, or at least the availability of resources to allow for it. It’s possible that the understandable preference for video material, whilst speeding comprehension of many things, also atrophies the abstract thinking often required for actual understanding of non-mechanistic concepts, but that’s for someone else to study. The relevant fact is that lack of access to information is largely a solved problem, at least in the developed world. But most people don’t really use it.

The automatic human recourse to baseless instinct, fluctuating emotion, rash assumption, flawed inference, limited experience, ingrained prejudice, unsound generalisation or simplification, and so on, are the greatest threats to not just knowledge, but to our civilisation.

Those who know how to think — not what to think, but how — are besieged on all sides every day by the far greater mass of people who have not only never been taught how to think, but who have in fact been constantly, deliberately, and perniciously cajoled not to. Those who have been encouraged to think that they cannot learn beyond a certain level. Drilled with colourful simplifications, childlike vocabularies, and brand-name substitutes for comprehension. This dulled state of trained non-thought only serves to separate us into factions, marshalled by those who would manipulate for personal gain.

I believe that it’s a person’s foremost duty to learn how to think. Learn how to know what you’re thinking. Learn how to know what you don’t know, and at which level of generality or specificity the gap in your knowledge exists. Thus, learn how to formulate appropriate intermediate questions, and how to pursue the answers to those questions yourself, and how to know when you’ve then answered each question. That process is the actual purpose of higher education, where it’s taught almost by stealth alongside concrete and particular subjects. But it can also be wilfully attained by conscious effort.

To say that questions are the foundation of knowledge is all of the aphorism but barely half of the truth. To learn, you must first know how to formulate questions, and then you must answer them for yourself.