Back to School: Time to Learn

School season is here!  Many of us are returning to the classroom in the next few weeks.  Some already have.  Freshmen will start their first classes right out of high school.  College seniors are prepping for the working world.  Businesses cash in on the hype, as well, having “back to school” sales.  And it will become impossible to find an apartment.  For Americans, education starts in the fall.  The season runs until spring.

But those poles say very little about when we learn.  The larger epistemological questions I’m thinking of are, “when do we learn what we learn?” and “when do we know what we know?”  There are multiple adaptations to these question, for instance, when should we know what we know; how long should we take to learn what we learn; or even, when is it best to admit we don’t know?  These questions steer us away from those that focus exclusively on identification (“what do I know?”), and they are modifications of the epistemological standard, “how do I know what I know?”  I like thinking about “how” in terms of “when” and “how long” because it allows us to critique established and perhaps arbitrary temporal designations.  For instance, why do most students begin college at eighteen, or why does college lasts for four years?  For some, these designations feel like law.  For others, they were meant to be broken.

King James I, despite being the most powerful person in the country, still had more to learn, at least according to his most brightest servant, Francis Bacon.  If dedicating his The Advancement of Learning (1605) to the sovereign was not a big enough clue, mid-chapter Bacon nudges his audience by inserting an apostrophe to the chief, claiming that even kings need to strive for evermore learning.[i]   He warns his royal highness of learning’s various diseases (not to be confused with our contemporary “crises” of education).  One disease concerns knowing how to discern old, worthy information from new, transient information.  But Bacon also wants good kings and princes to know when modern thought has simply superseded the available knowledge of previous generations.  When knowledge loses its flavor, it must be thrown out and trampled on.  Perhaps most interesting is Bacon’s insistence that knowledge is at its most profound at the axiomatic stage—when it is confusing, disorganized, turbulent, and it can shoot in manifold directions.  The observation comes off in this context more as a suggestion.  You want to be a brilliant king, James?  Enter a re-birth: Write aphorisms!

Perhaps you can teach an old king new tricks, but according to Rousseau’s Emile (1762), education begins as soon as someone wraps the infant in a blanket.[ii]  The slightest imposition on the child’s temperature teaches the human body to rely on prosthetic implements rather than its natural resistance to inclement weather.  No blankets, caps, or swaddling (60).  Let the child’s body adapt to the cold air: “It has a powerful effect on these newborn bodies; it makes on them impressions which are never effaced” (59).  Exposure to air is its own kind of learning.  It is difficult to leave the child exposed when the nurse insists on its being “well-garroted.” The nurse must then be ordered to let the child be, because “where education begins with life, the child is at birth already a disciple, not of the governor, but of nature” (61).  So if you want to educate your children right, Rousseau says begin from day one, pick the right teacher, and just let the children play-ay-ay.

Organizing her book according to themes and not a chronological sequence like Rousseau’s, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) presents an arbitrary sequence in girls’ learning.[iii]  There seems to be no priority over when girls should learn about “Benevolence” or “Card Playing.”  Of course, that is with the exception of the main event, “Matrimony.”  In Austen’s novels, weddings appear at the beginning and the end; in Wollstonecraft they are dead center (chapter 11 out of 21). It is as if marriage engenders the gravity holding the rest of the woman’s life in order.  However, form is deceptive.  Wollstonecraft opines, “Early marriages are…a stop to improvement” (31).  If the girl has not already had a thorough education she will forgo it on account of how much work marriage requires.  And quite frankly, Wollstonecraft says, “many women…marry a man before they are twenty, whom they would have rejected some years after.”  If anything, Wollstonecraft’s organization, or brilliant lack thereof, says that learning can happen in isolated bursts and need not follow any necessary sequence.

I do not know if anyone would disagree in saying that learning is a productive process, but that we have these false notions with regards to “when” we learn results in some serious runoff.  While working on my teaching philosophy this spring, I kept pushing this idea of “learning as a mode of living.”  Part of this mode means doing what you always do but looking at one’s daily activity as a subject for thought.  Too often have I heard phrases like, “when I come home I just want to watch something I don’t have to think about.”  But it is not the object that requires no thinking; the viewer merely judges the object as a thing for which no thought is required.  What I do not understand is why as humans we are so impatient with things that waste our time, but so willing to dedicate our time to things we find so unworthy of our thoughts.  Anything can be a subject for thought.

Learning as a mode of living also means that learning does not end.  Learning does not end after class, when we arrive home; in some sense, learning does not sleep, or wait until we’ve had our coffee.  The body takes in information nonstop.  The question is what are we going to do with that information. The more conscious I have become of thought the more I realize that the brain produces an infinite quantity of images, movements, feelings, ideas, colors, memories and so on throughout the course of a day.  Part of the challenge is to resign to them.  Admit to the idea.  Give it room or space.  Record it in some way.  Then forget it.  They come back, anyway (who knows when?).  But now you have the first bit of an idea, and it is ready to shoot in another direction.  The trick is to admit that learning can happen anywhere and at anytime.

So in answer to the question, “when do we learn what we learn” or “know what we know,” there is no designated time for learning and knowing.  Knowing is not an identifiable position from which one can declare his or her knowledge.  Knowledge is stretchy, turbulent stuff like the time in which we declare it.  Stretch it far enough and suddenly we don’t know what we thought we did.  In the classroom then, it is perfectly acceptable that students feel confused about a subject matter, because when are they not confused?  Confusion ends only when we choose to cease thinking about an object, a world, or ourselves.  Confusion is the process of thinking; comfort is its absence.  Learn to be uncomfortable!  I tell my students that by the end of the term, they still might not understand some of the concepts we will have discussed.  Rather, like my high school English teacher, Mr. Weiss, used to say (I’ve tweaked the phrasing): we’re planting seeds in class and there is no way to know when they will sprout, bloom, dehisce, scatter, and so on.


[i] Bacon, Francis.  The Advancement of Learning.  Ed. Michael Kiernan.  Oxford: Clarendon, 2000.  Print.

[ii] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.  Emile or On Education.  Trans. Allan Bloom.  New York: Basic Books, 1979.  Print.

[iii] Wollstonecraft, Mary.  The Works Of Mary Wollstonecraft.  Ed. Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler.  Vol. 4.  London: Pickering, 1989.  Print.