Learning is the lifeblood of human networks. Because we live in a world that is constantly changing, even if these changes sometimes occur in repetitive patterns, in order for any group of people, whether it be a single person relating to themselves, a married couple, a church, a business, a seminary, or a nation, if you aren’t learning, then your adaptability to your circumstances is being hindered.
Sometimes what we learn is something as concrete as figuring out how much money is in your bank account before you make a big purchase (I just purchased a new Amazon Kindle before writing this); it can be as abstract maybe it is learning some previously undiscovered principle of economics; it can be as personal as learning what one spouse feels after a hard day at work; it can be as objective as discovering why the lawnmower isn’t working. Each of these forms of learning
I mention the scope of learning because one of the big motivations for learning is connected to the scope of impact. The more wide ranging the impact of certain ideas, the more these ideas will garner social praise and approval. Those who break new ground are provided awards of distinction. Students are graded on their ability to know and even master these big ideas. People are wowed at presenters who can present big ideas in clear, powerful ways.
But it isn’t just the scope of the ideas, but also the novelty of the ideas. There are ideas that are big and important for life, such as eating is important to survival, but I doubt you will be able to turn that into a captivating TED talk. It is the novel ideas that is not obvious to everyone and that not just anyone could have found that will get people social commendation.
Beyond that, there is the power that ideas have as representing who we are as people. When we evaluate people and their value and importance, we often times assess them based upon how they conform to certain big, important ideas, such as Supreme Court justices enduring scrutiny on their view on the big idea of abortion, ministerial candidates expressing their views on the Holy Trinity, or in political discussions where one expresses allegiance to
Our formal systems of learning are biased and predisposed to the big ideas, and one of the big ideas for discovering and accepting these ideas is the social motivation. And as effective as social praise can be in getting people to learn, there are a few significant dark side of this otherwise powerful motivation.
Firstly, as is commonly mentioned, it reduces learning to getting the right answer. It can restrict creativity and the ability to explore afresh with new eyes. While there are a few people who break through the criticism and do find big ideas than may then garner praise, this is more likely to stem from people who have a strength to resist and also a more innate love of learning. However, the solution here isn’t to stop the process of social approval, because free thinking without any anchoring point to start from does not itself beget creative learning that is useful for other people; it becomes expression of individuality that is less likely to be deeply meaningful for other individuals. The social motivation of learning being based upon getting the right answer is unavoidable, but the problem comes when this is the primary motivation.
Why is social approval so dangerous to learning? Because it circumvents the most essential part of learning. Learning occurs when we discover something new that we didn’t know. Sometimes we are ignorant and discover something new, and we see to discover what this new thing is. Sometimes we have
By contrast, social approval praises getting it right; there is nothing immediately useful to a brokerage firm about a person who is ignorant of how corporate finance works; there is nothing immediately useful, and may even be dangerous, if a person believes some false myth about the connection between vaccinations and autism; there is nothing immediately useful about a doctor who wrongly diagnoses their patient, even if the diagnoses matches all the symptoms. Praise comes when you have the knowledge for the job, approval when you express what is (
In other words, whereas social approval is biased towards favoring getting it right, the cognitive ability to learn entails the ability and willingness to recognize when one does not have it right. If these are properly balancing, it can actually foster
However, the problem is the balance has become greatly out of whack. This dynamic would generally be manageable if learning was simply a matter of being able to be effective for whatever jobs or tasks you are to participate in. But, far beyond learning being valued for the specific outcomes, learning is valued as a matter of social status. We learn because our society values smart people because of the value smart people can have. Increasingly and increasingly, our Western society and economy that is built more and more upon the manipulation of cognitive information, rather than the manipulation of physical resources, has begin to bequeath status more and more to people who are the cognitive elite, whether we represent it by IQ, creativity, GPA, degrees, awards, or any other measures. Society is increasingly developing a status for being able to appear as one of the cognitive elite.
What is the net effect of this: people are more and more tempted to try to pursue the appearances of being smart. People feel more and more pressure when they don’t feel like they have the intellectual capacity to learn. It is why there is an epidemic of imposter syndrome among universities. It is why people can get so stressed in academic settings these days. It isn’t that centers of learning are perpetuating this: it is the societal pressure that being amongst the cognitive elite is one of the most important factors for your improvement of life status.
This is not to mention the pressure on learning the right things to belong. An ignorant person may not have high status, but if they at least provide the seminal understanding of the “right” ideas of the communities they are networked to, they can at least have a secure place to belong. But learning is risky if you are a smart person, because it can have you to stumble upon something that not only are a lot of other people wrong about, but it challenges some ideas that have taken on fundamental value. But even less dramatic as learning leading to the development of opinions that are not shared by the majority of a community can threaten the status one has within that community.
AS a consequence, there is an intensification of pressure to get it right creates, beyond simply the emotional problems it can cause, also hinders the way we learn. If we think learning doesn’t occur unless we get it right and if we only feel a reward when we are praised, then we will experience pain when we get the feedback that we were wrong or unaware. It is this feedback that is necessary for learning to occur and it is this that our hearts are trained to resist as a bad outcome.
Beyond the resistance to learning, because these process of social approval are so connected to the big ideas, there is a proportional underemphasis, if not devaluation, of learning that doesn’t have a big scope or an immediate impact. We value learning about ideas, and so we overlook the value of the practical aspects of life as it is actually lived, day to day, with people. Listening and learning about what is continuously changing so it’s impact is deeply limited, such as the feelings of another person; insofar as we can, we try to employ a combination of statisticians and technology to take care of this type of learning, giving an appearance of paying attention and learning but of de-contextualized learning, that doesn’t pay attention to significance of the fact at a specific point of time. Thus, our learning becomes more about knowing than interpreting, mastery rather than coming to comprehend, paying attention to what everyone thinks is important rather than paying attention to what is important for this moment.
In other words, in our Western society built around the manipulation of information, we have a predilection towards valuing the big and extraordinary at the cost of the small and ordinary, overvaluing the cognitive elite and undervaluing the cognitively normal, if not even below average. Western society and learning
The source of the tension for the cognitive, social bubble is how people are motivated by the wrong things in learning combined with the greater and greater expectations for the future in what may happen due to our learning. Will the bubble burst or will it eventually just go down? It remains to be seen what the future for it will be.
But the solution rests in two concepts that we can find resonance within in the Christian tradition: repentance and love. Repentance entails recognizing the wrongness of what one has done, not by bathing oneself in a pool of shame for hours a day, but a recognition that one didn’t get it right so that there is another direction to orient oneself. Likewise with learning, being will to repent of one’s cognitive errors, not because this devalues you as a person but because it provides you the opportunity to do some real learning by redirecting your mind.
Secondly, love has us paying attention to God and to others. The actions of God and the life of people are not unchanging, inflexible realities. What God is doing isn’t always what everyone else thinks is important and wise. What is happening in people’s lives may not always seem significant in the context of the big, grand narratives that society tells us. But these are people God values and loves. Thus, true, a Biblically attuned type of love attunes us to the disclosures from focuses of our love, disregarding the forms of the positive recognition and status that are imposed on what the nature of this learning and attention should be from the outside, and can even call this type of recognition under the name of “love,” a word that is vague out of context, exploiting the ambiguity (much as experts exploit the ambiguity of their abstractions of learning) of the Bible when taken out of context of the rest of Scripture and out of context of God’s agents speaking by the Spirit, to justify the views.
And what joins repentance to love? Faith. Faith in the power of God that God is doing something even as we can not see it; trust that there is something radically new and novel in the future, whether it be in our lifetimes or not, that when joined to our recognition of error allows us to receive when it comes, however it comes, big or small, extraordinary or ordinary, powerful or weak. Likewise, learning operates
But so you know, I do not connect repentance, faith, and love as it pertains our life before God to our own effort to learn to justify me telling you the process of learning, so that I can appear to have some legitimation of my own apparent expertise in this stemming from using the Bible. God’s Word is not a manual on learning. Rather, I point to the analogies so that in learning how to learn, you can also come to see how the similarities between learning and being ambassadorial agents of God’s work of reconciliation by the Holy Spirit. And then, by becoming agents of God’s Spirit, we also become wrapped up afresh in the process of learning, but this learning becomes directed for the purposes and goals of God and His love.