In a previous post, I highlighted some tips for getting the most out of learning by reflecting on its epistemological roots. The process of learning itself, though, is only part of the equation. Finding the motivation to get the ball rolling by applying oneself to learn is just as, if not more, important.
There used to be a general acceptance that all intellectual pursuits were of equal value and if applied benevolently, advanced our civilization and the well-being of our fellow wo/man. We are, after all, all different…..each with our own set of gifts to share. But due to increasing societal financial pressures, valuation of learning has tilted heavily toward pragmatic subjects. This has in turn triggered the unfortunate “baby with the bathwater” human tendency to extrapolate such valuations toward an “all or nothing” pole (i.e. if you are learning about something that has no pragmatic value it must be worthless).
If I were to define a novel, for example, I would say it contains a collection of scenes of different people reacting to different situations which, when combined, define a plot. If someone has read many novels (especially across a wide idealogical spectrum) wouldn’t this lead to an exponentially larger understanding of different people when compared with someone who views literature as a waste of time? Isn’t this a great way to build tolerance in our world?
Learning foreign languages is something not always valuated positively, particularly in English-speaking countries, because “everybody speaks English anyway”. From personal experience, you never know when a language that you are learning will have pragmatic value. You could find a job with a foreign-based company that is looking for overseas employees with skills in its native language. Or you could even find a job overseas which would add to your own personal enrichment. I’ve had the great pleasure of being able to read the beautiful French of Rousseau writing in his native tongue allowing me to glean deeper truths from his philosophical works.
Finding motivation in subjects deemed pragmatic is less problematic. The problem here is battling our own “demotivation”. Mathematics is a great example. In university mathematics it quickly becomes apparent that you do not have time to start from first principles and then proceed deductively to solve problems. What you do instead is to study the problems that have already been solved and memorize (yes, I said it, memorize) the solutions. Eventually, based on what you have learned from how the problem was solved, you can reuse it to solve other problems. The great mathematician Isaac Newton summed up this approach in saying “If I see further it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants”.
A similar “classic problem” approach can be used to keep up in the fast-changing world of information technology. Resources such as www.stackexchange.com are abundant and provide a forum where magnanimous people help their fellow wo/man keep up and advance in the field. I’ve also tried to contribute with sites to explain Apple iOS programming , Android programming, and web services programming.
A field of study that has been neglected in the past but should be a lifelong learning endeavor for all of us is physical fitness. Thankfully disciplines such as kinesiology, physiotherapy, and nutrition science have entered the mainstream university curricula as serious intellectual pursuits. Motivation to continue applying oneself to the upkeep of one’s physical fitness is 90% psychological. It is rare that one is too fatigued to make a trip to the gym but it is common that one rationalizes not going because of other “priorities”.
For 2500 years learning was based on the model of Plato’s Academy. We would sit at the feet of a teacher who would share his/her learning with us. The Internet has changed everything. Now, knowledge is at our fingertips and it is up to us to find the motivation to chase this knowledge and to act upon learning it for our own and society’s well-being.