Sunday, April 27, 2008

Pain of Learning?

I wrote this in an earlier blog a very long time ago. It was about Mortimer Adler's Invitation to the Pain of Learning, which he wrote in 1941. It is interesting that later, in 1974, he wrote another article called The Joy of Learning. (Edited: I originally wrote in this space that Adler had become less atheistic and more Catholic as his life progressed and that his change in thinking reflected that, but that was a careless shorthand. I think he became more philosophical. Possibly this led to his conversion in the long run, but that's beside the point here and is for another conversation. I must not have many atheist readers, or any that I have don't take offense easily, because no one seemed to object.)


I think that there's some pain in all worthy endeavours, but emphasizing the pain too much leads to a false, not fully Catholic view of existence. We are taught that our goal is happiness, joy, true peace -- those things aren't synonymous with ease & comfort but transcend them. Joy etc even transcends suffering by FAR. The point is that some pain etc is acceptable in pursuit of a worthwhile endeavour, like learning.

We don't do hard, worthwhile things BECAUSE they are painful but because some things are more good than pain is bad. Pain is certainly not the worst thing in our existence. Sin is.

I think it is good to teach this to our kids through life but also to acknowledge that pain IS painful. Sometimes we all don't want to get out of bed, scrub the toilet, be patient with a toddler, etc. It's just that we shouldn't let the pain stop us or turn us aside.

David Isaacs in his book Character Formation says that the best age to start really working on fortitude and courage, which is what I'm talking about above, is about ages 8 to 12. You don't do this solely or even mostly through schoolwork but by chores, sports, hiking, etc. I think the younger set needs to focus more on loving obedience.

I think some people like Adler who discuss the pain in learning are trying to counter the view that all learning should be immediately and at all times pleasant, comfortable etc. CS Lewis said that some learning is painful in the beginner stages because it's hard to see where it's going. The learning itself isn't immediately rewarding, but when you HAVE learned it, you are rewarded in the long term because you can understand something you couldn't before you got to that stage. The example he is is of the early stages of Greek grammar, leading to an appreciation of Greek poetry in the original. You wouldn't even be able to see WHY reading Greek poetry is so great UNTIL you are to the point where you can start actually reading it a little (not that I know this from experience). So when I'm talking to my (older) kids I try to emphasize these two points -- (1) that most worthwhile things are hard sometimes and we don't HAVE to be daunted by hardship and (2) that sometimes you can't realize the rewards until you are at a stage where you have learned enough to appreciate them. With a little kid, I try more to SHOW this by rewarding and approving good efforts, etc.

I imagine this is the sort of thing Adler and others of the "no pain, no gain" school are emphasizing. But if it becomes a sort of pleasure in inflicting pain -- a sort of "I had to face bullies in the schoolyard and boring, meaningless classes, so why shouldn't you?" then it's gone too far. That's where John Holt is absolutely right in resisting a kind of academic tyranny imposed on the child from outside.

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