17 March 1998
Let's forget about dialectics for the moment, and concentrate on the question, 'What is learning?'
One picture we have of learning is of school children learning facts. The Battle of Hastings was in 1066. The French Revolution was in 1789. Those are facts. Of course, we don't just learn individual facts in that boring way. We learn whole arrays of facts, we fill in the picture, piece things together. And that piecing together is itself a vital part of the learning process, perhaps more important than the individual things that get pieced together.
What is this process of 'piecing together'? A lot of piecing together involves the idea of explanation, of one sort or another. Why did William of Normandy decide to invade England in 1066? Why did the French Revolution occur in 1789, and not 1779 or 1799? We learn the reasons for things, we don't just take things on board without question. Explanations not only fill in the details but satisfy a demand for assurance. You are less likely to accept an example of purported 'fact' if you have no clue why that should be so, or if it fails to fit in with other things you have learned.
So far, so good. But as an account of the process of learning, this picture of learning as the assimilation of facts is still distorted. The impression it gives is of the mind as a passive receiver of information, taking in one or several pieces of information at a time and processing them. But we also learn in a very different way. We get to grips with things. We learn to probe, to ask questions, to pursue a line of enquiry. More than that, we learn to respond to the needs of the moment, to be sensitive to a clue, or a cue, just as detective might pick up a fleeting expression on the face of a suspect and react instantly, or a jazz player might feel the right moment to launch into an instrumental.
We are in the right condition to catch these fleeting moments or we are insensitive to them. We are open to what the situation holds for us, or closed. Learning is 'getting down into the groove'. Once we are in the groove, we are open to a certain kind of learning experience, but there is also the process of learning how to get into the groove, how to attune oneself to a situation. Learning how to groove is not always groovy. Sometimes it can be painful. And sometimes we never make it, despite our best efforts.
How is groovy learning related to learning as assimilation? One idea would be this. There are not two distinct kinds of learning about a situation, one that assimilates facts and one that gets into the groove. Rather, the process of assimilation itself can be more or less passive or active. Groovy learning is just an active form of assimilation.
What about the role of physical activity, though? Grooving can be just seeing, but it can also be doing. Seeing is an appropriate way to describe the process I mentioned earlier of making connections. The vision of the philosopher 'makes connections' in a very big way, but we experience this seeing every time we succeed in relating the parts to the whole, when we understand or grasp the explanation of something. So is what is important activity as such, whether it be mental or physical? Wouldn't it matter so far as learning was concerned whether we possessed physical bodies, or were merely mentally very active disembodied spirits?