How Do We Learn or Fail To Learn?

Learning is an effort driven by self-interest. You learn because you think it is good or fun, no matter how hard the process may entail. Nobody can force you to learn just like nobody can force a horse to drink. You will never bother to learn if you think it brings no benefit, even though it is a simple truth that you should know. That is why we have the open-mind and close-mind mentality that motivates learning. That also explains why some people learn quickly, and why some others never try.

We are born to learn because this capability resides in our genes for the sole purpose of survival. A baby at birth immediately knows how to cry and suck. Later, the young child learns to make sounds, crawl and walk. In growing up, the child learns to react, communicate, and adapt. The particular culture where the child is brought up teaches him/her how to behave and how to think. The time will come when the youngster begins to develop the faculty of reasoning. When a young person seriously asks why something has to work that way, he/she is finally ready to leave the orbit of childhood influence and molding, and will begin to learn and think independently.

For an adult to learn (or fail to learn), the innate self-interest still plays an important role except being tempered by many other complex factors. These include: curiosity, inspiration, infomercials, indoctrination, propaganda, idea suppression, shock, and even your own fear, ego and biases. These factors can bring a positive or negative effect. Positive means you learn the truth and move on to learn some more. Negative means you learn the untruth and get stuck with it, or you never learn new things outside of your comfort zone. Therefore, learning is not necessarily getting the truth. It all depends on what kind of things you learn, and how that knowledge benefits yourself and the society.

The physical things around us present less complications for learning because they are objective and verifiable. We call these scientific truths. They range widely from the simple facts that the sun rises in the east (why?) and food decays if not refrigerated (why?); to the enormous power of the atom (why?). They are just facts to learn regardless we believe or like them.

On the other hand, some simple scientific facts were not learned for thousands of years due to conflicts with religious beliefs leading to the scientific truths being vilified or suppressed in favor of outdated religious dogma. Examples include: flat earth being at the center of the universe, human creation on a biblical time frame, and the theory of evolution still being viewed as heresy in some religious circles.

Our biases influence our learning to a great extent. The most notable example is climate change. If you happen to be in the fossil fuel business, you are reluctant to believe the facts especially when they point to the environmental damages of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So there exists strong opposition to climate science to the point of its being ridiculed as a hoax. Yet, Mother Nature moves on whether we like it or not. The non-believers will be learning a good lesson when the shocks come in the form of fierce storms, failing crops, and rising ocean levels.

Many people fail to learn how to use the personal computer for fear of pressing the wrong key causing all the mysterious things to happen. Personally, I fail to learn all the good facilities provided by my cell phone except dialing and receiving calls because they seem so complicated. Should my job require this learning, I’d be forced to learn it for fear of being fired. This kind of mental block is commonplace.

All the non-scientific facts are learned one way or another. What do I mean by that? Non-scientific facts are subject to interpretation and personal biases. They mean different things in different contexts to different people. That’s why non-scientific facts present so much complication for us to filter out the truth. Everyday, we are bombarded with infomercials as to what is good and bad. We are also bombarded with political advertizing or propaganda trying to promote the special agenda of a political party. As a result, people get confused. It is really hard to distinguish between truth and untruth.

Learning is a life-long process. What we have learned remains to be affirmed or rejected if we keep an open mind. Let me offer the following questions to illustrate the right approach to learning:

Do you keep an open or close mind?

Do you have a mental block for learning certain things?

Are you aware of your own biases that limit your learning?

Have you tried to question certain established facts held as true?

Regarding the writers or speakers, have you tried to understand where they come from and their biases? Do you see what they are trying to sell to you?

Do you just accept what people say without exercising your own reasoning and judgment?

November 2012

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21 Responses to How Do We Learn or Fail To Learn?

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