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Author Biography: James M. Banner, Jr., is an independent scholar, writer, teacher, association director, and book publisher. Harold C. Cannon, now retired, was division director at the National Endowment for the Humanities.
SOURCE: VOYA, October 2000 (Vol. 23, No. 4)
By definition, real students work hard. If you don't work hard, you're not a real student; you're either a genius or a slacker. For most of us—people who have to work to achieve what we want and can't rely on genius to achieve it—success in studying, as in everything else, requires hard, sometimes extremely hard, work. The good news, however, is that hard work brings great rewards.
It's the same in every field of endeavor. Even the most talented people must struggle to master the rudiments of their art, to perfect their skills, and learn what they need to know. Piano and violin prodigies and math geniuses, for instance—people whose talents are so extraordinary that we term their abilities "gifts," as if their skills are given to them and not worked for—even these students must struggle to master their instruments or complete their mathematical breakthroughs by unremitting, exhausting application, which sometimes bores them and often wears them out.
Study is therefore the opposite of indulgence and indolence. It calls for repeated application, concentration, focused thought, and often solitude—all challenging demands. Although study can bring you great pleasure and rewards, actual study is often tedious. Its satisfactions come in its results, rarely in the activity of studying itself. Its benefits are often postponed far into the indiscernible future. Studying and learning are therefore the opposite of all the material trophies that our commercial culture extols.
Working on Your Weaknesses
It helps to think of studying as an athlete thinks of training or as an instrumentalist thinks of practicing. In demanding enterprises like these, you can't perform to the peak of your ability without concentrating your attention where it's needed—say, on your swing, so that you can hit the baseball harder, or on finger exercises, so that you can play scales and arpeggios on the piano faster and more accurately.
It should be the same with studying and learning. Once you have identified your weaknesses, you should work hard at eliminating or compensating for them.
Let your strengths carry you. If you're a tennis player, you shouldn't work to perfect your already strong serve until you get your weak backhand in shape. Similarly, as a student, you shouldn't focus on improving your strong skills in math until you improve your weak writing ability. In both cases, you're better off relying on what you do well while you concentrate on improving what you do less well. That way, you raise the overall level of your abilities and become a stronger student in every way, better able to respond to challenges and reach what you set out to achieve.
But don't rest on your laurels. Once you find it relatively easy to do what once was difficult, give yourself a new, tougher challenge. Are you beginning to get A's in courses where you once got C's? Then turn to those subjects in which you still get C's and work to bring your grades up there. Common sense, you'll say. Yes indeed, but it's easy to kid yourself into thinking that in reaching one goal, you've done about all that you can do. That's never the case. Life's never that easy.
Be honest with yourself. Address your shortcomings candidly and without fear. Remind yourself that what you know least you need most. Tell yourself that what you have the most trouble doing demands your attention and improvement. There's nothing like the satisfaction of knowing that you've done better than you could before. But you can't experience that satisfaction if you try to fool yourself.
We know that emphasizing the importance of industry is not an enticing way to start an early chapter in a book about what it means to be a student, especially when we want you to read on because we believe that what we have to say is important to your welfare. Perhaps we should have waited until the end to throw a bucket of ice water over you, rather than doing so at the beginning. But whether you like to hear it or not, diligence and persistence are required if you're going to be a good student. Hard work when you're in school and college is like a wise investment: its capital grows, its interest compounds, and its dividends pile up.
There are two principal benefits of hard work. The first is knowledge—although often you can't foresee its value, for knowledge has a way of teasing you with the unpredictability of its meaning and use. The second benefit of hard work is made up of the products of knowledge. They include the inventions that help give our world some comfort, health, and security, as well as an understanding of how the conditions under which we live have come to exist. Automobiles, elevators, and computers were not created by lazy, inactive minds, nor were the plays of Shakespeare, the paintings of Rembrandt, or the theories of Einstein achieved in couch-bound stupors. In fact, we might say of learning what the great inventor Thomas Edison once said of genius—it's 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration. Edison wanted to remind us that the achievements of genius, which we all enjoy and benefit from, result from unceasing efforts of mind and will. And so it is with all learning: industry is demanded, laziness will not serve. Little of value comes easily. Put another way, if you think studying is costly, try ignorance.
Only by study—only by such demanding acts as purposeful reading, memorization, research, and writing—can you expose yourself fully to the infinite dimensions of life. You can learn much by reading newspapers or watching television. But what you're getting there is information, which is not the same as knowledge. You go to school and college to learn how to transform information into knowledge and understanding, not just to memorize facts or to "pick up" bits and pieces of what's known.
Once you have enough knowledge to glimpse new worlds of understanding and emotional and spiritual satisfaction that you never before imagined or experienced, you can commit yourself to even more demanding work and do better than you've ever thought possible. And you can do so without turning against your teachers, as the students of John Scotus Erigena, a philosopher in the court of the Holy Roman Empire, turned on him many centuries ago. John's students stabbed him to death with their pens because he tried to force them to think.
That story touches every student (and cautions every teacher). By and large, none of us, young or old, student or not, likes to work hard. Most of us tend to resent any pressures, whether from parents or teachers, to grapple with our natural laziness and inertia. And so, instead of fighting ourselves, we fight others. That kind of resistance may work for a while. We may get away with murder—even literally, as John's students did. But in the long run, the student who doesn't take advantage of the opportunity to study loses out.
True, industry doesn't determine everything. Just as there are people whose native gifts lift them high in accomplishment without back-breaking labor, so there are others who "succeed"—by becoming wealthy or by rising high in their chosen occupations—without having been industrious or self-disciplined in school and college. Perhaps they're especially talented, but more likely they're lucky. Whatever the case, often they admit to having missed out on one benefit that those who studied hard have gained: knowledge of a wide range of subjects and deeper understanding of most. They're the ones often heard to remark that they wish they had worked harder in school and college. They have learned late in life, often too late to do them much good, what they wished they'd learned earlier—that the hard work of study can pay the greatest dividend life has to offer: understanding of life itself. That—not celebrity or wealth—is why you must try so hard to learn.
We know that gifts, abilities, and skills are not evenly distributed. What comes easily to one person is a high hurdle to another. One subject bores you silly, another is a never-ending source of wonder and delight. Similarly, just as different subjects attract different people, so studying diligently means something different for different people; and the ability to study hard often depends on a student's circumstances and temperament and even the schools and colleges he or she attends.
Take, for instance, a serious student who attends a school that focuses on its athletic teams. The student likes sports and plays on the varsity basketball team. But others make fun of her because she always wants to go to the library to study, to excel in class, and to get into a good college. So she has to overcome odds that a student at a school with a different atmosphere doesn't have to face—a school, for example, with a principal who keeps sports in perspective, who sees that nothing in the school takes precedence over academic work and achievement, and who makes sure that the names of the school's Merit Scholar finalists are posted on the school's outdoor notice board along with the football team's conference championship. In such a school, where the main emphasis is on aspiration and respect for knowledge, this student would have an easier time of it, and her work would be better respected and rewarded. As it is, though, she's at a serious disadvantage; her school is not helping her be the student she wants to be.
Our parents used to tell us that hard work never killed anyone, but we weren't convinced. At the least, we were certain that hard work had injured and incapacitated a great many victims. It often kept us from being with our friends, for example, or doing something else we preferred. But we eventually learned that while nobody relishes back-breaking (or mind-breaking) labor under any circumstances, most people welcome it if it's undertaken with some clearly defined and beneficial purpose in mind.
Students who work hard will probably enjoy some measure of success, of course, and those who don't will generally do less well. There are exceptions to this rule, but the dullards and sloths who succeed and the geniuses who fail are so rare as to confirm the general rule. If you aspire to the heights of knowledge and achievement, it's probably a good idea to climb the ladder step by step rather than sit around waiting to sprout a pair of wings.
The motivations for studying hard, just like those for practicing sports hard, vary greatly. Some students do so out of pride, some in pursuit of high grades. Others fall under the influence of a hypnotic teacher or become intrigued with the challenge and complexity of a subject itself. No matter what the case, you need at least one good reason to study. When you furnish your own motivation to study, instead of having it imposed on you, you're most ready to learn. If you can hold fast to that motivation as your purpose and reason for working hard, then it's likely to keep you on the job much more effectively than any teacher's reprimand or parent's warning.
It's not difficult, however, to think that you're studying hard when you're not—or at least to think that you're working as hard as you can when you could be doing much more. For learning takes special kinds of hard work, the kinds that engage the mind and are therefore particularly difficult to sustain—more difficult, for instance, than repeated efforts to shoot a ball into an iron hoop or to leap over a bar that's higher than your head. What do we mean?
Learning requires you to make an unending effort to keep your mind on what you're studying.
The human mind seems to wander off at the first chance and refuses to stay tuned to anything for more than a few minutes without great acts of will. You suddenly find yourself daydreaming or watching a classmate clown around instead of listening to your teacher. Or you can't keep your attention on a lesson as long as you'd like because of some difficulty with your vision. For all sorts of reasons, many of us have to summon almost superhuman strength to attach our minds to its current task. Yet that's one of the greatest challenges you face as a student—to keep your mind close to you and to what you're being asked to learn, especially when your mind would rather wander a million miles away. Your teachers know that, and they're experienced enough to catch your glazed expression when you're off in some other galaxy and to understand the difficulty you have in staying focused on your lessons. But don't expect them to be responsible for calling you to attention. You've got to make that effort yourself.
Your hardest job is to study and learn alone.
By the time you reach high school, you're on your own for much of your learning. In college, you spend even less of your time learning in classroom situations. Most of your collegiate study takes place in the library, laboratory, or elsewhere, your only company being the books you're learning from. Study takes place in private, and ideas don't cross the space between a page and your brain of their own accord. You have to work at it yourself, where there's no one to keep after you but yourself, no one else to confirm whether or not you're succeeding in learning.
Why Teachers Work You So Hard
Good teachers challenge you every minute you're in their presence, and really good teachers continue to challenge you even when they're not around. Having been students themselves, they know that you'd probably prefer to be doing something else than studying and learning, and so they try to overcome your preferences with their enthusiastic and remorseless encouragement. This may distress you, and you may wonder why they have to make you work so hard. But if they didn't do so, they wouldn't be doing their jobs.
If we're right in presuming that you wish to learn, would you prefer that your teachers let you drift, gave you no assignments, told nothing but stories in class, and gave you what, in earlier days, was known as a "gentleman's C"? Probably not, though for a time, at least, your life might be a bit easier. Bad students want easy teachers. Good students hope for ones who push them and expect the most that they can give.
You've surely noticed that your best teachers keep moving the goal line of achievement just beyond your reach, just beyond the line at which you scored your previous academic touchdown. They know your potential, and they're always pushing you—pulling you, really—to go that extra yard or two beyond anything you've ever thought possible, in an ever-intensifying competition against yourself. Your best teachers are just as good at testing you against high standards as the best athletic coaches.
Yet the pleasure they get from pushing you so hard is not sadistic; it's altruistic. They push you hard for your sake, not theirs. Your progress in learning is their chief satisfaction, and it is therefore no charity to go easy on you or to let you off the hook before you have achieved all you can. Your teachers make learning hard for you because they must—because that's the only way good teachers can teach.
If you watch them carefully, you'll see how your teachers are luring you to work hard through well-tried tricks of their trade. They try, for example, to arouse your curiosity about something so that, fascinated by the subject, you'll extend yourself to find out more about it on your own. They require you to rewrite a paper rather than giving it a low mark because they know better than you do that you can improve your writing only if you put in more work. They create "honors" courses and programs, not because enrolling in them brings honor to you but because they now have the excuse to give you more work and get you to reach farther beyond the point at which you might stop in less challenging courses.
Such incentives can work wonders for you. But your teachers' tricks can only go so far. Their real purpose is to instill in you a lifelong habit of pushing yourself because of the expectations they've set for you, which then become your own.
Industry is most evident and beneficial when you go beyond what you're required to study and learn.
When you go further than required, you are choosing to learn what you want to learn, and you're forming your mind to fit your interests. Most assignments represent the minimum your instructors believe you must know. And who can be satisfied with that? When you are prepared to enlarge your knowledge of any subject on your own by going into it in greater depth than an assignment demands, by searching for ways to understand it in ways you're comfortable with, or by following your own curiosity, then that assignment should kindle as much puzzlement in you as understanding. Rather than cultivating a satisfied (and self-deluding) sense that you know all there is to know about the business, you'll find yourself wanting to get to the root of it.
The effort of studying and learning requires organization.
Every effort to learn takes time, and going beyond what's assigned requires you to commit even more time to study. That may appear too much to ask. After all, if you're in high school, you're already putting in at least thirty hours of classwork per week, and then you may have a part-time job after school. The number of "contact hours" drops off in college, possibly to fifteen hours or less per week, but assignments are longer and more demanding than those in high school, and you may still have to work to help pay for your education. As a student you probably can't get the job done in forty hours, the conventional measure of the adult workweek. So there's no getting around the fact that studying and learning require a planned and scheduled commitment of time if you're to be the best student you can be.
It's always easier to work hard when someone's standing over you, encouraging you, and keeping you up to the mark. The trouble with being a student is that you don't have such mentors most of the time. You have to carry out much of your best work unsupervised and alone—and that can make you feel lonely. But it also means that you have the freedom to take charge of your own education, with all the exhilaration that such responsibility entails, if only you'll seize it.
So while you are free to goof off and neglect your studies, you're also free to buckle down and get some real work done. We'd vote for that kind of independence any time, if only because we believe that everyone has the right to self-determination. But the challenge of that measure of freedom is that you must consider your own best interests and create your own discipline—that is, self-discipline, always preferable to the imposed kind.
Richard Lazinski's potential was universally recognized, but he never applied himself to achieving it. His friends found his conversation dazzling because he remembered everything he had ever read. He could talk intelligibly about black holes and explain the political geography of the Balkans as readily as he could evaluate the anticrime efforts of urban police forces. Not surprisingly, he got straight A's every semester. At least he did until he met up with Professor McCormick of the English department.
Susan McCormick was considered one of the best teachers on the faculty: an exciting lecturer, accessible to students, understanding, and fair. She sensed when a student was going through emotional difficulties, when a student hadn't slept the night before, or when a student was faking completion of an assignment. And she had a reputation for expecting much of her students, evaluating each one's work impartially and taking into account each one's way of learning.
Richard eagerly anticipated learning Shakespeare from Professor McCormick. When the course began, he attended her lectures and discussions regularly. At midterm he handed in what he thought was a characteristically strong paper on Shakespeare's sonnets. Professor McCormick handed it back to him with a C.
"A C?" he stormed to his friends. "I've never gotten a C in my life!" He was no more modest in his protests to Professor McCormick. "How could you give me a C?" he asked her. "I read Shakespeare. I gave you the twenty pages you wanted. So why'd you give me a C?" "Because that's what it's worth," Professor McCormick calmly explained to him. "Clearly you had the sonnets open in front of you when you wrote the paper. You quote each one accurately. But there's not a fresh idea in the paper; everything there had already been said in class. There's no evidence that you've given a moment of your own thought to what you've read. Do the poems say what others think they say? Do you find nothing in Shakespeare that stimulates your own thinking? Do you take no issue with others who have read him?"
Professor McCormick explained to Richard that the grade was an estimation not of his mind or character but only of the paper he'd submitted. And true to her reputation, she held out an irresistible offer to him. "Do you want me to consider this a first draft so that you can do the paper over? If you do better, your new grade will replace the C." Richard accepted the offer and the challenge gratefully.
When he returned with a revised paper, he was sheepish and apologetic. "I think you're right about that first paper," he told Professor McCormick. "I should have been angry at myself, not you. This one's better." She agreed—and gave it an A-minus. "What have your other professors been giving you for papers like that first one?" she asked him when he returned to pick up his revised paper. "A's," he reported. Unsurprised, she remarked: "Then their standards are different from mine, and in my classroom, my standards are the only ones that count. You've shown that you can do A-level work, but not by coasting."
But, Richard wondered, why not coast? I'm bright by nature. I can get mostly A's—unless I run into someone tough like McCormick. So why work harder when I can't get any higher grades anyway? No sweat, more fun, he concluded. And so it went.
Not surprisingly, Richard graduated near the top of his class and was admitted to the business school of his choice. It was Professor McCormick who, during commencement, had the pleasure of awarding him a citation for academic distinction. And it was she who bet her colleagues that while Richard would do well in graduate school, he wouldn't rise to the top in the business world because he'd never test himself against the toughest standards—though if he did, she was equally convinced, he could meet them.
Excerpted from The Elements of Learning by James M. Banner Jr. and Harold C. Cannon. Copyright © 1999 by Yale University Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|1||The Adventure of Learning||1|
|Pt. 1||The Elements of Learning|
|Pt. 2||The Circumstances of Learning|
|13||Who Teaches You||137|
|14||What You Learn||148|
|15||How You Learn||159|
|16||From School to College||169|
|17||Some Final Thoughts||179|