Why do we have to learn everything the hard way?
Well said. I think the big takeaway, though, isn't so much in asking how we should better transmit knowledge, but in asking how we might ensure that what we become better receivers of knowledge.
So we should be asking ourselves how we can keep the castle guarded, but also accessible; and also asking under what conditions we place things in, or remove things from, the keep.
In my experience, smart people learn from their own experience. There are a lot of smart people out there. But truly wise people are able to learn from the experience of others.
I really liked your idea that core beliefs are held in the keep as a way of protecting them, but it also makes it hard to change them. That really resonated! However, I’d like to gently push back against the “siege” idea -- I don’t think changing what’s in the keep comes from forceful breaching, but rather from a gentle welcoming. The owner of the keep needs to let someone (or another part of themselves) in and survey the area and muck around a bit. One need to want to change or learn before they are able to.
The way you’re describing this made me think a lot about the internal family systems (IFS) model of understanding oneself (and also trauma). I think you might be interested! I’d highly recommend No Bad Parts by Richard Schwartz.
Thanks as always for your musings!
The title of this article could well have been, "The Parent's Dilemma." As a parent, there's so much wisdom that you want to -- and try to -- share with your kids. But from trying to do this, you come to realize that it isn't so easy.
You have years of life experience and context that they lack, such that there are many ideas that they literally cannot (yet) understand, no matter how how patient you are in trying to explain them, how well you express them, and so on. Most learning is inductive. It comes from living life and experiencing things first-hand. As you explained in your article, words from another person just don't have the same power.
So, as a parent, I try to let my kids encounter "cheap lessons," in which they are safe from really serious consequences, yet able to learn something by experiencing it directly. A really simple example: don't stop your toddler from satisfying his curiosity by sticking his finger into the flame of a candle. At worst, he'll get a small blister (and probably not even that). But the lesson will mean that later on, he won't be tempted to see what it feels like to stick his arm in a campfire. Simply saying, "Don't touch the candle! Fire can hurt you!" would not have the same impact.
For adults, life is more complex, cheap lesson opportunities are rarer, and you can't force such lessons on others. Hence, "Don't go to Oxford" falls flat, unless the person you're talking to is genuinely receptive and you can marshal supporting evidence they can relate to based on their own personal context.
May I amend your concluding statement to: "Don't go to Oxford as a visiting scholar to do a Masters." I had a good time at Oxford in the 1980s, but was as a UK native and for a Bachelors. I got the impression that a masters degree isn't much of a thing there. Perhaps the dons were confused because you weren't doing a bachelor's or a doctorate.
That aside, this is a really good read. Great use of analogies.
The brain dead Pass It On campaign is funded by a “philanthropic” organization owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz who owes his success to inheriting his father’s oil company and experiencing a windfall from happening to own capital at a time of major US growth. His biggest contribution to society beyond PassItOn is owning various sports and entertainment properties, it’s completely unsurprising that his idea of making the world a better place is plastering tepid motivational posters on billboards. For all its recent struggles, wastes of money like him are why I’m glad we have the Effective Altruism movement so at least other billionaires can find something useful to do.
Wonderful article as always but Shrek isn't a Pixar film. It's a Dreamworks film.
And answers the question, "why do I feel so misunderstood when I spend all my time explaining myself?"
And why is writing a blog fun? I'm betting because the biggest bang for the buck in expressing (y)our views thoughtfully and creatively is that you (we) get to follow an idea through a garden (or wilderness) of intriguing paths. I still teach not because I really believe after all this time that what I say will get inside people's heads (much), but because formulating those ideas helps me figuring out what *I* think--and doing so in the presence of other people helps me get different angles on it and is more fun than just working it out solo. In the end, I guess I hope what will happen to a few students along the way is that they will notice how much fun it is to think, and how much more rewarding it is to do so in company.
Adam, this is SO entertaining, well-written, and spot-on. Thank you! (It has also given me the topic of my next Substack essay, so thank you for that, too.) I agree with everything you're saying, except that I do believe -- as Mercenary Pen already mentioned -- art can sometimes walk right in. And so can subconscious programming, as I wrote about here: https://marypoindextermclaughlin.substack.com/p/yes-you-sex-are-being-sex-influenced
But everything else -- you're right. Deaf ears.
Great post, enjoyed it. While the keep is very hard to breach, it is remarkable how some works of art, writers that speak to you just the right way, lovers that connect with you, and so on, can skip all the defenses and walk right in.
Problem is that there’s an infinite number of potential siege engines and no time to test them all.
Is it wrong that hearing you talk so eloquently about life has made me want to go to Oxford?
This is great, and as always with your work, well timed.
I was recently talking a friend through a problem of theirs, and they were not at all receptive to my advice. I know, I know, the best thing you can be is a listener, but the only reason I went up to bat this time was that I myself was only *just a month ago* seeking their guidance on a near identical issue—and I was trying to give them back the advice they had just so easily imparted to me. It was maddening to see their blank expression as I tried my best to express the apparent (at least, to me) continuity between our two plights (or buckets), and after reflecting I really had to take this lesson to heart.
If I couldn't impart anything in this case, of all cases, I'm not sure I ever can, and that's a grave invitation for me to get in touch with how people actually need to learn and grow. Ironically, I hope there's a follow up piece to this someday that could help me learn that—hahaha.
Thanks again Adam!
Thank you for this. It arrive at an opportune moment, as I am about to 1. give a presentation of part 1 of my dissertation to fellow grad students, and 2. meet with someone about faculty bullying. I will now not try to stuff my perspective in their ears.
Full disclosure: I got my LL.M. at LSE in 1996 but my reasons for going and spending all that money were different from the usual and I enjoyed my experience and got a lot out of it. Now, getting my PhD is also not the dumpster fire it could have been, given my reasons for doing it.
Wonderful post! I can’t help but also think about your posts on vibes - it seems like a corollary post. Not only do vibes “seem to stick around a lot longer” than facts, but they’re also one of the main things you can actually use to get into the terminal of the mind (ie Joseph Campbell power of myth)
Maybe you can reach it through the eyes though. Your blog has convinced me to NEVER attend Oxford for my graduate studies.
Granted, I live in the US, I'm nearing 50, and have two college credits to my name, but no matter what I'm definitely never going to even consider going to Oxford! What a wretched place!
You've provided an explanation for why Santayana's over-quoted "Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it" are always, in fact, doomed and repeat it.