Word of the Day: LEARN

Word of the Day: LEARN

I am reading an excellent new book, The Decay of Truth in Education, by Kevin Krahenbuhl. People who do not work in the hard sciences may find it difficult to fathom how far truth, as the prime end of education, has been abandoned or traduced. If you go to the web page of the Sociology Department at Saint Eustaby Catholic College, where I Eusta Teach, you will not find any concern for investigating truths regarding how human beings live together in societies. That is, you will not find a trace of that intellectual freedom that is like play: the freedom from some immediate utilitarian goal, that gives you the opportunity to ask interesting anthropological questions. These, for example: Are there any features of a polyglot society that differ from those in a society that is monolingual? What kinds of societies typically arise in climates that are unusually harsh, where food is scarce? What is the size at which an institution begins to lose its personal character and comes to be “bureaucratic,” impersonal, and perhaps also inefficient?

These are eminently social questions, but to be impassioned by them, you have to be on a search for truth and NOT primarily out to accomplish a utilitarian — read POLITICAL — goal. To ask such questions, you step out of yourself and your immediate concerns, just as I do when I decide to learn Welsh, as I did several years ago. “Why are you doing that?” somebody asks. It is like asking someone why he is eating lunch: the mind hungers for knowledge. Or rather it ought to; and our hunger for knowledge should not be given the false food of the politically advantageous, from whatever direction the politics comes.

But Mr. Krahenbuhl shows, step by step, that this concern for truth does not motivate teachers, professors, and professors who teach the teachers. Instead, we have frank declarations of social intent, coupled with a romantic, philosophically incoherent, and historically uninformed notion that the only real learning is that which is “constructed” by the students themselves. As for objective truth, the possibility of attaining it is blithely denied.

Don’t get on a plane with a pilot so taught. But you won’t; pilots have to know things. The pilots of your schools, universities, congresses, newspapers? Hah.

The word LEARN comes from an Indo European root having to do with a FURROW that you follow. That means that you do not “construct” your own learning: you follow in a track that has been laid down by others. It is hard to see how you can have apprentice-constructed blacksmithing; and, hey, what did the apprentices do in all of those Renaissance studios that produced some rather creative fellows with names like Michelangelo and Raphael? They LEARNED how to mix paints. They LEARNED how to draw. They LEARNED how to mix plaster for frescoes. They LEARNED a hundred things I don’t even know the names of, if there are any.

LEARN used to have a transitive meaning, which you may recall from the schoolyard: “I’ll LEARN ya!” German ended up distinguishing between teaching and learning by using two related words: LEHREN = TEACH (cf. English LORE), LERNEN = LEARN. That transitive meaning survives in the participle LEARNED, which preserves the vowel in the suffix (cf. BELOVED, CURSED = HAVING BEEN CURSED), and means not something that has been learned, but someone who HAS BEEN TAUGHT things.