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A Missing Ingredient in Learning

Hunter Baker, Associate Dean of Arts & Science
Jun 21, 2013

In many ways, we are living in the golden age of education. If even a very poor person wants to learn something, he has the ability to do so more cheaply, easily and more quickly than ever before.

As I engaged in some learning of my own recently, however, I discovered that access may not be the panacea many believed it would be. There are significant challenges beyond the question of access which must be addressed.
 
I recently had the experience of walking around a local public park while listening to classroom lectures on the history of European monarchy from a professor at Yale. These lectures appeared to be unedited recordings directly from some thrice weekly meeting on campus. The lack of polished editing and consumer refinement helped me feel as though I were just another student sitting in the section and taking it all in.
 
As I listened, I realized that I was getting everything. My appreciation for the material was at a very high level. I grasped concepts, filled in gaps in my own knowledge, evaluated the professor for apparent bias. With virtually every sentence he spoke, I gained something. Of course, I am a professor who teaches and writes about politics. I really wanted to know more about this material.
 
That’s when it hit me. This very fine experience of learning I have just described is not common among students at any level. The difference between them, sitting in any number of lectures, and me, walking around a park with earphones in, is the thing that is usually missing in education. That thing which is missing is desire.
 
It took me a long time to get where I am now as a learner. When I had the original chance as a student in primary and secondary schools, and then as a college student, I missed out on a great deal. It was not until my second graduate school experience (in law school) when I began to really synthesize information and to see the great linkages extending wide and deep between ideas, concepts, historical occurrences and more granular information that follows. When that happened, when I began to see how much more satisfying it could be to learn, I gained a much greater desire to participate in my own education.
 
For the most part, students lack the desire for learning. It should be no great surprise. We have trained them to achieve progression rather than to desire knowledge. They simply look to move forward through the various grades. Regrettably, they have learned that progression is almost automatic. One can be distinguished at progressing or not so distinguished, but nearly everyone seems to progress as long as they conform to minimal standards.
 
As a college professor, I feel at once as though I have discovered something wonderful, and yet also as if I have happened upon a giant nothing. Desire is the secret sauce in learning. That is why young men do so well in playing complex video games. They want to learn how to win. How do we change the direction of the ship of schooling? How do we inculcate desire?
 
This column originally appeared in the June 21, 2013 edition of The Jackson Sun