The Pleasures of School

We’re approaching the end of the Art of Learning series. Over the past eight weeks, I’ve been listening to myself talk about various aspects of higher education, always with an eye to what makes it worthwhile and enjoyable — something to be good at and something to take pleasure in. I know that I sometimes sound like a bit of an idealist, maybe even a romantic, but I do really believe that it is possible to get great value out of attending a modern university, even one that is as big as the Copenhagen Business School. It is all about appreciating your finitude.

A few years ago, Jonathan Mayhew drew my attention to a documentary called The Universal Mind of Bill Evans, which I strongly recommend you watch. I take his main point (for our purposes) to be that your learning has to build confidently on what you understand, not grasp desperately at the edge of your ignorance. While you are learning new things you should be in close contact with what you already know. You should feel like you’re adding to your strength, not just overcoming your weaknesses. Keep your learning “simple and real”, focusing on accomplishing precise goals, rather than trying to approximate a theory, or method, or analysis in a vague way. As Evans puts it, “take a small part of it and be real and true about it.” That’s how you’ll achieve mastery.

Also, don’t struggle at something endlessly, indefinitely. Give yourself a certain amount of hours every day to learn. (I recommend around six hours on average.) Know when you are going to start, what you are going to do, when you will take breaks, and, importantly, when you are going to stop. I call the last thing “discipline zero” and it is absolutely crucial to maintaining a satisfying learning process, organized into pleasant learning moments. This distinction is one that I came up with while thinking about last week’s talk and, truth be told, while talking.

Pleasure is of the moment. You want to give yourself an orderly situation during which to learn something because that affords you pleasure. Don’t feel like you’re pressed for time, and don’t sit in an uncomfortable space under bad light trying to read, write, or think. Learn what your body needs in order to do these things effectively and find simple ways of providing it. Insist on passing every half hour or so of your school day as pleasurably as possible, and this includes the way you attend lectures (live or online). Prepare for them, not just with an eye to learning, but with an interest in your own enjoyment. Experiment with it. Arrive at something that works for you.

Satisfaction is of the process. Even if they are altogether pleasant, you can’t count on every moment (of about thirty minutes) satisfying your curiosity. “Whatever satisfies the soul is truth,” said Walt Whitman, but truth is rarer than pleasure. It’s the result of many hours struggling to learn to difficult material. Remember to appreciate it when it happens, and remember to organize your moments into a process that makes it likely. Alternate between reading, thinking, writing, listening, and talking. Let each of these activities support the others. Remember that ultimately you are the same person when you participate in them, but each of them also changes you. Let the variety itself be a source of enjoyment and seek to satisfy your curiosity. Long term, that is what will make your time at school a good experience.

If you cannot find pleasure from moment to moment, or satisfaction in the process over time, you may be in the wrong program or you may simply be approaching it with the wrong attitude. You’ll be doing it for three, or four, or five years — or more! — so you do well to pay attention to these questions. Experiment. Experience. Eventually you’ll either figure it out or find something more worthwhile (for you) to do. As a student, that’s very much what you’re looking for — something worthwhile to spend your time doing.

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