On (Not) Learning Things


I have to learn new things constantly in order to keep myself entertained. I’m rarely interested in doing things that don’t allow me to learn, and when I look back at things I have done that don’t teach me anything, I tend to feel that I have missed a good opportunity to do something sensible with my time. But it is easy for me to get confused and think that I am learning something when I am actually not.

Last weekend, I went to New York for the purpose of teaching a class on wishful thinking in mathematics, but it ended up being canceled due to too much snow. So I went to the Morgan Library for the hope of getting a good educational experience. Going to an art museum seems like a good thing to do in order to try to learn something; after all, that’s one of the things that society tells us that cultured people are “supposed” to do, and shouldn’t being “cultured” be correlated with learning things? So I thought, and so I have repeatedly thought, but now I’m reconsidering (and looking for other opinions as well).

I don’t really know what the goal of learning things ought to be, but I do have a way of determining whether I have done so: is it possible for me to write something nontrivial based on my new information that I could not have written before? If I spend two hours walking around a museum looking at paintings, then I ought to be able to say something new about art and, perhaps, write a page of two that I couldn’t have written before. But I usually can’t, and when I can, it’s generally because I’ve looked really closely at a few types of paintings and determined which sorts of brush strokes tend to result in more or less realistic-looking paintings. And I doubt that’s what I’m supposed to get out of going to an art museum. (Or is it? What am I supposed to learn from going to art museums?) I also doubt that what I’m supposed to learn from art museums is that looking at paintings teaches me nothing about art but something about how I ought to spend my time and organize my life, but that’s what happens to me some of the time.

It would probably be worthwhile to go through all the activities that I do in which I expect myself to learn something and verify that I am learning. I could try to do that by writing about everything that I do, but I would expect that to be a huge time and energy sink that would take away from other activities. I probably ought to do that more than I do (I stopped writing here for a while in my last year of graduate school, since I was already spending a lot of my time writing my thesis and didn’t want to write recreationally as well), and I will try to make it a habit to do so. However, it would also be good to have some heuristics to suggest that I am learning, even when I don’t go through with the exercise of verifying it. I could, perhaps, simply have a conversation with someone else about my experiences. That wouldn’t force me to organize my thoughts in the same way as or as carefully as writing would, but it might take less energy, and it would also have the benefit of giving me immediate feedback: if I believe I have learned something but I am wrong, I have a good chance of figuring that out as fast as possible. (And that’s something I always want: I hate being wrong, and in fact I hate being wrong so much that if I ever am, I want to know as soon as possible so that I can change and stop being wrong. I might be temporarily offended, but that’s a small price to pay for getting better at being right.)

However, asking other people to review everything I do is a lot to ask of others, even if I spread it out over quite a lot of people, and I don’t like being a burden to others any more than is necessary.

Also, much of the time, it appears to be the case that there is something interesting for me to learn, but I simply lack the creativity to work out what it is. How do I fix this?

I invite suggestions; please tell me how I can learn more and spend less time only pretending that I am learning.

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About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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4 Responses to On (Not) Learning Things

  1. diane says:

    There are things to be learned from perusing art museums, but they may not be concrete. You can probably learn things like the guiding principles of art movements or artists, what certain symbols are meant to represent, the sorts of subjects popular during a given time, etc. By what pieces have survived, you can probably get a feel for the aesthetic sense of the time. The problem is that none of these things seem to be of interest to you. Or are they? I’m told that art museums are more about how the art ah… “moves” you, or makes you feel, rather than the trivia I’ve mentioned. That certainly doesn’t sound like it fulfills your definition of learning. But perhaps you learn something about yourself.

    • Simon says:

      I don’t know if those things are of interest to me; probably they would be if I could fit them in with a framework I already partially understand so as to try to fill it in a bit better. I get that the learning that comes from an art museum experience is supposed to be more abstract than many other things, but this feels like a lie to me: it seems like something that people say in order to delude themselves into thinking they are learning things when they actually aren’t, and I’m trying to stop allowing myself to do that. But maybe I’m still missing something.

      • diane says:

        I think reactions to modern art are mostly a case of the emperor’s new clothes: people pretend to see something spectacular so they aren’t accused of being oafs who “don’t understand.” On the whole, I agree that what there is to gain (if anything) from an art museum experience probably doesn’t qualify, under your definition, as learning. Ultimately, it’s what /you/ think you’ve gotten from it. If nothing has made much of an impression on you, art museums may not be a good use of your time. You aren’t “missing” anything.

  2. yanzhang says:

    Two thoughts:

    1) here’s a strategic approach towards learning using a kind of “emotional planning”: learning is kind of like getting cash, except instead of financial capital you get mental capital. Hoarding unspent financial capital is in general wasteful. Hoarding mental capital less so (since you aren’t denying it from other people) but also sort of wasteful (in that the world has spent resources for you to learn). Sometimes this feeling of responsibility allows me to learn better.

    2) I think the kind of thing you noticed about strokes *is* something you can learn from art, and it would be your way of interacting with art. Someone else may get something else. I think the point is that there is not one thing you are “supposed” to get. Art is more like an environment for you to mentally interact with, there isn’t a specific puzzle you have to solve? My analogy with reading math papers is that while “getting the theorem” seems to be the “obvious” solution, there is also understanding something about the author, understanding something about the mathematical climate, seeing how someone could come up with the proof (as opposed to verifying the proof), emphasizing with someone else’s way of thinking (and musing how he/she thinks of certain things as more difficult than you do and certain things as easier), or even to be filled with happiness and/or angst (as many a paper may have made you feel). In those ways reading the mathematical paper is surely an act of learning art.

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