Don't let your education get in the way of your learning.

Mark Twain said "Don't let your Education get in the way of your Learning." Unfortunately, I didn't listen to him.

Part of the reason I'm interested in how people learn, and how to learn better, is that I've spent what feels like far too long wading about different subjects with moments of clarity in distinct short supply.

In order to increase my poor batting average, I have been reading the collection of Charlie Munger's essays called 'Poor Charlie's Almanack' in the hope that understanding the mental models he used himself will help me not go through life "like a one-legged man in an arse kicking contest."

My lack of any kind of grasp on a subject I had spent too long "studying" was brought home to me when I found myself Googling 'what is Moral Philosophy', as I had done it (sorry… read it)...for two years at Glasgow University. I had wanted to do Psychology but the Professor dude who was supposed to be some sort of guidance teacher was a Philosophy Professor and he insisted I did Philosophy. If I actually had studied Psychology I would have recognised it for the act of self-serving bias that it was.

I found myself shortly after that meeting in a lecture at the back of Plato's cave, wondering what was going on. Who the hell is this Thrasymachus dude? We bounced weekly between Plato, Nietzsche, Descartes and Hume and this was my first big mistake. I didn't now then that choosing one's entry point into a subject was important.

My second mistake compounded my first mistake, in that I didn't have any kind of latticework of ideas on which to hang what I was… I was going to say learning but instead I was writing it down and then highlighting things. I had no overall context of the main ideas of the subject or how these ideas changed over time.

My third big mistake was, I didn't know what questions to ask. And so one of the great achievements of humankind became for me a memorisation exercise for passing tests in order to get into third year University. And then I stopped thinking of it very much as I put it in the box of" 'I'm never going to understand this." To quote possibly one of the greatest philosophical works - 'A Fish called Wanda' - "a Monkey can read Nietzsche, he just can't understand it." Mistake number four.

I recently decided this level of ignorance couldn't be countenanced any longer. I needed to actually understand what 'I think therefore I am' was all about. I also think that to a degree, artists, writers and scientists produce work in the paradigm of ideas of their time. And by chance I came across a series called 'The Great Philosophers' by the BBC, which someone had put up on YouTube.

In it, the presenter Bryan Magee asks the key questions that I should have asked. He gives an overall context for things. He makes concepts simple. He gives a bit of a map to the viewer so we have some kind of framework on which to hang the ideas. He stays out of the weeds early on. He follows the timeline of an idea and which philosophers developed the ideas or argued about them so that we can see the connections.

In short, he helps you builds your frame of reference in order to help you understand and (heaven help us) enjoy the subject. There's nothing that destroys interest in a subject as quickly as 'maybe I'm not clever enough to understand this'. I've chosen Philosophy here, but I think these things can be applied to other subjects.

Addendum. As a refutation of my previous statement concerning monkeys, I would like to add that actually, monkeys are extremely clever (I am backed up by the University of Pittsburgh). Maybe they do practically understand Nietzsche rather more than we do. And contrary to Adam Smith's claim that "Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog," a New York Times article from 2005 says that "seven capuchin monkeys have been taught to use money, and a comparison of capuchin behavior and human behavior will either surprise you very much or not at all, depending on your view of humans.". Unfortunately, nobody listened to the capuchin monkeys, thus causing the financial crisis of 2008. The monkeys repeatedly asked 'are you sure about issuing so many derivatives and what the hell are these CDO's?' but then the bankers just gave them more marshmallows to shut them up. Also, we all know about the monkey that typed out the entire works of Shakespeare. Not too shabby.


Iain F Macleod's blog


'Poor Charlie's Almanack : The Essential Wit and Wisdom of Charles T Munger' (affiliate link) is a book I will read over and over again. I have already learnt a great deal from it and a trying to incorporate some of his mental models into my own thinking.

On the Philosophy Overdose YouTube channel, Chomsky appears on a program to explain what he's up to. I would also recommend the one on Decartes as it explains the thought process which arrived at the scientific method on which our entire modern world rests.

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