Men can learn from one another, but learning requires a process of thought on the part of every individual student. Men can cooperate in the discovery of new knowledge, but such cooperation requires the independent exercise of his rational faculty by every individual scientist. Man is the only living species that can transmit and expand his store of knowledge from generation to generation; but such transmission requires a process of thought on the part of the individual recipients.
All learning involves a process of automatizing, i.e., of first acquiring knowledge by fully conscious, focused attention and observation, then of establishing mental connections which make that knowledge automatic (instantly available as a context), thus freeing man’s mind to pursue further, more complex knowledge.
There are two different methods of learning: by memorizing and by understanding. The first belongs primarily to the perceptual level of a human consciousness, the second to the conceptual.
The first is achieved by means of repetition and concrete-bound association (a process in which one sensory concrete leads automatically to another, with no regard to content or meaning). The best illustration of this process is a song which was popular some twenty years ago, called “Mairzy Doats.” Try to recall some poem you had to memorize in grade school; you will find that you can recall it only if you recite the sounds automatically, by the “Mairzy Doats” method; if you focus on the meaning, the memory vanishes. This form of learning is shared with man by the higher animals: all animal training consists of making the animal memorize a series of actions by repetition and association.
The second method of learning — by a process of understanding — is possible only to man. To understand means to focus on the content of a given subject (as against the sensory — visual or auditory — form in which it is communicated), to isolate its essentials, to establish its relationship to the previously known, and to integrate it with the appropriate categories of other subjects. Integration is the essential part of understanding.
The predominance of memorizing is proper only in the first few years of a child’s education, while he is observing and gathering perceptual material. From the time he reaches the conceptual level (i.e., from the time he learns to speak), his education requires a progressively larger scale of understanding and progressively smaller amounts of memorizing.
Learning is a conceptual process; an educational method devised to ignore, by-pass and contradict the requirements of conceptual development, cannot arouse any interest in learning. The “adjusted” are bored because they are unable actively to absorb knowledge. The independent are bored because they seek knowledge, not games of “class projects” or group “discussions.” The first are unable to digest their lessons; the second are starved.
The process of forming, integrating and using concepts is not an automatic, but a volitional process — i.e., a process which uses both new and automatized material, but which is directed volitionally. It is not an innate, but an acquired skill; it has to be learned — it is the most crucially important part of learning — and all of man’s other capacities depend on how well or how badly he learns it.
This skill does not pertain to the particular content of a man’s knowledge at any given age, but to the method by which he acquires and organizes knowledge — the method by which his mind deals with its content. The method programs his subconscious computer, determining how efficiently, lamely or disastrously his cognitive processes will function.