“Take great care to reduce your enthusiasm when delving into new subjects and disciplines… you may get caught up only to notice that it was unwarranted…” A college professor of mine said this in an email he sent to me when my class had ended. Though he sincerely meant for what he said to be helpful, I couldn’t help but to think that what he said was profound and ridiculous. And sure enough, when analyzing my past, this advice could have been destructive and misleading if given to a younger person. Considering that I will be taking college for at least the next four years of my life, a task that involves studying rigorously and learning lots of new material, I am forced to reflect upon what learning methods have worked best for me throughout the course of my life.
I remember when I first showed someone the way that I learned to learn. It was in my third-grade classroom with a fellow student who, frankly, didn’t like me very much. He was a short Mexican boy named Adam and I was a tall, pasty white kid. As it seemed to me, he had thought of every reason possible to hate tall, pasty white kids and would constantly pick on me out on the playground. But this time was different.
I was an avid learner at the age of eight at this point in my life. I excelled in school as was expected of me at a young age and had a method that Adam had never heard of before. He had entered my territory and it was my time to shine when my teacher, Mrs. Edwards, paired us up together. He scowled at me and I smiled brightly back at him.
“Alright. I dunno how to do math an’ all an’ you gonna teach me how to do it,” he said with an unusual uneasiness in his voice. Though he was demanding, he was still not in his domain and he knew it.
“Okay,” I said, “But I should let you know that I’m not as good at math as you think. You can probably write and solve math problems as well as I can. There is one difference.” Truth be told, I actually was good at math, but I could be forgiven for wanting to mess with him just a little bit.
Adam looked at me with his angry little eyes. I could tell that he was replacing what concern he had in stock with fury, ready to pounce on me should it come down to it. “What do you mean? You gotta A+, right?” I held back a laugh. I was young, cocky, and this was my chance to show him that there was something that I could really show him up in. But then I questioned the reason for his apathy towards school. I realized that he struggled so much in life already and here was my chance to make him smarter and possibly get on his good side. I told him my tactic:
When I was presented with a math problem, I would pretend that the numbers were the number of armies I had in space. The numbers I’d subtract were the enemies. They would attack and cancel out with my soldiers. Adam laughed at first but eventually, he came to realize that by making it fun, learning no longer became a series of hurdles that bored him. He took on the math problems with a newfound kind of enthusiasm. It was my glitch in the dull matrix that was the public education system. It just kind of made sense at a young age that if you’re going to spend a lot of time doing something and expect to be good at it, you’d better learn to have fun with it.
But from then onward, life began to challenge this method. Video games, friends, and Legos became far more interesting than doing math and reading. The mathematics became far more challenging and complex for me to have time to do it and make up stories to make it fun. I still did fine in school, but now I was no longer remembering what it was that I was learning.
I ran into a problem that most students had: I couldn’t see a positive outcome at the end of all this schooling. One didn’t have to retain too much information as long as they did well on the tests and moved on. This was my intellectual low; rock bottom.
Along the way, I ran into a teacher in my fifth and sixth grade classrooms who changed everything. His name was Mr. Auger. He was an older man but that just gave him more experience with teaching. When he read books, he’d make them funny and interesting by creating great voices for the characters. When we were supposed to be taught about the reasons for story, he put on the Twilight Zone and we would have to search every episode for the lesson. Suddenly, there was a reason to be more enthusiastic about school.
The point is that often, to be the best learner you can be, you need to be captivated by the subject you’re studying. Sometimes you’ll have great teachers and other times, you won’t have teachers at all, but regardless of all that, you have to learn to teach yourself because you’re the best teacher you could ever ask for.
When I received that message from my former professor I questioned everything about my methods of learning. Had I really been too enthusiastic? Was that a bad thing? Were all of my efforts really unwarranted? The answers that I’d learned from my past indicated that this advice was fundamentally wrong. Enthusiasm was the cure for boredom, the cure for disinterest, and the main ingredient for enlightenment.
I’ve kept that message ever since. Not out of contempt but as a reminder to always do the absolute opposite of it. If those words were to ever be of any value, they would be modified to say: “Take great care to embrace your enthusiasm when delving into new subjects and disciplines… you may lose sight of the end goal, but it is necessary to maintain your passion for learning.”