Most of us are familiar with the proverbs telling us that we live and learn, and that we’re never too old to learn. Nevertheless, that particular activity is primarily associated with the young, and indeed it begins with the very young, perhaps going back to the moment of birth, if not before. In those early stages, the principal teachers, models, and observers are the parents, especially the mother.
Among other things, the infant learns to speak some language by hearing others speak it. And one remarkable thing is that, no matter how difficult that particular language may be considered by other people who try to learn it, the child seems to pick it up with surprising ease.
One language I should have learned from my mother was Yiddish, which she spoke fluently. But she spoke it only to her friends and relatives (who were nearly all Jewish), and they actually used it as a sort of secret code, so that other people – in this case my sister and I – would not understand.
On the other hand, my father, whose hobby was playing the stock market (professionally he was a government worker – a British “Civil Servant”), apparently never had any interest in sharing any of that knowledge with me. So, I grew up knowing as little about stocks and bonds as I did about Yiddish.
How well we learn depends in part on having good teachers. The best one I ever had was at the equivalent of high school, which I attended in England. His name was Mr. Morris, and his subject was math, which had always been my worst subject. The people in my year were put in three groups, each with a different teacher, depending on how good we already were in math.
I was at first in the middle group, which had Mr. Morris. Although I still wasn’t fond of the subject, I found I could learn from him. He had the patience to explain things, in a way that I rarely encountered before or since.
Arithmetic seemed fairly straightforward and had obvious uses in everyday life. Algebra, on the other hand, was highly mysterious. You went in with a question, and somehow came out with the answer, without ever really knowing how it was done. But my favorite branch of math was geometry, just because it was so logical, and built, in a very orderly sequence, from what you knew to what you needed to establish – and at that point, you could write “Q.E.D.,” which stood for the Latin phrase “Quod Erat Demonstrandum,” meaning, “Which was to be shown.” (Mr. Morris gave us the alternative translation of “Quite Easily Done.”)
Unfortunately, I have had very little use for algebra or geometry in the rest of my life, except for being able to appreciate Gilbert and Sullivan’s song in which the Major General boasts that:
“About binomial theorems I am teeming with a lot o’ news,
With many cheerful facts about the square on the hypotenuse.”
But it did inspire one of my own thought-full epigrams, in which I admit that:
“I studied geometry, but never found out whether life is a straight line or a circle.”
But I learned so much from Mr. Morris and started doing so well in math that, without my wishes being consulted, I was advanced from his middle-level class to an upper-level, with a different teacher, from whom I found it impossible to learn anything at all. After suffering through several of his class sessions, I had to put in a special request to be transferred back to Mr. Morris. Happily, this was granted – but it was the only time in my checkered career that I was voluntarily demoted.
One of the most common methods of teaching and learning is what may seem to be the tedious technique of repetition. Haven’t you often heard someone say something like “I heard it so often, I can’t get it out of my head.” This psychological phenomenon is often called “learning by rote” or “parroting” – from the fact that some parrots and other birds have a “gift” of vocalizing human speech patterns they have heard repeatedly. It tends to be the way we learn songs and poems, even if we never see them in written or printed form. But sheer mechanical repetition can also be exasperating to listen to. If I may again quote myself on this subject:
“I understood most of your message, but would you mind repeating the last scream?”