Monday, September 19, 2011

Learning as Pleasure

For a student, the opening sentence of the Analects of Confucius might be groan-inducing:

Is it not a pleasure, having learned something, to try it out at due intervals?

This sounds like the prelude to a homework assignment. Even worse, did Confucius just say that learning was a form of pleasure?

I wonder if one of his students ever raised a hand and said, "But, Master, school sucks!"

What's the opposite of pleasure? Boredom.

What's the dominant emotion of our time? Boredom.

Why are movies getting more violent, gross, and gratuitous? Is it because of some decline in values? Are kids today just more depraved?

No. They're bored. They're bored and they're trying to shock their way out of it. And, briefly, it works. But of course it doesn't last. Last year's controversial head-chopping looks tame. This year's controversial head-explosion ups the ante.

But of course it's all boring. Always was. Slasher flicks and horror movies simply wouldn't exist without 16-34 year-olds. Box office receipts prove this. (Just like Justin Bieber wouldn't exist without 8-16 year old girls.) For the vast majority of the planet, 35 and up, horror/slasher films are sooooooooooo boring. Shock and violence and gratuitous sex perhaps never lose a certain appeal, but compared to a good story or a compelling idea, they are, to quote Sarah Palin for the first time in my life, "lamestream."

Let me call on two witnesses: William Wordsworth and Boone's Farm "wine."

First, in his celebrated "Preface to Lyrical Ballads," (1801) Wordsworth establishes a sort of hierarchy of literary content, placing "gross and violent stimulus"(or what we might call trash, pulp, or shock) on the bottom and the more elusive pleasures of the mind at the top:

For the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity who does not know this, and who does not further know, that one being is elevated above another, in proportion as he possesses this capability. It has therefore appeared to me, that to endeavour to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best services in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged.

Wordsworth is calling on writers to recognize the higher pleasures, to aspire toward more subtle depictions of beauty and complexity, subjects more difficult to render effectively in words, but less ephemeral than cheaply-produced moments of flash and flesh.

This all sounds vaguely snobbish, and highly subjective. Who is Wordsworth, after all, to tell someone that Waiting for Godot is better than South Park because it relies less on blood, vomit, and profanity to reach its audience and communicate its message? (And, by the way, all that vaudeville slapstick and repetition in Godot is pretty low-brow, isn't it? Not to mention Pozzo whipping Lucky like a horse.)

Enter witness #2: At less than $4 a bottle (I think you can still buy it for less than $3; It was $2 when I was in college), the fruity, bubbly Boone's Farm satisfies the need for a cheap buzz (provided you are at least 21-years-old), and if you're far more accustomed to the taste of wine coolers, you might actually find the stuff to be tasty. However, if your tastes make any progress at all in the wine department, you must eventually admit that Boone's Farm wine tastes like fermented Diet Cherry 7up. You will instead long for something more complex, balanced, and suitable less for a desperate life under an overpass, and more for sipping and pairing with dinner.

If you still prefer Boone's farm after a proper introduction to more complex wine (and it isn't just a matter of cost), your opinion is yours to keep. It's not that a California Cabernet is objectively "better" than a bottle of Boone's Farm Snow Creek Berry, because what's "better" and taste is taste. However, we can objectively say that a California Cabernet has a more complex composition, was more difficult to make, and that people who spend a lot of time making, drinking, and writing and thinking about wine (otherwise known as experts) will tell you that a Cabernet is better than Boone's Farm 99 times out of 100. They could be on to something.

But I drank Boone's Farm once. And I enjoyed horror films. The former now repulses me. The latter just makes me bored. Whenever I see a commercial for the latest Freddie vs. Teen-Wolf movie, in my head I chant, "Bo-ring! Bo-ring! Bo-ring!"

And I'm sure I have students doing the same thing during class.

Maybe I am boring. Or maybe it just takes a while to develop the subtle pleasures of learning. It takes time, and experience, and someone else to point these things out. Enter the teacher.


  1. This is the Cabernet of posts!!
    Thanks for this insight. I have a class whose body language screams, "Bo-ring! Bo-ring! Bo-ring!"
    I will work harder at pointing out the subtle pleasures of learning.

  2. Ha Ha. I actually prefer Syrah, or Shiraz as the Aussies say.

    It's almost impossible not to reach the boring point in a three hour class. Most adult attention spans are about ten minutes, but if you changed up what you were doing every ten minutes in a three-hour course, you would have to do, like, 18 different things every class.

    I'm reading a book called Brain Rules right now that deals with some of this, attention issues, etc. If I ever finish it I'll post a review.