The Sheer Joy of Learning
MAY 01, 1958 by M. L. LEVY
Mr. Levy is the Manager of the Plant Salary and Wage Administration Division of the General Electric Company in Schenectady.
At a recent company training session for middle-management men, a speaker pointed to the need for statesmanship and breadth in management. He exhorted the participants to read books on sociology, politics, philosophy, and the like. His entire talk was embellished in the time-honored tradition with colorful slides. His specific appeal to read was accompanied by a cartoon of a harried executive at his desk, encircled by dancing imps bearing legends like "inventory control," "sales quotas," and "labor costs." Beyond the barrier imps was a stool laden with books on the social sciences.
"To understand your place and purpose in society is necessary to survival," went the speaker’s plea. "You must speak up in the battle for men’s minds. To speak you must understand. To understand you must read, in spite of the other demands for your time. You must read so that you, your children, and their children, and the way of life you believe in, can survive."
Other than the incongruous use of a cartoon-comic-book approach to secure interest in very uncomic book-like reading material, the speaker’s story was logical and stimulating. Yet, in the discussion period which followed most of the time was spent by participants justifying the time they spend on the sports page, televiewing, lawn cutting, and other suburban delights, over and above any new intellectual excursion.
A company executive, under whose tutelage the training course was conducted, detected the unfavorable drift of the discussion. He interjected the comment that keeping up with the times, understanding the American ideology and competing ideologies were part of management job requirements today. He pointed out that the management of this particular company would be measured on how well it met these requirements and would be promoted and paid according to such measurement.
The speaker, then, tried to motivate us by saying in effect, "Read or die…. Read to survive." What the executive in charge really said, however, was "Read or you’ll fail to get a better job. Read to get more money."
Both these appeals, regardless of their worth, were external and material in nature. No one —speaker, executive, nor participants — suggested that love of learning, curiosity, or the individual satisfaction of being more at home in one’s time and place were appropriate or sufficient motivation in themselves to explore unfamiliar fields through the written word. Why not? That an apparent lack of awareness of such motivation even exists is a frightening commentary on current attitudes. Study for the sheer joy of learning, study for the thrill of using a God-given endowment denied to species other than man, study for the satisfaction it brings to the curious, restless, questioning, broadly-ranging mind seems too frequently forgotten, or if remembered, considered a little peculiar and unfashionable. The pure fun of intellectual achievement is being overlooked in our catalog of joys.
Motorcycle jackets and basketball have greater appeal and acceptance than book jackets and study.
A climate of anti-intellectualism exists. This does not mean failure to show European style personal deference to teachers and scholars, an interpretation so often put upon the phrase "anti-intellectualism." Rather is meant the lack of respect for what the teacher and scholar represent —the failure of individuals, regardless of their own ability, to marvel at what man’s mind can do and has done and to desire to emulate to whatever degree possible, those who earnestly apply their mental ability.
Changing the climate of this kind of anti-intellectualism requires changes in attitudes which have been a long time in the making. Meaningful, lasting changes in attitude will not come from threats of destruction or promises of more money. They will come only out of sincere respect for the significance of the individual, out of wonderment and awareness of the miracle of the human mind.
Correction Begins at Home
Creation of the desired attitudes cannot be effectively delegated to teachers, clergy, training course orators, or executives. The foundation of such attitudes is in the home, in the conscious and unconscious shaping by parents of a set of values for their children. Some efforts of these others do help, but the receptiveness and understanding of their audiences is a function of the parental influence which long preceded it. And to the extent that certain efforts of others do not help, parents have only themselves to blame. The emphasis on group harmony at the expense of intellectual activity in our schools, the increasing devotion to "togetherness" and "sociability" in our churches are the result of the desires of the supporters of those institutions or of their apathy.
Observation of the practices, attitudes, and habits of their parents can instill in children the strong desire to think and an appreciation of the satisfaction of intellectual accomplishment. The wrong parental example can do just the opposite beyond any hope of correction.