The learners and the learned

montecristoI’m currently re-reading one of my favourite books of all time: The Count of Monte Cristo.  This afternoon, a passage jumped out at me to which I don’t remember really paying that much attention before.

You don’t need to know the story, and I promise this post won’t entirely spoil it for you if you haven’t yet read it, but allow me to give you just a very brief bit of background to the following excerpt.

Edmond Dantès, the protagonist, is currently imprisoned in a dungeon for a crime he didn’t commit, and has recently met the Abbé (Abbot) Faria, a fellow prisoner and very learned man who takes the young Dantès under his wing.

Here’s part of their conversation (slightly abridged):

“You must teach me a small part of what you know,” said Dantès, “if only to prevent your growing weary of me.”

[…]

The abbé smiled.  “Alas! my child,” said he, “human knowledge is confined within very narrow limits; and when I have taught you mathematics, physics, history, and the three or four modern languages with which I am acquainted, you will know as much as I do myself.  Now, it will scarcely require two years for me to communicate to you the stock of learning I possess.”

“Two years!” exclaimed Dantès; “do you really believe I can acquire all these things in so short a time?”

“Not their application, certainly, but their principles you may; to learn is not to know; there are the learners and the learned.  Memory makes the one, philosophy the other.”

“But can I not learn philosophy as well as other things?”

“My son, philosophy, as I understand it, is reducible to no rules by which it can be learned; it is the amalgamation of all the sciences, the golden cloud which bears the soul to heaven.”

If you haven’t already guessed it, let’s just reiterate the bit which grabbed and held my attention this afternoon:

To learn is not to know; there are the learners and the learned.

I keep turning this over in my head.  At first glance, it seems to express so neatly something of which I am constantly aware, both as a teacher and a student; something powerfully abstract which I am forever trying to reconcile with my own practice.

It seems to illustrate how an intelligent and sensitive educator can formulate complex ideas in a way that makes them accessible to others.

I suppose what I might be expected to say next is something about learners and the learned–which one I am, or want to be.

Or I might invite you, the reader, to reflect on which you are.

Or if I might even go so far as to relate this to those people in our classrooms we so frequently term “the learners”.  (And perhaps make some pointed aside about the inferred status of “learned” on the other party in the classroom, the teacher…)

Or I might pursue instead the memory/philosophy angle, comparing them, contrasting them, exploring their relevance to the classroom, arguing for their peaceful coexistence, and so on.

But to be honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of dogmatic dichotomies, particularly where education is concerned.  Reductionism is useful up to a point, especially when discussing such a complex matter as ‘learning’, but the neater and more tractable the dichotomy, the more seductive and powerful it is, and this power is ironically dangerous.

I think there’s a danger of closing minds, rather than opening them, when only two options for discussion are given.  What about what’s behind door #3?

So while I tend to agree that “to learn is not to know”, I’m still struggling with the idea that “there are the learners and the learned”.  It sounds so good, it’s tempting to smile at it, hum along with it like a pleasant melody, remember it and quote it unquestioningly.  But on further reflection, from my humble experience, this doesn’t really seem to reflect the real world.  Things are far messier and more fluid than that.

Can’t you be both a learner and learned?  Or indeed, blissfully ignorant?  In terms of keeping an open mind, isn’t a feeling of not knowing a better perspective to view things from?

Personally, I love learning.  Not studying so much–not the scholarly sense of ‘learning’ and ‘knowing’–but the processes of doubting, questioning, exploring, wondering, discovering.

If being learned means you’ve reached the end of all this, then I don’t think I’d like to be learned; but I’d be happy to forever remain a learner.

But there I’m falling victim to the very dichotomy I just professed to dislike.

Perhaps less contentious to my mind is what the Abbé Faria suggests just before this line, about how you can gather certain principles in a short space of time but that their application cannot be quickly or easily acquired.

This may constitute door #3, behind which wisdom lurks, arguably a trait even more difficult to pin down than ‘learning’ or ‘knowledge’ and yet more attractive an aspiration.

How does any of this relate to learning/teaching/knowing language?  I’m not sure.  But then- that’s how I like it. 🙂

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About Laura Patsko

Senior ELT Research Manager for a major publisher. Alter egos: English language teacher, language learner, teacher trainer, linguist. Not necessarily in that order.

4 comments

  1. Enjoyed this very much.
    In learning/teaching a language it is difficult to ever be “learned” – assuming we define this as a stop in the learning process. Wouldn’t you agree that culture (particularly of the language being studied) plays a big role in its teaching/learning? If so it can be fair to say that with the rapid cultural change that most of the world is going through, languages and its use are changing as well – thanks to technology, texting (shortening of words, etc.)

    So as we change and the way we express ourselves changes, can you ever become learned?

    Definitely a very thought provoking post!

    • Hey, thanks for stopping by!

      I think culture does play a big part in learning/teaching/using a language, and the fascinating thing about English for me is how it’s now being used more as a lingua franca than as a means of communicating with its native speakers (and cultures?). This seems to bring a lot of novel cultural influences to its use, and who knows what interesting innovations are in store? As you say, in a process of constant change and development, perhaps there is no ‘learned’ endstate–and probably never was! 🙂

  2. David Jamett

    Hello Laura!

    I’m very impressed with your article and I’d like to give my opinion regarding culture and learning a lenguage :D. I’m a strong believer that our particular lenguages creates and modify our very own reality, or better said, our cultural sense of reality… the ideas of dialectical materialism since the last century have postulated the same. Thus, from the side of the lenguage learner (my side) the best that we could do in my humble opinion is to forget. Forget as much as we can our cultural structures during the learning process, since in the most of the cases our culture will put logical obstacles which will probably do more complicated the learning process. It’s like this film “the last samurai” in which an american soldier (Tom Cruise) is captured by a group of samurais, first as a probably useful prisioner, but after a time he was accepted in the group as one of them. At some point in this film the american soldier started to learn the art of the samurai sword but was impossible for him defeat anybody, in fact the weakest samurai warrior could defeat the american almost with his arm tied to his back hahahah :D. The really interesting is when the american soldier is wondering why… doesn’t matter how much I practice with the sword, at the end I’m always defeated! He said. Then a young samurai told him “No mind” “No mind” in order to explain him that the more he use his logic mind the worst results he will get. Obviously it is the kind of thing that is more easy to say than to achieve… but at the end it is also the kind of thing that make the differences between just to know and become an artist in some field.

    Cheers!

    David

    • Hi David, thanks for your comment- I’ll have to watch that film! Sounds interesting.

      Language and culture are certainly very closely intertwined, and that’s why I find teaching English so fascinating in particular – with the growing use of English as a lingua franca, there are more and more cultures interacting with each other and with English, and I wonder what long-term impact this will have on the language. I wish I could live for a few hundred more years, just to see what happens! 🙂

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