Different kinds of learners

It doesn’t take much reading of my journal to realize that I am a wordy person. I have lived my life in the world of words. I love to read, keep cards for two different library systems in my wallet, have a room in my house that is filled with books despite having fairly recently culled and given away boxes and boxes of books, and invest a significant amount of time reading online articles and journals. I wasn’t much of a student in high school, but when I got to college, I thrived on the academic environment. I went straight from my undergraduate degree to graduate school in the days when academic learning was based on shared research and lots of conversation and debate. Unlike the modes of Internet-based distance learning common for those seeking degrees these days, we were required to attend school in person, to participate in small groups and to engage in the exchange of ideas. And the schools I attended gathered other verbal learners who read a great deal and were eager to discuss what they had been reading. Even when we weren’t engaging in classroom activities, we would find ourselves discussing what we had read over meals, while recreating, and late into the night. The accepted standard for academics when I was a student was that we were expected to read a minimum of two hours for every hour of class time. And much of the material we were reading took many additional hours of discussion and re-reading in order to process the complex ideas.

I understand that that particular mode of education was not successful for everyone. There are many different ways of being intelligent and there are brilliant thinkers who are not verbal-linguistic learners. The academy of my day did not serve all types of learners well. It did not make many accommodations to those who suffered from dyslexia. It often ignored those with artistic or naturalistic intelligences.

Throughout my life, I have relished conversation with other verbal-linguistic learners. I love to discuss the books I am reading with others. I love to teach small groups with the skills I learned as a student, encouraging reading and discussion. Last night I was leading a small group in discussion of a book we are all reading in a regular online meeting. As I listened to others speak I was aware that we all were coming from a similar approach. We had studied the rules of logic. We knew traditional ways of forming an argument. We understood how to voice disagreement without attacking others. We were convinced of the power of rhetoric to change opinions. More importantly, we were carefully listening to one another. When someone made a strong point, others acknowledged the logic of their argument. When disagreement occurred, participants strove to make their point without attacking or criticizing others. We’ve been meeting together once a week for a long time and we have gotten to know each other well. The group is very good at welcoming new participants and the faces on the Zoom screen change as we go through the seasons, but the group definitely attracts people who enjoy a particular style of learning.

I am struck, however, by how many people I know who would not enjoy that particular type of group. I have a colleague who has an office that contains perhaps a quarter of the number of books that I used to have in my office when I was a full-time senior minister. When we visit she often tells me of television shows or movies that she has been watching, but I rarely hear of which books she is reading. She does write a bit, but her preferred format is very short pieces of less than a couple of hundred words. She complains about emails and web sites that have too many words. She knows about my web site and that I write a daily journal, but I doubt that she has ever read through a single of my daily essays. One of the first things she asks when I recommend a book for her to read is how long it is and whether or not it is available as an audio book.

She is a very intelligent and capable professional. She has an earned graduate degree. But she is not a reader and she would not enjoy some of the conversations that are part of my regular life.

Our society, of course, is comprised of many other different kinds of thinkers and readers. And in recent years, politicians have tended to exploit those differences by making conflict their main topic. Instead of presenting reasoned debate as a mode of persuading voters, they appeal to indignation, anger, and conflict. For example, compare the televised debates of the last two presidential election cycles with those of previous elections. Gone are the rules of logic. Gone is the practice of listening to what a debate opponent says. In their palace are hateful ad hominem attacks, theatrics and baiting. The rules by which classical debate is judged, pointing out fallacies in arguments and scoring points for consistent logic are practically nonexistent. Political debates are judged by popularity poll only and the one declared winner is often the one that is most entertaining as judged by flamboyant actions and lots of yelling.

Conflict is not, in and of itself, bad. In fact I believe that healthy conflict is necessary in order for societal change to occur. There is, however, a big distinction between healthy conflict and high conflict or malicious conflict. And there is very little healthy conflict in contemporary political discourse.

Because of my limited circle and my academic experiences, I have grown to expect others to be rational, but the truth is that humans and human societies are rarely rational. We are far more emotion-driven than rational. I think it has been a fallacy of mine to expect others to be rational and to be swayed by the rules of logic. There are times when I think my colleague who is not a reader is better equipped to lead in these troubled times.

I remain, however, a person of words. I try to think things through. I deal with the contemporary situation by reading a lot of articles and books. And even though others who think and learn the way I do may be a minority, there are still plenty of us around for the interplay of words, rational discussion, and healthy argument. We enjoy getting together for good discussion and healthy debate. It feeds my mind and my soul and I am grateful for my friends who are readers and thinkers and enjoy the world of words.

Fortunately for our wider society, we aren’t the only ones. There are plenty of others who, like my colleague, do well in the world of images, videos, social media, and learn in different ways. Our world has need of both types of thinkers, especially those who can accept and appreciate others who learn in different ways.

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