My dear friends, for the past few weeks, I have addressed different aspects of public education, and education in general. I am working my way towards a proposal for an alternative system of public education. But in this post, I would like to discuss the essence; the act of learning. It is said, that awed by the forest, we lose sight of the trees.
Learning comes so early in life, and seems almost automatic. It is not surprising that some take it for granted. We watch a baby on the floor. He crawls, and then stands up. He takes his first steps. Falls down. Tries again. Falls down, and then tries still again… and again… and eventually he is walking. We get excited when that same baby says the word for father the first time… and then there’s another word… and words that we can’t understand… and quickly, it seems, he’s speaking our language. He’s learned to talk. We see our children taking part in all kinds of household chores and activities; and playing with other children in the playground, and it often seems as if they are constantly learning and growing stronger effortlessly. And if our child takes an interest in sports, or works out continuously in the local gym, whether because he likes swimming, or just likes exercise, he or she will grow muscles, will have a lean and strong body, and will be visibly healthy. If he just sits in front of the TV or the computer all day, he will grow fat and pale. Sometimes he will seem lazy. But these are extreme examples. Most children enjoy a little of this and a little of that.
Though we can see the effects of perseverance at sports on the bodies of young boys and girls, it is much harder to notice the changes in a young person as a result of mental activity. Once the child has reached the stage where he is able to communicate with us, it seems like the pressure is off. Nothing is quite so critical again. If he makes mistakes in grammar, or chooses the wrong word to express himself, it can amuse us. Or we can correct him. In either case, we see that he is always improving… growing on his own. Usually, we’re not so aware of his mental prowess, and the efficiency of his thinking. We are constantly surprised by the things he comes up with.
But there is a process unseen, in which the child builds his understanding of the world around him on the basis of what he learns. Each time he or she learns something new, that new knowledge is added to his ability to understand and question the world around him. And he or she is building study habits that help him define attitudes to new unknowns. The more he learns, the more he will become aware of what he doesn’t know, and so, be motivated to learn more. Learning something new can bring a rush of pleasure, not unlike that felt by a runner who has just beaten his own record for a 100 meter run, or a young person having completed a double lap of the pool. He becomes aware of which behaviors are more likely to bring him success, and develops his own style.
I have many memories of specific learning challenges. Sometimes, a challenge was overcome in a half an hour, and sometimes they went on for months. Those difficult learning tasks are among my most beautiful memories.
The learning difficulty I remember most vividly brings back the memories of fear, and relentless determination. It was the study of color. I developed an interest in photography at an early age. I got a camera, and learned how cameras work. Learned about lenses and optics. Learned how to develop film, and how to print black and white pictures on paper. Over the years, I explored the realm of photography, and learned much about the physical aspects of this craft, as well as the history, the chemistry, and the esthetics. In the beginning I employed slide photography to produce color images, because of the many difficulties of printing color photographs. But at some point, I decided that it was necessary to print color as well.
In those days, there were two great difficulties in printing color. One was that you had to work in complete darkness. In the standard dark room, you could use a red light to see what you were doing. But in a color darkroom, any color could affect the paper, so the room had to be black. It was like being blind. And the second difficulty was that the process was rather complicated, and took quite a bit of time, even to print a test strip. The chemicals had to be kept at a constant temperature of 38º Celsius. Keeping the chemicals that hot, constantly, was something of a juggling act. But I learned how to do it. It was then that I encountered a personal problem. It was a limitation that made it very hard for me to work with color. It was something like dyslexia. I did not see the color magenta.
Human beings are biologically sensitive to three colors, which are conveyed from the eye to the brain, and combinations of those three colors define our awareness of the entire spectrum of what we are able to see. Though there are variations of those primary colors, we usually define them as red, green and blue. These are called Additive Primary Colors. For subtractive combination of colors, used in the mixing of pigments or dyes, such as in printing and photography, the primaries normally used are cyan, magenta, and yellow. While slide film produces a positive image, much like what you saw with your own eyes, when using negatives, you have to employ an artificial light which is projected through the negative onto the photographic paper, and the negative prevents certain frequencies from reaching the paper. Since the light source itself has a color aberration (as all artificial lamps do), it is necessary to filter the light going through the negative in order to achieve results which will resemble the colors seen in the original scene. The process demands the use of filters which can filter varying amounts of cyan, magenta and yellow. The filters I used were oblong sheets of transparent glass or cellophane with varying intensities of these primary colors.
In reproducing the colors of my negatives, I became aware of the fact that I was unable to recognize the color magenta. I had never had difficulties seeing colors before. But when trying to identify the color magenta, I saw it at time as if a dark blue, at times as purple, and sometimes as pink. I began to print a slice of a picture, with varying amounts of magenta in it, changing the picture from time to time, as I performed hundreds of exercises. The development of each test strip took about 25 minutes from start to finish, and much time was spent, performing the same exercise over and over again. With each variation, I was able to see the influence of the magenta on all the other colors in the spectrum, and identify the picture as a whole, as being correct or incorrect in overall color composition. As I continued, I became more sensitive to the color itself, and to the influence of the different primary colors on the palate I was working with. After about a half a year I was able to guess how much filtration I would need to justify a negative, just by looking at that negative. After a year, I was able to estimate the same with surety.
The understanding of color is not a subjective experience. Colors can be measured by optical devices, and their light wave frequencies are as exact as the weighing or measuring of any physical material.
I have had similar experiences in other fields of learning. In learning a foreign language, once I understood the basics of the language, I would read literature, and discover a great amount of new words. Each time, I would find the meaning in the dictionary. But there were times, when I chose to read dictionaries, skipping over the words I knew, as I searched for new words. I remember reading the bible (which I knew quite well) in translation in order to gain fluency and intimacy with a language I did not know well enough. And again, the repetitive actions bring about self assurance and an easier grasp of new pieces of knowledge all the time, just as repetitive physical actions result in body building. The stronger that one is, the easier the process of study. This is not dependent on intelligence. A person of lesser intelligence, working seriously in his studies, can surpass the accomplishments of a more intelligent person. It is a mistake to give all credit to native talent or intelligence.
The photos are of women studying art.