Challenging, Applying, and Understanding Ideas
Karen A. Billings
Brigham Young University – Idaho
We all have that one subject that speaks to us – the one we just understand. Mine is English. I understand how easy it can be to use our tunnel vision and focus only on that subject, but this brings us to the point where we neglect our other topics of study and our knowledge suffers because of it. We are becoming disengaged with our studies which is causing a rapid decrease in the knowledge of our generation. Through applying oneself, challenging ideas, and making an effort to understand the topic at hand an individual can improve upon their own learning.
Applying oneself in the learning process causes an individual to expand their intellectual engagement. As I went through high school I dealt with anxiety which negatively impacted my learning ability the first two years, however as I reached my junior year I realized how important being engaged in the learning process is and that started my drive to learn for myself. I was participating in class discussions, offering my own insight on topics, and focusing more on what others around me were saying. I realized that as I applied this practice I received so much more out of the lessons. I had realized, as Butler (1976/2012), a distinguished chemistry department chair at BYU, put it “learning must be the result of self-discipline”, that I needed to focus on my own learning and not expect my teachers to do my learning for me (78). I needed to be engaged, intellectually and physically. The intellectual half of that equation was difficult for me because I was not physically making an effort. Had I been making an effort to be intellectually engaged, I would have already been physically engaged. The one cannot survive without the other. As we work towards the achievement of intellectual engagement we need to realize sooner rather than later that we will reach a time when we will not be able to lean on our teachers to know that we should think. As Plummer (1990/2012), a professor of Germanic languages, puts it, we will eventually reach a time when we will enter into the unknown of our topic of study and we will need to know how to think for ourselves in order to realize what we need to know or learn (440). I have not necessarily reached the point of the unknown just yet, however I know it is coming and I am so grateful for my many English teachers who forced me to think for myself. They never gave me an easy way out. If we did not try to find the answer, we would just get that wrong and have to go find it later. I have always been more thankful for those teachers who made me find out certain things the hard way because those who just give it to me never truly helped my learning progress, they just handed it to me without any work having been done and therefore stunted my potential intellectual growth. Through this process I mastered the talent of learning on my own despite the issues and trials I came across and I gained as Simpson (1961/2012), the seventh president of Vassar College, put it a “capacity for taking pains” which is important in any learning process (476). We should all work hard at learning even if we have obstacles making it difficult because as we overcome our trials we will learn even more and be more grateful for the knowledge we have accumulated through our challenges. As we apply ourselves to our studies we will, by extent, challenge other’s ideas.
Intellectual engagement can be improved upon by challenging other individuals’ ideas. As we focus on our studies we are sure to have at least a few questions. I know that as I have gone through my schooling I always had questions, but it was not until I started voicing them that I actually learned more. In my senior year of high school I learned the value of challenging ideas through the mini seminars and debates my AP Literature and Composition class would hold. The one topic that I always felt the need and prompting to speak up during was when we debated and discussed religion. I loved getting to express my thoughts to my class so that they knew where I stood on the issue at hand. I remember my transition from a silent, unquestioning child to an inquisitive and assertive teenager. I had not been extremely aware of my own opinions and therefore proved to be a prime example of what Plummer discourages: I just “would not express [my opinions]” to others and when I did they were always just a shallow flash of my thoughts or beliefs (438). I never dug deep enough to truly express myself through my opinions and questions because I was always terrified that people would judge them. However, I now realize that approaching any topic we should have a sense of skepticism. Plummer presents this idea of believing everything with skepticism as one of the most important tools to pure thought (474). As we approach each topic we learn with skepticism we have a need to be taught and convinced of the truth and importance of the topics. We will feel the need to have others explain why they think a certain way and why they want us to think that way. Through this frame of mind we will also have questions brought to our mind that make us wonder even more about the topic at hand. Searching with questions for the knowledge of certain topics will enhance our learning capabilities. As we learn, these questions will come to us naturally and we will write them down or voice them as soon as we can once they arrive. There are not many things worse than an unanswered question and, as it is our nature to be curious about anything and everything we don’t totally understand, it only makes sense to question it. When we question the topics at hand we are making the effort to understand new ideas and improve our intellectual engagement.
Making the effort to understand an idea will assist in enhancing one’s own intellectual prowess. Putting in the effort to understand the topic at hand is important because we all want to know a little bit about what is going on. As I have gone through my schooling I have noticed that I do not enjoy staying at the same pace as the group. Now, before we go and talk about how horrible I am for this, let me explain. Many teachers expect you to only go at the pace of the class, to only read what was assigned or research what they want you to. However, this process of doing the minimum has never been one I have wanted to condone. Of course I did it, I had to, but if I had a choice at any time I would read ahead or do extra research. I dislike stopping when I could go so much further. When I understand something, I want to continue building on that. I do not want to halt my learning solely for the purpose of “[adjusting] to the pace of the group” because I feel as though that style of learning is not as important or as impactful due to the fact that we are not given the opportunity to expand our own knowledge of the topic because we have to stay with the group (Simpson 474). I have never really been good at adjusting to what others think I should do or where they think I should be on any scale. The idea that we shouldn’t stray from the group is bizarre because part of the process of our progression is getting away from the group. We need to be set free in order to progress on our journey of intellect. As Butler mentions, spending an evening with individuals who do not know or understand what they are supposed to be talking about is a waste of time (79). I absolutely agree with this idea because I have spent many Socratic Seminars sitting with my classmates in silence because I will mention an idea and they won’t know how to respond because they didn’t study or read or even attempt to make sense of what I stated.
When teachers impose deadlines on what we are “allowed” to learn for that night it turns the assignment into just another bookwork assignment. Knowing we only have to read 5 pages and then summarize them becomes something we just have to do, but don’t really pay attention to. We, as Butler puts it, God’s offspring “have the capability…of learning from each other…and… [our] ancestors” through the accumulated resources provided to us via the internet and libraries (85). Ever since I was young, I have always loved the library. Every week that I got to go was like a birthday present. My mom would gather up our library books from our past trip and ask if I wanted to go; of course I always did. This was an opportunity for me to check out books that appealed to me, that I had not read yet. I often went to the nonfiction section and picked out as many informative books on cats as I could find. I suppose one might say I was an expert on cats in my early years of reading. This research on cats continued all through elementary school. I learned as much as I could and when I could not learn anymore I focused on another animal: koalas. This intense process filled my brain with facts about cats and koalas that most people never would have imagined. I got focused and could not quit. I made the effort to understand everything I could about my topics of study which is what I believe we should all do when it comes to all of our areas of study.
While it can be a good practice to get so involved in one topic that we just cannot focus on anything else, it can also be damaging. We need to involve all of our topics of study in our studying process. Working hard to know more about our topic, applying ourselves in the learning process, and questioning everything are all good ways to improve our intellectual engagement in our topics of study. As we continue to apply these three important tools we will find ourselves even more knowledgeable than we ever thought we could be.
Butler, E. A. (1976/2012) Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects. In R. Seamons, The marks of an educated man (pp. 77-88) Rexburg, Idaho: Brigham Young University – Idaho.
Simpson, A. (1961/2012) The marks of an educated man. In R. Seamons, The marks of an educated man (pp. 473-477) Rexburg, Idaho: Brigham Young University – Idaho.
Plummer, T.G. (1990/2012) Diagnosing and treating the Ophelia syndrome. In R. Seamons, The marks of an educated man (pp. 438-447) Rexburg, Idaho: Brigham Young University – Idaho.
Fare thee well!!