Learning for Learning’s Sake + Other Thoughts

It’s a rainy evening. Halloween’s just past, and I finally have some time to take a quick breather before immersing myself in the next set of projects and papers. I’m usually not a big fan of the rain, but it’s just so soothing and pleasant at times that I can’t hate it even if I try.

I’ve been thinking about some stuff recently, mostly related to learning, knowledge, and the media. Thought I’d spend some time sharing them with you all. Feel free to read all, some, or none!

Learning for learning’s sake. I’ve heard that phrase many a time. It’s much easier to agree with this in saying than it is to do this in practice. I’ve had my share of really great and really bad breadth courses – these are the general education courses that undergrads have to take in order to move on to upper div classes.

I think at the core, learning for learning’s sake is something that is lacking in many universities today. We’re taught to take classes and pursue majors that will directly prepare us for the real world. This is reinforced so many times (oftentimes implicitly) that we eventually buy into it without realizing it.

There should definitely be a balance. I’m not saying to take only interesting, non-major related courses. But I do think it’s important for people to step outside their comfort zones, and really look into classes where they can learn, not necessarily for a career, but just to gain more knowledge about the world and the human condition.

Some of my favorite classes at Cal have been humanities classes – solid classes that were interesting and challenging at the same time. Sure, I might not be able to directly apply what I learned to my work, but I think a lot of important life themes and lessons can be drawn from these studies. To me, there are still practical applications for these classes – they’re just as valuable but not as immediate.

One of my favorite classes I’ve taken at Cal was a freshman-year seminar about the novel War and Peace. Believe me, it wasn’t an easy class. We had to read 150-200 pages a week. But it was one of the few classes where I personally went up to the professor after the last lecture to thank him.

You see, this professor had retired, and came back just to teach this class, simply because he loved teaching about the novel and wanted his students to enjoy it, too. This was probably the only class where I never felt pressure to “participate,” but still actively did, because the professor encouraged genuine discussion and challenged us to critically think.

Although I didn’t learn any immediate “practical” skills, I came away from that class not only with knowledge about Russian Tsarist society and the impact of Napoleon’s invasion, but also with more knowledge about different kinds of people, the brutality of war, and universal human wants and needs.

To this day, I count reading War and Peace one of my proudest achievements, and I look to it as a solid example of learning for learning’s sake.

As a media studies major, I’ve been studying mass media this semester and its effects on people. The class has been very eye-opening and has allowed me to look at myself and how I approach consuming the media.

One disturbing trend I’ve noticed in myself is that I’ve been putting more and more emphasis on breadth of news knowledge rather than depth of news knowledge. I scan headlines from a bunch of news sources, and the headlines that catch my eye get an additional minute or two of scanning the story before I move on to the next one.

I wouldn’t be surprised that many people are moving in this direction, especially with the rise of online journalism and blogging. There are simply too many sources – I feel overwhelmed at times. And all this “knowledge,” how much do we really know, apart from just the superficial main points and maybe a couple of statistics?

I remember back in high school, I’d read feature stories that really delved into the topics those stories covered. Even though those articles took much longer to read, I came away a lot more satisfied and felt that I’d learned something new.

Is this trend a bad thing? I’m not sure. It’s probably too early to tell, and humans are definitely resilient and adaptable creatures, so I’m not too worried. But it’s just fascinating to be witnessing this shift, and seeing it in myself. We’re going beyond the era of TV news clips and entering a new era of bite-sized, quick-scan online articles. Fascinating stuff.

Alrighty, that’s about it for now. This weekend and the next week will be pretty crazy, so I’ll try to find some time to write a bit more during my breaks.

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