One of the things that you face in college teaching is the question of when a student is entitled to say, “No mas!” and completely opt out of a major area of knowledge on the grounds that their mind simply doesn’t work that way, they’re no good at that sort of thing.
I think the official educational line prior to this point is often that anyone can learn anything if they try hard enough or if the right pedagogy is offered to them. Some professors will say the same thing in higher education: that the door is open to all, and that all can cross its threshold.
The moment I hit college myself, though, I decided that I was done with math. I kept at languages but by the time I was finished with one year of Latin and two years of Spanish, I decided I was done with them, too. Over time, I began to understand the nature of my issue with both subjects. My mind simply doesn’t like precision, it doesn’t like problems where there is a single right answer and a single wrong answer. In high school math, I invariably understood concepts really well and invariably made small computational errors when executing the concepts. In language, at least as it was taught at my undergraduate institution, it was the precision of the grammar that frustrated me.
I’m thinking about this again because of the course I’m auditing, in studio arts. My mind didn’t like perspective at all (though I have to say I now have an experiential understanding of the art-historical knowledge of Renaissance perspective that I’ve had for a while) but line and value are really attractive to me. Drawing plants and landscape with ink and a sumi brush was like a magnet to me.
The more I reflect on these habits of mind, the more aware I am of how much they influence what I do as a historian and cultural critic, and even the way I approach political questions. I don’t like binaries, ever. I’m not going to make grand theoretical claims about that. It’s just my cast of mind. Someone throws a stark right/wrong dichotomy at me, I’m going to look for a third way to see it, I’m going to try and shift the question or reframe it.
So partly I am wondering: if and when you understand that about how your mind works, can you go back to anything, any kind of knowledge, and do it your way? Abstractly, it seems to me that there is a mathematics suited to my cast of mind. There’s probably a way to learn language immersively that’s more suited to my intuitive approach. Partly I am wondering: when should you not accept your intuitive approach to learning as sufficient? When, if ever, should you force yourself to do something in a manner that your mind doesn’t like and is ill-disposed to accept?