On Learning, Teaching, Sharing, and Growing

A great man once said “…” and I forget the rest.  It is not unusual to hear something profound and life-changing that you can’t remember a week later.  That does not mean it hasn’t changed you in some way.  It is possible to absorb an idea without taking in the language used to impart it.

Unfortunately it is possible to absorb the language used to carry the idea and never actually be affected by it.  I bore witness to an extreme example of this, and while it is a little sad it is also one of my favorite moments from my college years.

Sitting across the back row of the Music History I classroom, I and two of my fellow percussion majors tried valiantly to care about Philippe de Vitry’s motet called “Garrit Gallus-In nova fert-Neuma” written in the 14th century.  As a trio of freshman, however, the first thing we noticed was that the piece was performed by three men singing like girls.  The term “falsetto” was not yet part of our vocabulary.  Of the three of us, Sean was the least successful at maintaining interest, to the point where he actually fell asleep.

Our professor, a remarkable woman born in Transylvania, was making a point about how the Motet combined three different songs into one and how each part was drawn from a specific source, when she noticed Sean was no longer listening to, or for that matter hearing, what she was saying.  So, with two or three strides she was in the back standing over him, and consequently us, watching with a mischievous grin as he slept.

“Sean!” she called out across the void, all three feet of it, and he snapped back awake and said “yes?”  It is worth mentioning that Sean, at this point in life, was a dead ringer for Spicoli, Sean Penn’s role in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”.  Our professor pressed on with “What did I just say?” to which Sean feebly replied, “I’m not sure, could you repeat it for me?”  Being of a fairly deep and philosophical bent, she proclaimed “I cannot repeat, I can merely rephrase what I said.”  Sean replied “Well maybe if you rephrase it I can repeat it for you.”

Of course, after the laughter died down she still expected an answer, and turned to me to get it.  Hoarse from the hilarity of moments before, I croaked out an answer, and despite it being correct, she tore into me as well.  At least I thought she was at first, but after a tirade about beautiful tenor voices (which I did not yet know I possessed) and some other things  canot recall, it turned out that the ultimate question posed during the full two minute barrage was “will you please say it again louder?”

So, after all of that, and nearly twenty years later, looking back I can see that a number of important ideas had been imprinted on my mind without retaining any of the actual spoken words:

1)  Every moment is special and unique and will never happen exactly the same way again (also explains why jokes aren’t nearly as funny if you have to repeat them).

2)  There is always going to be someone who just can’t get into what you’re saying.  No spite or malice is intended, they just aren’t interested.

3)  It is not an accident that motets lost favor when the madrigal became popular, and there are groups performing madrigals to this very day.  But not motets.

4)  Regardless of how confident you are (or aren’t) it is important to express yourself with clarity and conviction so that listeners can be sure of what you are saying and either agree or disagree based on your actual statement rather than what you might have meant.  Also, you are incorrect in one or more aspect, someone with the correct information can straighten you out so that you have transformed a suggestion into a salient idea and have a solid foundation for understanding related material.

5)  Giving a wrong answer is a perfectly acceptable method of obtaining a correct answer, but not participating and waiting for others to put forth the solution is going to make it much more difficult to retain the information.

6)  I am a tenor, at least when the occasion arises when I sing.

7)  Having long wavy black hair, flowing gypsy clothing, a vast intellect and all of the evidence of a four pack-a-day Marlboro habit sweep into your personal space is enough to shake anyone’s confidence.

8)  Listening to 3 men sing like girls is… a strange way to learn that Isorhytmic Motets are not for everyone.

9)  Shared experience is much more memorable than time spent alone.

10)  This is perhaps the simplest yet most important lesson of that morning – “I don’t know” is not a wrong answer if it is true, and will generate a much more thorough explanation than making up an answer that seems reasonable.  To put that in clearer perspective, you will get more information on how to get to California if you ask in New York City than if you fake your way to Kansas and pretend you meant to be there at that exact service station on your way to LA but now you could use a little help.

All of this was imparted during one class session, in various ways, while attempting to comprehend and appreciate a musical example from hundreds of years ago as reproduced by modern performers.  This brings us to the whole point behind getting an education, and being an active participant rather than a tag-a-long.

All learning gains its worth by interacting with unstated principles and ideas.  Spicoli may never use Algebra, but having been through the process of learning, understanding, and practicing the principles of Algebra the fundamental skill of absorbing and retaining information for both short and long periods has improved.  Depending on your direction in life, some information will be useful and other ideas will disappear in the dusty backwaters of your mind.

The ability to assimilate, regurgitate, and defend ideas and principles is the single most important product of our educational system.  From presenting a sales report to writing a book, giving a pep talk to the team or preparing a course on astrophysics, being able to successfully manage your knowledge is the key to success.  Knowing what to retain and what to discard, recognizing important underlying principles among vast amounts of trivial data, and communicating ideas with or without imparting the specific language involved will foster the most important contributions you will make to your fellows and the world around you.

In the paraphrased and highly altered words of the Most Interesting Man in the World, “I don’t always have profound ideas, but when I do, I live and breathe them that others might discover them as well.”


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