Book Learning

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“Book Learning,” Ensign, Sept. 1983, 9


Book Learning

This article is the first place faculty essay winner in a 1983 ASBYU/Ensign essay and poetry contest addressing “The Role of Learning and Becoming a Saint.”

The year after my mother died I lived at home, kept house for my father and youngest brother, and worked as an editorial assistant for a business professor who was writing a book. It was a comfortable and agreeable niche. Every lunch hour of the work week I walked to a nearby off-campus deli, bought myself some fresh bagels and cream havarti, and took them to an empty upstairs classroom at the local Institute of Religion, handy to the university. There I sat alone, eating and reading, until it was time to go back to work.

The books I read were the notoriously abstruse books of a man who is still writing wonderful, abstruse books, and I chose them for no practical purpose—maybe to add a little meat to the bagels and cheese. Although I had read them before, I recognized nothing; they were as fresh copy. But this time the reading was more profitable. After a while, I felt myself getting used to the abstractness and the complexity of those arguments, in much the same way that a pianist becomes familiar with the technical demands and musical patterns of a difficult sonata. Maybe they never become easy to negotiate, but at least they do not remain wholly out of control.

Every day, with my ruler and my editorial blue pencil, I cleared a vantage point at the center of some difficult thesis to stand and look around at the logic and the evidence. I was even getting to the point where I might almost attempt some criticism and counter-argument. I never had more than twenty minutes to read at a time, but time warped in that little room. I traveled farther, in more dimensions, than ordinate and always left feeling that I had enjoyed a complete study hour. As a learning experience, those sessions were as perfect and as classic as a cameo, and I expected that they would never be surpassed.

Prior to this time I had completed all the course work for a master’s degree, but I had left school before meeting the thesis requirement. I realized all along that my arcadian year at home was actually a pilfered intermission between studies, that enough would eventually become enough and first things would have to be put first again. At the end of the year a close friend of my family and a member of our stake presidency gave me a blessing in which he advised me to return to school without delay to complete my degree requirements. And then he added, curiously, that after I did so the Lord would shortly grant me “the desires of my heart.” I had no idea what he was promising, but it was certainly the most compelling carrot that anyone had ever dangled in front of me, and so I returned to school.

I had misgivings about leaving my job, where I had become virtually co-author of an interesting book about economic theory, and moreover I was not confident that I would be able to quickly settle on an appropriate topic for my thesis. I was determined to find something with a “satisfactory and inevitable shape,” but I feared it might take a long time if I had to leave inspiration to good luck and the muse. Finally I registered, with trepidation, anticipating the end of my academic reputation by the end of the term. Originally I planned a low-key effort, with a few interesting classes in the foreground and my thesis well in the background, where it had always been before; but my adviser sharply disapproved. I did not need more classes, he said, I needed a paper; and in the end I simply had to confront it.

So I rented a typewriter, bought a ream of erasable bond, and sat down to the task. As it happened, I began right away to explore an idea which had fascinated me from practically the first graduate seminar I had taken. It was an ambitious hypothesis: it combined two disciplines, one of which was largely outside my training. I had studied it briefly once and had given it up for metaphysical. Surely anything I could say about it would be shallow and sophomoric. But I still believed that it was a true theory, or very close to the truth, and so I put this metaphysical theory together with some of the hypotheses I had leisurely collected on my lunch hours—one never knows for sure when one is preparing ground for the future—and the program that emerged seemed indeed both satisfactory and inevitable.

Of course it meant that I would have to do a lot of efficient reading in some formidable texts, the obligatory classics in the field, preferably with instant and total comprehension as there was no time for rereading (the entire semester was a trim twelve weeks). But this was the most remarkable aspect of the whole fearful experience—and it quite surpassed my “cameo experience” of the preceding year. Time warped again, and I was able to complete my research in about six weeks. In that time I filled four loose-leaf binders with typed notes. I plowed quickly and fruitfully through what was for me a frightening bibliography, including the tour de force of my abstruse author. Moreover, I was actually producing a paper which my adviser called “a fascinating synthesis.” I had none of that lame feeling of waiting for inspiration or serendipity to solve my composition problems. Instead, I worked with a new businesslike control over my material. Certainly, no previous academic experience had gone anything like this. It was exhilarating, like the removal of a pair of “mindcuffs.” Almost as much as I wanted to synthesize a workable thesis I wanted to analyze the reasons for the singular experience I was having. What was making the enormous difference?

Perhaps surprisingly, the outstanding difference in my study technique was this: I did not, this time, grant my entire time to scholarship. Always before I had studied pell-mell and let everything else go. But this time, in spite of the pressures, I set strict limits to my study time. Though I was keenly interested in my research problem, and reluctant to let it out of my head for a moment for fear I would lose my grip on those four notebooks, I still refused to pursue it into the night or into the Sabbath. I kept regular hours, reserved time for friends and for writing letters, and studied the scriptures for a lengthy period every morning.

Some background is necessary to understand why I did this. Although I had been reared in the Church, I had only recently been converted to the absolute efficacy of gospel principles and the reality of the power of the Holy Ghost which our Heavenly Father has and has given to us through his priesthood. My year at home had been a sort of apprenticeship year, which I set for myself to prove the reliability of my conversion and to develop my knowledge of the gospel. During that year I reconsidered most aspects of my life from the gospel perspective, and I sincerely pleaded with my Father in Heaven to help me find the right emphasis and set priorities.

After several months of this review, I wrote a letter to a friend I had met at school, sharing my “testimony of some things I have learned recently while trying to be, perhaps more informally than usual, a ‘scholar.’” These were things I had not thought about sufficiently before. I explained to her:

“I have a great desire to be competent in my profession if I am going to have one—not a thin, topsoil acquaintance that would pass, but a reliable intelligence and an educated imagination. I want to know what I am talking about.

“But it is true that this can grow to be a compulsion. In my enthusiasm I may begin to think that my work, academic or whatever, is really the whole of my life, and it may become something of an obsession. It is a question of where to put the center of things. Many attractive things fail as the center, although they may have worthy places within the radius. In those places they may be worked at with confidence in their acceptability, and worked at hard. But if I put my Heavenly Father at the center, all other things fall into their proper perspective and carry their proper weight.

“It seems to me now that the only way to succeed in scholarship, as in anything else, is not to want it, or anything, more than I want closeness with the Father. He is the Center, the only one that will hold. All other preoccupations have a dangerous threshold of absorption—are, in fact, a kind of obstinate woolgathering.

“I have never had any natural resistance to this temptation. If I get a hold of a new and interesting book, I may begin wishing the rest of the world would just suspend itself, with all of its claims and problems, and leave me alone in my chair. If I have two books, I am likely to seal myself off upstairs. This is what Brother [Arthur Henry] King calls the idol of the study, ‘the isolation, the sense of relief in sitting by yourself in a comfortable chair at a large desk.’1 And, as C. S. Lewis would say, ‘If it becomes irresistible … [t]he time for plucking out the right eye has arrived.’2

“Hence I realize now that I am never to be “primarily” a scholar, although I do have much to learn, because scholarship is not a primary thing. Whenever I get too Faustian in my desire for omniscience, a ragged dissatisfaction reminds me that, beyond my plans, or my wisdom to make plans, I seem to have been made for other things as well—that I did not come here simply to read books and write papers. And if I think that that is really my highest calling, then I am liable to find, as the Old Testament Preacher found (who also said that the use of books is endless, and much study is wearisome3), that all such things are vanity and emptiness and chasing the wind.”

Admittedly, this epiphanic letter could take some qualifying. For example, I hope I never meant to imply that a person must be wholly occupied with sacred ministries or else he is “off center.” (C. S. Lewis explained this more temperately in his sermon/essay “Learning in Wartime,”4 but perhaps he was more distant from his conversion.) On the other hand, the letter does document a marked change in my earlier relentless belief in the all-importance of my protracted formal education, and I was naturally excited about the discovery of a principle which was so obviously at the heart of the gospel, but which I had so completely missed before. The sudden rain of better understanding was heady and energizing. I was eager to show that I knew better now. A year later I got the chance to practice my new program at school, and it produced that extraordinary semester of thesis study. That experience entirely confirmed the substance of my letter and endowed it with certainty, at least for me.

I can actually find among my thesis notes in the attic a 5-by-8 card entitled “Things I Have Learned about Learning” (and I apparently meant the kind of learning people do at universities), on which appears as Point Number One the reminder to “Keep it in perspective.” And then there is this added note: “Lewis says, ‘The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us.’5 If you think, my dear, that you are an ‘intellectual’, try to remember that the appointment may be changed at any time.” Without compromising my academic work, I tried, maybe only naively, but in a notoriously absorbing occupation, to keep my life centered on central things. This decision materially affected the quality of my education, and, further, it confirmed two significant realizations.

The first of these appears as Point Number Two on my card, which reads tersely, “Intelligence is a function of righteousness.” I picked up this comment one afternoon while loafing around a professor’s office with a lot of other people, and I encountered the same thought again several years later in a talk by Chauncey Riddle, who said, “Morality is the key to acquiring, keeping, and using truth and light.”6 I found it a third time in a statement by Elder Neal A. Maxwell that, “for the Christian, mental progress means hungering after truth and righteousness.”7 It is also available from the teachings of Joseph Smith: “There is a superior intelligence bestowed upon such as obey the Gospel with full purpose of heart.”8 The idea seems to have much currency, at least among Latter-day Saints, who have a unique source of intelligence in the gift of the Holy Ghost. Generally applied, the theory can be awkward to defend, since the world is so full of a number of bright, wicked people; but I have never been able to simply dismiss the proposition.

Before I returned to school I had learned from recent personal experience that intelligence, defined as light and truth, may be the result of even the desire for righteousness. That is, it seems an integral part of the repentance process, and it is probably there that most of us initially learn that our Father in Heaven has the power to control the rate of our learning and the degree of our understanding, should he choose.

In my own serious experiences with repentance, I have always been required first of all to review the thing that I have been doing wrong, to see it again in its true perspective (“things as they are”9), perhaps more as my Father in Heaven sees it. This is always painful, but it is the beginning of better knowledge (“to depart from evil is understanding”10), and that is the beginning of a better resolve. It is clear from the scriptures that while Alma and King Lamoni, at different times, lay unconscious, they were learning; and the extreme intensity of the instruction overran their natural capacity. Although dramatic, it may have been the most efficient way to give them the enormous new understanding that would create the enormous changes that both needed in their lives.

I don’t know whether many have this extreme learning experience, but I expect that most of us at times become quietly but sensibly aware that we are being instructed and aided by the Spirit, and later on we may find the “stretch marks” on our comprehension. In a modest way, this was my situation as I studied for my thesis. I knew I must be getting considerable help, and I felt it was more than I deserved, for I was no “practically perfect person” or Mormon Mary Poppins. I had finally corrected some lopsidedness in my set of priorities, after a long period of resistance, and my life had better balance; but it was small progress. However, by the time I finished the term, in which I learned so fast, and so many things came together unaccountably for good, I had gathered much evidence that the level of my own intelligence depends on the closeness of my relationship with my Father in Heaven.

During my apprenticeship year at home, I had been particularly interested in the gospel concept of intelligence. I even had a “knowledge, truth, and light file”—a box of 3-by-5 cards full of quotes from the scriptures, the discourses of the prophets, and recent conference reports—which helped me to define a gospel concept of learning.

A favorite quote was this statement by Joseph Smith: “We consider that God has created man with a mind capable of instruction, and a faculty which may be enlarged in proportion to the heed and diligence given to the light communicated from heaven to the intellect.”11 It was discipleship I was working on, not omniscience; and so to find myself later on at school apparently learning in this mutually contractual way, and to understand the approval it connoted of my attempts to live the gospel, may have been, for the hopeful disciple I was, the nearest thing to the “desire of my heart.”

There are a couple of other points on my 5-by-8 card, but the more important one—the second notable realization—is on a half a loose sheet of notebook paper headed “The Overthrow of Browning.” Long ago I had a friend who tirelessly peddled a favorite quotation from Robert Browning: “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”12 I confess I never knew exactly what Browning meant, as I never bothered to find a copy of his dramatic monologue “Andrea del Sarto” and read the line in context. Initially, it sounded like a reasonable idea: if we never reach beyond what is known to us, our knowledge will never expand. Certainly it is pleasurable, and even productive, to reach beyond what we understand, reaching with what we do understand, building hypothetical bridges that may connect with something in the unknown. This is extrapolation, and its serviceability is highly rated.

It is true, too, that persistence does push over some walls: I remember that I once learned a difficult piece of music by Debussy by practicing it for an hour a day for a couple of years. I bullied it into my repertory by main force—and I used to do the same thing at school with ideas. I used to think it was necessary and right to push my mind to abstraction, straining to comprehend things I could actually only barely sense, and then—never mind the fog—to record my profound comments about them. That, I supposed, was what serious students regularly did, hunched like Paracelsian alchemists in the light of the familiar midnight oil. How acceptable work came from these ceremonies was a thaumaturgical question!

Of course I believe strongly that there is no substitute for adequate and appropriate personal effort at any task. That is the minimal responsibility, for a scholar or anyone else. However, as I studied I became more suspicious that neither man’s reach nor his grasp is going to exceed what our Father in Heaven grants. I remember learning that during the Enlightenment there was a group of natural philosophers who felt that it would be a simple thing to infer the nature of the Creator from the nature of his creation. After priming themselves on the observation of nature, they claimed that if they could just think hard enough and straight enough they would eventually discover the entire mind of God. It was an august problem to push against with intellect alone. They and their colleagues produced yards of interesting, logical network, but in the end the mind of God was as remote as ever.

I don’t know what to think of these main-force attempts, except to note that they often end in great heaviness of mind like trying to mentally push over a wall, and maybe having it fall on you. The truth is that every academic experience I had ever had until this last one—about twelve years of going in and out at two universities—had exactly this character. However, in the end it finally seemed clear to me that the true hallmark of even the most rigorous study, properly conducted, is not exhaustion but a kind of gentle discovery. I seemed to work more efficiently and more profitably if I did not force things to go a certain way. When the approach was right I felt capacitated; when it was wrong I was stymied—a transparent clue that I needed to change direction. I came to see that the Holy Ghost, as the ultimate instructor, does not close one in with intensity, but opens out in light. Then if we make use of the light we are granted, we find that somehow in the process we have been increased. Thus, the key to intellectual growth is discipleship, not doggedly straining against our limits. And I believe as well that profundity, like happiness, is not a goal within our reach or our grasp, but a gift of God, granted in the process of achieving other things.

These three ideas (actually aspects of the same idea—our dependency on our Heavenly Father) were working themselves out in my mind more than eight years ago, before I was married and had three children and had departed altogether from the academic environment. What do I think about them now? Well, to be honest, I am a little surprised and chagrined by the momentousness I apparently attributed to my actually rather inconsequential scholarship. And I sometimes wonder furtively in passing whether the real reason I could keep so successfully to my sensible study schedule was that I did not have three children. On the other hand, I suspect that the whole undertaking was appropriate, for me, only because I did not have three children. (Sometimes I peer into my box of thesis notes, thinking that I will stuff it all inside my head again; but I get the sharp impression that I would be all on my own if I did, and that I am better advised to close the cover and go give my daughters piano lessons.)

I can’t believe that the important result of that experience was my thesis (in fact, the completed thesis was never submitted and never defended, as I married first and moved overseas). But the ideas, the realizations I had while writing, have been sound principles to live by even far away from school. At the apogee of my orbit about the university I am still learning—with bologna and cheese at lunch, while the girls picnic in another room—and still learning about learning. I still enjoy an all-out, locked-door study session (but rarely get one), and I still read C. S. Lewis. I notice that, after many cautions, he ends “Learning in Wartime” with this: “If we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.”13 Though I’m less inclined to magnify its particular importance, I do still think so.

What finally seems more important is this: If we will center our attention on our Father in Heaven and his work, we will increase in intelligence, and the way may be opened, for those of us who wish to be scholars and for all the rest of us as well—and it is the only way—to be as the scriptures invite, “wise as serpents, but harmless as doves.”14 I believe it is likely that the Prophet Joseph Smith found the motto for all scholarship when he wrote, “I have got the oldest book in my heart, even the gift of the Holy Ghost.”15

Illustrated by G. Allen Garns