Monday, February 15, 2010

What's the Rush?

I recently had an e-mail correspondence with my dissertation chair that brought back some fond memories. A particular day is still very clear in my mind: I was so excited thinking I was going to learn something new. My chair, Susan Hawes, had sent me back a draft of my dissertation with comments. I was reading my methodology section. I thought it was pretty good: being a good doctoral student I was very interested in matters of epistemology and ontology. In retrospect I was getting carried away with  my own geek-like cleverness.

In the margin on a particular page there was a single word written and underlined. Tautology. "Great," I thought. I was so excited. There was some new intellectual puzzle for me to ponder and think about. Of course, as was frequently the case with Susan, I had no idea what she was talking about. She's the kind of professor who (at the time) seemed both brilliant and totally unintelligible.

I drove the 60+ miles home eager to think new deep philosophical thoughts. While I didn't know what the word tautology meant, I knew it was the study of something. Must be good, right?

Imagine my surprise when I got home and looked the word up. An unnecessary or unessential repetition of meaning, using different and dissimilar words that effectively say the same thing twice. I was mortified, of course. Mortified both because I was such a geek thinking I was going to get to be all smart and because I had written a chapter of my dissertation in which I went on and on about the same thing. This of course wasn't new feedback to me: my advisor for my masters thesis once wrote a comment saying "I'm reminded of a dog tied to a stake running around and around in a circle tearing up all the grass."

Some lessons take time to learn, don't they?

Anyway, back to my point. I clicked on a few links in our e-mails and went to some of Susan's websites (here, here, and here). Imagine my surprise when I was able to actually understand what she was writing about. She is no long unintelligible. Now she just seems brilliant to me. That's progress.

This has all gotten me to go way back into my education and think about the nature of learning and wisdom. I started college when I was 16. I of course thought I knew everything. I promptly got put into my place and received (I think) a D in my first every class, which was philosophy. Whoops.

Two years later, a Junior in college, the situation had improved. I thought it was so clever of me when I understood what my history and systems of psychology teacher said: the older we get the more we know what we don't know. I was clever, perhaps, but didn't really get what he was saying. Lost in the nature of my own cleverness, I was amused that I was so smart I understood him when I was 18. I failed to reflect on the very humble nature of what he was talking about.

And then of course there was Susan, almost fifteen years later, reminding me how much more there was for me to learn about what I didn't know.

I was always in such a rush. I'm not rushing so much anymore because every time I do I'm reminded how little I actually know. It's also rather unsettling to keep on learning new things and discovering how little I actually know about anything.

It's this rushing that I think is a larger problem. I can't turn the television on without seeing an add promising a quick fix for a problem, a faster path to financial freedom, and now even an education in "less time than ever before." Mirroring the world at large, psychology seems to be after a quick fix too. The field wants to create technologies that fix depression faster, resolve the sequela of trauma in the fewest sessions possible, and end panic and anxiety in six sessions of cost-effective cognitive behavioral group therapy.

I don't think these endeavors are bad: there is a lot of human suffering and humanity needs lots of tools to help address these situations. I worry about the unintended costs of all this rushing. Learning--and wisdom--take time. It's not that we learning something once and are done with it. We go over and over the same things countless times. Repeating them in different contexts, different levels, and from different perspectives.

What's the rush?

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