The Bible’s Teaching on How to Learn Anything

The Bible contains a great deal of advice based upon observation of the world that would be helpful to know even if you did not accept any of its claims about God. One of the most helpful pieces of the Old Testament is this little gem from Proverbs:

(1) My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, (2) making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; (3) yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, (4) if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, (5) then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:1-5 ESV)

The passage is about learning from teachers. It basically tells us how to learn anything we choose. The main goal of the passage is to teach young men and women the fear of the Lord because the author sees this as the foundation of all knowledge and wisdom (Proverbs 1:7). But, the author is also trying to help young people gain skills in philosophical, literary, practical, and ethical reasoning. So, even if “fear of the Lord” and “knowledge of God” are not what you want out of life (and at the end of the day you will want them), the advice given here is useful for any field. Look at the instructions from the father:

  1. If you receive my words
    The father (or teacher in this case) says that receiving his words is part of gaining wisdom. I am both a teacher and a student. And one of the chief difficulties for students today is actually receiving the words of their teachers. They do not listen, they do not take notes, they do not think about them, and they do not respond well to teacher criticism. But if students would receive the words of their teachers, then wisdom would suddenly be a potential result.
  1. If you treasure up my commandments
    The father then challenges the hearers to memorize what he says (Learn about permanent memory here). In math you memorize proofs, in languages you memorize endings and vocabulary, in science your memorize instructions for lab equipment, for mechanics you memorize vehicle schematics. Barbara Oakley has argued that the major flaw in mathematics education today is a lack of focus on brute memorization. I would argue that this is true in seminary, humanities, philosophy, and local church discipleship programs.
  1. If you make your ear attentive
    This is similar to the first, the idea is that you make yourself listen when your mind veers off. If you’re reading, you force yourself back into focus.
  1. If you incline your heart to understanding
    Here the idea is that you treat the topic as though it interested you, even when it doesn’t. Study after study demonstrates that “grit” or a tolerance for delayed gratification, endurance, deliberate practice, or a growth mindset in the face of difficulty often correlate with cognitive success.
  1. If you call our for insight and raise your voice for understanding
    I think that a lot of people infer without reason that this merely means “pray to God.” But the context is that of learning lessons from human teachers. If you wish for wisdom, ask questions and then test the answers against evidence and experience.
  1. If you seek it like silver
    This is similar to #4 above. Treat wisdom as something that is worth seeking, even when it is difficult. Treat wisdom like an economic transaction even. Be willing to pay for it with less valuable objects and hold on to it rather than lose it through disuse.
  1. If you search for it as for hidden treasure
    Finally, search for it as for hidden treasure. In whatever you study there are hidden insights, flashes of insight, undiscovered connections, more efficient processes, overlooked facts, and so on. It is often said that part of learning more is realizing how much remains unknown. If we know anything, it is that there is more to learn. With knowledge that there is hidden treasure, it is a lot easier to dig everywhere in a field no matter the cost or to sell everything and just buy the field! If we search for wisdom as obsessively as we would search for hidden treasure of whose existence we were certain, I suspect we would become much wiser.

The author goes on to note that an active pursuit of wisdom leads to this:

(Pro 2:9-15 ESV) Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; (10) for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; (11) discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you, (12) delivering you from the way of evil, from men of perverted speech, (13) who forsake the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness, (14) who rejoice in doing evil and delight in the perverseness of evil, (15) men whose paths are crooked, and who are devious in their ways.

Becoming wise, in any pursuit, leads to doing thing well. In fact, the very thing which you master will shape you into the kind of person who loves excelling at that thing. The wise, in this case will be able to determine the difference between those with knowledge and those without as well as those who are cheating and deceiving and those who aren’t. I think most people would love to become the kind of person who finds learning pleasant and who is difficult to fool, it’s just that we often do not know how to get to that point.

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