A Treatise on Learning
By Marvin Payne

I’m calling this Backstage Graffiti column “A Treatise on Learning.” I’m actually somewhat vague on the dynamics of learning, but I’m counting on the pretentiousness of the word “treatise” in the title to mask all that.

Hugh Nibley went to the temple a lot. He went to Egyptian ones more often than, say, you (last time Meridian sent us columnists a “pep” letter, I think “you” added up to a couple hundred thousand people) and me put together. But mostly he went to Mormon ones. He said that if he went (I think he had in mind here just the Mormon ones) five times in a row without learning something, he’d quit going. How ’bout that? I don’t think he ever quit ? until he, of course, died.

He went to school a lot, too. More than I did, put together ? even counting the fact that as soon as he went five days in a row without learning something, he did, in fact, quit. (Be it hastily noted that his tireless, humble, passionate, ravenous gobbling of knowledge continued unabated. Of course. I mean, he was Hugh Nibley.) I went to school for years in a row without learning something, but nobody would let me quit. (And neither should you. Quit, I mean.) 

I kind of missed the point of school altogether, because I never “got” that learning was something one might enjoy. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Bennett, would sit us down in a circle on a rug for reading time and if you made a mistake, she’d whap you on the head or yank on your ear. She had blue hair, very much the hue of old Browning rifle barrels ? I think it was natural. To be fair, torture was pretty much the only motivational tool available to her, because none of us had even the slightest interest in discerning through the written word whether Dick and Jane were going to run, run, run, or stop, stop, stop. Or hibernate, hibernate, hibernate.

(I had one class at BYU ((Transformational Grammar)) in which not one period elapsed without me sleeping during some portion of it, even counting the period during which we took the final exam. ((I got a B, which can only mean that everyone else slept more.)) In high school in Southern California, there were afternoon geometry classes that conjured in my heart a certain very vivid image for “heaven,” which was to be on the grass that lay just beyond the open back door, horizontal ((I mean me horizontal, not the grass, which is nearly always horizontal)).) I have virtually no memory of attending fifth grade. (Can a paragraph contain only one actual ((non-parenthetical)) sentence? This question may have been covered in fifth grade.)

I took a brain quadrant test a couple decades ago and discovered that I had pretty much no left brain at all, and the chart wasn’t big enough to measure my right brain, and anyway I think that when I went to school brain quadrants were not fully understood or accounted for in pedagogical theory and, in fact, the prevailing notion back then was that the seat of human intelligence was the kidney.

But these are really just lame excuses. It wasn’t torture, sleep compulsion, or congenital brain deficiency. The real reason I didn’t learn was that I didn’t want to. You see, if you ever learn something, that occurrence carries with it the clear implication that you didn’t already know it. For me, from near infancy, ignorance was not bliss ? ignorance was embarrassing. The only thing more embarrassing was learning something and admitting it. (This phenomenon, me wanting to know things without learning them, may have been the feminine side of me making early demands on the male side of me, preparing me to survive, emotionally, the following universal feminine observation regarding male ignorance of a woman’s needs, wants, viewpoints, spiritual aspirations, restaurant menu choices, or horoscopes: “If you don’t know without me explaining it to you, then forget it.”)

Speaking of women, my seven-year-old Caitlin Willow started second grade today. She wanted a back-to-school father’s blessing last night. In it, I found myself exhorting her to find real joy in learning (as all my other kids have done, avidly ((This may be one of the very few times the words “exhort” and “joy” have appeared in such proximity in a quasi-church publication, but there you are. Yesterday afternoon my home teaching companion blew the Ledbetters‘ eyebrows off with his bagpipes to introduce a lesson on reverence (((based on the hundredth psalm))) ? I am told that humor results from the sudden recognition of incongruence, but hey, if just beneath the surface of an apparent incongruency is a more fundamental congruency, the lasting result isn’t humor, but learning.)).)

(Or was it a Transformational Punctuation class I slept through?)   

I’m over that now. Embarrassment about learning, I mean. The Lord and some of his kinder children said to me, somewhere around mid-life crisis time, “Listen Buster, you need to learn some things before you do any more damage.” Here are three proofs that I caved.

Proof One: I think I wrote here once that the last time I got any better at playing the guitar was in 1971. Well, I’ve been practicing, playing in a new way that sounded pretty clunky at first. (Actually an old way that sounded pretty clunky at first ? that 1971 breakthrough involved finger-style ((plucking with bare fingers)) and using a pick at the same time.) I’ve been playing exclusively bare-handed again for a little over a year now and actually getting better at it ? woo-hoo

Proof Two: My 32-year-old son, who grew up with the know-it-all dad, came to a concert of mine a couple of nights ago in the city park and wanted to tell me how nice it was to hear me share some of his favorites of my old songs. But he was afraid I would say, “So what’s wrong with all the other ones?” We worked it out, right there on the gazebo, really quick and friendly.

Proof Three: I’m nice to my wife now. Because she’s pretty and hugs me and cooks me pancakes, but also very much because she teaches me more than anybody else does and that’s delightful. See? I’m over that now.

So here’s an experiment. I think one of the prime reasons to keep a journal is to record the things you learn. If, Nibley-like, you write five times in a row without learning something, do you quit? If, Peter Jennings-like, you live five days in a row without learning something, do you quit? (The late anchorman said he learned something every day, but I don’t think he ever said he’d quit if he didn’t. With all his television experience, he hadn’t the dramatic flair of Hugh Nibley.) There’s no reason for you to be frightened by this experiment, but I am. Pardon me for a moment while I crack open my journal and check the last five entries. This will take me back to August 14. (There’s an entry on August 14, 17, 19, 20, and 21. Today is August 22.)

Back now.

On the 14th, it looks like I announced in my journal that I was going to pray steadily for a hundred thousand dollars (we could, in fact, spend this figure with no discernible change in our lifestyle), and wrote that I’d wondered who on earth would be rich enough and kind enough to step forward with the cash, but then had suddenly realized that the Lord is richer and kinder than anyone on earth has ever been. Maybe realization is learning. Maybe I’ve had a hundred grand worth of realization here and should forget about the cash. (Wells-Fargo and the IRS wouldn’t hear of it.)

17 August, verbatim:

“Went down to Dry Creek to gather rocks because it takes no thought and it’s quiet. You can’t bend over without finding treasure ? millions of dollars worth of gloriously varied rainbow stones. You can gather and gather and gather, then return to the same place and find more. It’s an inexhaustible wealth of beauty by the handful … Abundance is the way of the Lord.”

Maybe getting reminded of something you tend to forget is a form of learning.

(I have to insert here that my little kids and Laurie and I, but mostly four-year-old John Riley and I, have been filling our “green strip,” the three-foot-wide stretch of no-man’s land between the new sidewalk and the curb, with hand-picked rocks, the prettiest we can find, from football-sized to marble-sized, the idea being that no rock out there will be ordinary. Rocks like jade, like coral, like zebras, like chocolate with veins of cream dripping through, lightning bolts through the black night of others, some white like powder, water-worn thumbs of brick-hued stones that used to be, well, bricks, vast painted-desert strata in one smooth oval, granite hailstones, purple, sky-blue, sandy yellow. People drive by and see me watering the dust off and wonder aloud if I expect them to grow. People walk by and want to steal them. Some have. That’s fine ? we’ve just brought the creek bed and mountainside closer–but selected and distilled, like poets do to the ore of words. What? You live in Alpine and thought it was just a jumble of rocks to avoid laying sod? Walk slower.)

On the 19th I wrote about playing a little concert for some friends up the canyon under a full moon and beside a glowing fire. It felt good, but I already knew it would, so not much learning there.

20 August was my birthday, and I reported that whereas 56 didn’t feel like “almost sixty,” 57 does. That’s learning. In the evening I played the aforementioned city park concert and learned that you can play “If You Could Hie to Kolob” on the solo electric guitar with about 20% distortion and it sounds really neat and thoroughly reverent. (Is that where I got the bagpipe home teaching idea?)

21 August was High Council Sunday, and Steve Erickson gave the best high-council-person talk I ever heard (it was about “willing” to our children a knowledge of the gospel, of repentance, of the restoration and love). I’m not sure if what I learned most was what was in the talk, or that a high council talk could be so good (you know the story about what would happen if you took all the people who had ever slept during a high council talk and laid them end to end? They’d be a lot more comfortable). 

Results of the pretty doggone brave experiment: Three maybes and two for-sures out of five entries. I guess I’ll keep writing.

Of course, you have already anticipated the solution. Only write when you learn something. (Hmm … doesn’t solve the Peter Jennings dilemma about expecting to learn something every day. Oh well.) But then, maybe our posterity (um, better make that “distant posterity”) would be comforted by even a little occasional hint at how dumb we were.


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“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)