Popular science enthusiasts would be familiar with Carl Sagan, the astrophysicist who sought to unravel the mysteries of the universe and believed that we would, some day, find intelligent life somewhere in outer space. Trawling the Internet for Carl Sagan quotes would probably yield a number of pithy and catchy sayings, but it is also worthwhile to go a bit deeper than his quotable bytes to read some of his work and if possible, take a look at his popular television series “Cosmos” (some of which is available on YouTube — look for the old version, not the newer one hosted by astronomer Niel deGrasse Tyson).
But, I recall Sagan now not for his exploration of the unearthly, but for his belief that there is value in the process of exploration. Sagan has often been described as the perfect science populariser, because of his ability to communicate — in simple and appealing ways — complex and mind-bending phenomena. He has been quoted in interviews as saying that it is possible his flair for communicating science came from his own struggles to understand; he had to work hard to achieve that understanding. No wonder then, he said that “understanding is a kind of ecstasy” that comes from struggle that is often frustrating. To puzzle over something, to “break one’s head” over a problem, to grapple with a dense text, to figure out how something works, to repeat an exercise over and over until you get it right, to practise a move a dozen times or more to achieve fluid perfection… this is the struggle that leads to understanding. It is the struggle that leads you out of confusion and into wonder.
For many of us, the idea of struggle is off-putting. All the talk of making education and learning fun seems to suggest that it should come easy. In short, the idea of working hard to understand has got a bad rap. Of course, movies have romanticised the process of achieving mastery in some areas — sports and music, mostly — but the struggle associated with achieving mental or intellectual clarity often remains unseen. In much of education — through school and college — the responsibility for making something understood lies with the teacher. The idea that the student too must work toward that understanding is not sufficiently emphasised.
We enjoy the difficulty that games present, and we are even willing to set higher levels of challenge for ourselves and feel a thrill when we meet those challenges. But, when it comes to grappling with “difficult” subjects we want to outsource that process, we look to the textbook or the teacher to simplify it for us, instead of using our own mental tools, however rusty they may be. The teacher’s role is only to help us polish and sharpen those tools. What does intellectual struggle look like? How can we make visible the process of understanding so that it can be emulated? To start with, we — as learners — need to ask questions that lead to the “how” rather than to the “what”. And even before that, we need to get rid of the idea that learning has to be easy. Sure, sometimes, it seems like it, but the most valuable kind of understanding — the kind that allows us to experience the kind of ecstasy that Sagan spoke of — usually comes with intense struggle.
The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. email@example.com