Creative Arts with Patrick Moore


How Mastery Inhibits Learning

Scholars wish to consider themselves “masters” of the topics they have studied. This is why one of the degrees is called the “master’s” degree. Full disclosure–I began pursuing a master’s in math, and flunked out. If you sense any animosity toward the master’s degree in this article, I own up to it J But this article is not really about the master’s degree, but about the sense of mastery that people seem to gain from too much college, and how this occasionally operates to close their minds.

What would occur when a Master comes face to face with some aspect of nature or reality which does not fit his understanding? Here is something he does not understand. Here before him is something he has not mastered. A decision must be made quickly, between two choices:

  1. Remain the Master. My sense of myself is, I have already mastered this subject. Thinking of myself as a master is so important to me that I cannot allow the thought, that there is more I don’t know, than what I do know. Therefore, I cannot allow this new information to enter my awareness. I must block my mind to this new perspective.
  2. Humble curiosity. I am so passionate for knowledge, that I am willing to admit I there is more I do not understand, than what I do. This new perspective in front of me proves, I am not really a master of my subject. Because here is a perspective I have never even considered. But learning is more important to me than thinking of myself as already knowing all that matters.

Of course the choice is not all back-or-white. Many faced with this choice, choose something partway between 1 and 2.

Here is very interesting side-note. A person actually chooses what he will believe, based on his desires. Faced with a new situation, he does not immediately accept it, nor does he reject it, but he thinks about it. His thought process is not, how compelling is this evidence? but instead, his thought process is, what would it mean for me, if I were to accept or reject this evidence? He evaluates only the consequences of acceptance or rejection. For example a person choosing to remain the master might think:

     To accept this new perspective would mean that some of my previous beliefs were incomplete. I cannot stand the idea that my personality has been built upon a shaky foundation. I cannot bear the thought that the hundred thousand dollars and ten years I invested in my college education, that all my subsequent research and publishing, has not prepared me for this new perspective. Therefore I choose to continue to believe, what I already knew is accurate and true and complete.

     However, other scholars will also be seeing this new evidence. I cannot let them scoop me! If some of them were to make this new evidence into something acceptable to the scholarly body, then, were I to reject it now, I would be made to look the fool. How likely is it, that some other scholar could do this? I may need to initially appear to accept this new information, for a while to see what the other scholars do, before I reject it. My reputation is the most important consideration and must be protected at all costs.

None of this thought process really cares whether the new evidence is true, accurate, important on its own, or serving for society to know about. The thought process is all about what it would mean to his reputation to accept or reject the new perspective. Or am I being too harsh? Does the imaginary professor I have painted really exist? Do scholars really consider their reputations more important than open-minded discovery? Here is a quote I read this week, from a Geology professor:

“…colleagues who render peer reviews on papers submitted for publication in scientific journals. I am grateful to the vast majority… A few others are the source of much frustration. …personalities reveal themselves in… those who… seek every opportunity to destroy that which challenges their perceived mastery of a discipline.”

Markes E. Johnson

Off-Trail Adventures in Baja California 2014 University of Arizona Press  

Dr. Johnson here notices that the personalities of certain scholars prevent them from accepting things that challenge their perceived mastery.

There is a lot that personalities do not understand. Personalities are not designed to understand a lot. The reason we have personalities is to aid survival. Personalities help the individual to be accepted into the social group, rather than the option of being shunned. Personalities have bias, then, to be wary of outlying new perspectives, and instead to support sticking with the well-known old perspectives. Scientists who operate primarily from personality, are more likely to shun new ideas and even to shun those scientists who talk and write about new ideas. Rupert Sheldrake’s latest book is all about this process of scientific shunning.

Dr. Johnson used a powerful word: destroy. A few scholars actually attempt to destroy that which challenges their perceived mastery, he says. Perhaps Dr. Johnson is not implying that people would literally be destroyed. Yes, in history people were literally destroyed–made to drink hemlock, crucified and hung for sharing perspectives that were different. Still, since Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600, few scholars today are literally destroyed for the new perspectives they write about. Still, their careers may be destroyed, as Rupert Sheldrake points out. Perhaps what Dr. Johnson meant by destroy, was that the perspectives themselves would be destroyed with salvos of established evidence. Models and theories would be destroyed, with a barrage of papers that draw on the power of the majority of peer-reviewers. Those who review vitriolic papers are also scholars. These peer-reviewers must consider how they are placed within the support system of scholarship. Rarely are scholars of independent means–they depend for their sustenance upon universities. The peer-reviewers are all financially supported by the system, they are all subconsciously biased toward supporting the system, and refuting new ideas that challenge the system. This is how different perspectives may be destroyed.

The alternative is humble curiosity. A commitment to allowing, and occasionally embracing new perspectives. A lifestyle that allows new perspectives is hard on the old personality. Every few years you will see that positions you once held fervently, now appear misguided. If one has published, this problem is especially painful because earlier works are still out there, saying something different than one’s current belief. Ouch! How embarrassing! Going against established perspectives can mean you can no longer get your research “funded,” and you might actually lose your job as a professor. Gulp! How will I feed my family! These are the prices that one pays, to be curious and open minded. It appears the pains are worth the gains, because a few scholars actually risk their self-images, their funding, their jobs, and shunning by publishing things that do not fit the established perspectives. The rewards of open-minded, vulnerable curiosity must be greater, to them, than their losses.

The trend toward scientists writing outside the established perspectives of scholarship, is partly fueled by new paths to readers. Smaller presses and magazines for the educated layperson do not care about the established perspectives of scholars, and may even thrive on questioning authority. Scholars can publish directly to eBook and let the public decide if these new perspectives resonate with them. Scholars can now fund themselves, and are no longer as dependent on the authority of the University system (which is dependent on the authority of funding, which is mostly coming from the military, mining and pharmaceutical industries). More scholars are finding they can sell books to curious readers, especially when the theories and models lie outside established patterns. Bernard Haisch comes to mind. These scientists occasionally skip over the peer-reviewed publishing and go directly to the people. If a scholar sells well, then the University will own his success and support him (as if they supported him all along) because his increasing reputation through book sales, now acts to increase the reputation of the university.

Full disclosure 2: I too have succumbed to the sense of control and pride that comes with thinking oneself as a master. Starting in 2002 I had two articles published in my field, receive much support from my peers and traveled to a dozen U.S. States to teach workshops on my findings. I was riding high. I worked on a third article that I submitted to a journal, and it was tentatively accepted, if I could revise it to get rid of the tone of superiority. Me? I felt defensive that an editor would even suggest this. Over a year I rewrote that article from scratch, many times, but I just could not take the edge out of it. That article (called Why Stretch) was never published. The whirlwind of experiences over two years left me so confused that I did not publish again for many years. Attendance at my workshops decreased, and I had fewer people interested in receiving sessions. What I didn’t have clarity about then, that later came, was that I felt I had become a master. I felt my mastery gave me license to tell people the correct way to think, in this case, about stretching.

I wish I had learned that lesson completely, but no. Even this week I am working on a new article using photos of human and animal skulls, and that voice of mastery has snuck in again. The funny thing is, I am pretty certain everything I have written is right. But being right is not the best thing an article can do. The righter an article is, the less there is for the reader to do. The best thing an article can do is to inspire readers to think for themselves. So, even thought I thought my new article was ready, I’m going to have to go through it with a new eye before I send it out.

Will I ever master my subject? I hope not. If a subject may be mastered, it would mean that subject contains a finite amount of knowledge. To master a finite amount of knowledge, would mean to know, say, 51% of that knowledge well. I hope that, each time I feel I have crossed to an understanding of 51% of any subject, that 150% more new information will suddenly arrive, pushing me back to a freshman level of understanding the subject. I hope that knowledge in any subject is unlimited. That would mean no finite being could ever be a master of knowledge of any subject.

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