Thursday, August 30, 2012

How to learn stuff

When I was a kid, my report cards were always a very mixed bag. I had terrible marks in French since I had never been given any instruction in French until the fifth grade, and by that time the other kids were so far ahead of me, the teacher, quite openly, refused to try to teach me anything. I will never forget the only time she spoke to me in class on my first day in the fifth grade. She asked me to conjugate some verb. I asked her what "conjugate" meant and in response, she curled her lip and made a disgusted sound, and went on to the next kid. I spent the rest of my school years looking out the window during French classes until the day I left school. No one cared at all to teach me French, and I didn't care to be taught, so that was that. I never had the slightest intention of leaving the West Coast, and who speaks French there? We'd have been better off learning Cantonese.

And I was hopeless at maths because my mother, whose undergraduate degree was in mathematics, had tried to teach me and our lessons nearly always devolved into screaming matches ending with me bursting into tears. By the time I was sent away from the experimental Hippie Free School at the end of the fourth grade and enrolled in a Catholic parochial school, I was so terrified of maths that I was to spend the rest of my school career in a nearly perpetual state of panic and despair over the subject. (I still have nightmares about finding myself enrolled in an advanced maths class, for which I am totally unprepared and that is nearly finished by the time I attend class the first time, but upon which all my future happiness depends... horrible.)

Naturally, I was always ahead of everyone (and often the teacher) in reading, grammar, comprehension, creative writing etc. It came so naturally to me that I never thought of it as any sort of accomplishment. The only subject that counted was math, and being good at words was more or less irrelevant. It wasn't until I was in my mid-thirties that I started to realise that not everyone could write. (I still don't quite believe it.) I always figured that if you can talk you can write. Just think of what you would say and write that down.

But the one thing my report cards said consistently from the first day in school in England when I was five is that I knew a lot of stuff. I've always had an absurd amount of what they called "general knowledge". Always top marks for knowing piles of trivial nonsense. I was given my first library card when I was five and used to spend hours every week buried in the non-fiction stacks burrowing through books on any subject you can imagine. The other contributor was the set of encyclopedias, art books, biology and taxonomy texts and history books, as well as a subscription to National Geographic which was the only contribution to my life ever made by my maternal grandmother.

The other thing was documentaries. Nature shows on TV. The only TV I was ever interested in was Star Trek and nature shows. Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, National Geographic, Nova, Jacques Cousteau, Marlin Perkins, David Attenborough and even those little two minute TV spots by the National Film Board. I LOVED nature shows.

Here's a bunch more documentary sites


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