By Adam Hatch
Years ago in a philosophy class I heard a story about an eager Zen monk and his master.
The young monk wanted to attain enlightenment as quickly as possible, so he asked his master how many hours a day he should meditate to optimize efficiency. The monk wondered, if he meditated for two hours per day, how long would it take him to reach his goal. His master responded that he could find enlightenment in 10 years if he meditated at that rate. The monk considered his master’s words, and then asked if that meant he could meditate for four hours a day and reach enlightenment in five years. His master said no. In fact, his master said, if the young monk meditated for four hours per day, it would take him 20 years to reach enlightenment. The student was frustrated and confused; how could more work not mean faster results?
Most of the students and parents I encounter share the same reasoning as this monk. How can they increase efficiency? How can they achieve more quickly? How can they best position themselves for success, and how much studying will that take? Like in the story of the Buddhist monk, that’s not always how it works.
A dad I once met with expressed concern that his “Very Advanced and High-Achieving” daughter was in a class that was too easy. This was a summer class, with kids at a range of levels, abilities, and fluencies, and the point of the class was to give kids a chance to read a book and then think and write about it. Pretty low pressure situation.
Very politely, this parent told me he did not want to come into my class and tell me how to run it. He then proceeded to tell me how to run it.
What was right for his daughter, he told me, was if she read the book at home on her own time and then I did a special class with her, maybe 15 minutes one-on-one, checking if she understood it and correcting her writing assignment.
What this parent failed to understand was the purpose of this class.
This girl was clearly an Achievement (capital A) machine. She was in an international program, about 8th or 9th grade, and was probably already thinking about SATs and college application-tailored extracurriculars. However, she was still mispronouncing a number of words when she read aloud: a clear indicator that she probably wasn’t understanding all of what she was reading. And when she was reading, it sounded like an exercise in speed, volume, and efficiency. She was probably comprehending about 80-85 percent of what she was reading. That’s not terrible, but it’s also not good enough.
It’s also not the point. The fact is, she was actually appreciating, absorbing, and enjoying far less than 80 percent of the words put in front of her.
What she was doing was learning superficially. Like so many students in Taiwan, she worships at the idols of academic achievement and efficiency. The problem with this religion is that it’s skin-deep and it makes students strong test-takers yet cripplingly stifled thinkers.
Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s pretend I did what her dad asked and switched to a one-on-one situation where she read the book alone, did a writing assignment, and I just edited her work. Yes, I could help her with some stylistic conventions and syntax, and her mechanics would generally improve, but she wouldn’t really be learning.
The purpose – of my class and of reading and learning in general – isn’t Achievement or Success or Efficiency. Learning is not a job program or networking opportunity.
The purpose of my class is learning how to think better. To think deeper. To consider more fully and clearly. Doing these things sometimes requires slow thinking. This gives students time to think and, more importantly, forces them to think more. They consider more. They chew on ideas. They begin to wonder. They form questions. Then they answer those questions. In class, they discuss them. In their writing assignments they try tackling a few of these questions. They get some right, they get more wrong. But that makes them just a little sharper. Then they do it again the next time. And again. Eventually they are able to think and work more quickly, but with added analytical ability and a capacity to appreciate the stories and essays and books they are engaging. And they do it not just because it gets them a good score or because it will look good on college applications, but because it makes them smarter and more thoughtful people.
I get it, grades matter, and students want to be pushed. I just wish kids and parents were okay being pushed in different directions sometimes. While privileged private school kids are awesome at churning out assignments and jumping through the hoops asked of them in the modern palaver of academics, they are not great at thinking deeply. They are not comprehending the material all that well. They are downright bad at clarity of communication. And, most importantly, they are not learning to be creative, dynamic, original thinkers.
What they are good at is playing a game. A process. A facsimile of thoughtfulness and a ritual in observance of apparent productivity and achievement.
There is utility in rereading books. There is a profound benefit in reading slowly. It is worth your time to not always push ahead, but to stop, double check, reread, and reconsider. Look at material and read it again from another perspective, and see if you don’t come to a more meaningful understanding.
Or just try to appreciate and enjoy the damn book.
As it turns out, the process of thinking and working slowly, of rereading and proofreading and reconsidering, actually is good and useful if your goal is to get into a good college. Those skills will serve you well in higher education, I promise. But more importantly, thinking slowly and considering ideas deeply is necessary because it makes you a better thinker. So take the time. Slow down. You’ll be better for it.
All of this, of course, was what the Zen master was telling his student. The point shouldn’t be about attaining success as quickly and efficiently as you can. The point should be to consider, understand, and grow.