The Love Of Learning Is Meaningless

Nov 19, 2018

Everybody loves to learn. Nobody needs to be taught how to love learning.

Some people love sports and learn all the stats, names, and jersey numbers of the players. Some people love video games and learn all the special moves and cheat codes. Some people love getting high and memorize dosages, side effects, and chemical compounds. Some people love wisdom and memorize the proverbs of Solomon. The concern of the teacher is thus not whether his students love learning, but whether they love good things.

Learning is entailed in loving. If someone said, “I love the Rolling Stones,” but could name none of their songs, none of their members, none of their albums, and could identify none of their album covers on sight, I would not believe that person loved the Stones. Love is the desire to know, the desire to become.

The tools of inquiry are encoded in love. If a certain man hears “Gimme Shelter” on the radio and finds it beautiful, sublime, or wise, he keeps listening until the DJ identifies the song. He goes to a record store, finds the album on which the song appears, buys it, takes it home and listens to it again. He reads the lyrics in the linear notes while he listens to the song. He looks at the photo of the band on the back, then styles his hair like Mick Jagger. He returns to the record store and buys Exile on Main Street. Over the years, he develops an opinion on which Stones album is their best, which is their worst, and, from time to time, he listens to their worst album just to see if it sounds better than it did last year. He reads Philip Norman’s biography of Mick Jagger, then Keith’s autobiography, and watches a few documentaries. He thinks Bridges to Babylon a late career highlight and, by way of comparison and metaphor, has a few means of defending that opinion. After twenty years of listening to the Stones, the man can share an odd story about how Jagger wrote “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” when the song comes on the radio. Upon hearing such a story, the man’s friend might ask, “How do you know so much about the Stones?” to which the man replies, “I just love the Stones. Pretty much always have.”

While we need tools of rhetoric, tools of logic, and tools of grammar, these are not really tools of inquiry.  Love is inquiry. The means by which my seven-year-old daughter inquires into horses is indistinguishable from the way a PhD candidate in English literature inquires into John Milton, even if one of them could elegantly express their love and the other could not. They read, gaze, pine, meditate, and surround themselves with pictures, books, and models. The expression “love of learning” is thus redundant, because if a thing is not learned, neither is it loved. Love is never satisfied with the volume of its own knowledge. Love never ends.

When classical educators speak of “the love of learning,” they sometimes use the expression as an ellipses of “the love of learning wisdom” or “the love of learning the subjects you are taught in school.” Some teachers might use “the love of learning” as a euphemism for the liberal arts, which are not useful in sustaining bodies, but in nourishing souls. Such uses of “the love of learning” are colloquial and fair. In this way, I do not mean to plead the dictionary. However, inasmuch as the “love of learning” is meant to imply that learning can be generalized into an action which is itself loved, without taking a specific object, I protest such a claim is pure gibberish. Saying “It is important to love learning” is tantamount to saying, “It is important to love.” Love what? If the answer is, “Just love,” I should think the just-lover knows little of real love. “Just learn” is no less banal than “Just read” or “Just eat.” Read what? The Marquis de Sade? Eat what? Weed brownies? Some loves destroy a man. “Love not the world nor the things of the world,” teaches St. John.

What can your knowledge hurt Him,

Or this tree impart against His will

If all be His?

-Satan speaks to Eve, Paradise Lost, Book IX

The entire classical project is predicated on the belief that a person must love the right things, and in the right ways. Dante’s Inferno is well populated by people who loved learning seduction, who loved learning murder, who loved learning duplicity. Learning seduction is loving seduction, and loving seduction is damnation. Tools of inquiry are useless, or non-existent, apart from the objects they take. The love of God exists through obedience and piety toward God. The love of man exists through sacrifice and devotion. But there is no such thing as “love love” anymore than there is such a thing as “faith faith”, which believes nothing in particular.  

Teaching students to love what is good, and to learn what is right, however, is a far more difficult task than teaching a love of learning in general— in large part because the former is a real task and the latter is sheer fantasy.

St. Paul encourages Christians to think about “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure…”. He does not teach Christians to think about “nobility, rightness, pureness,” and neither does St. Paul encourage “just thinking in general.” Thought must take a proper object. So should our students. It is the responsibility of the teacher to reveal the proper objects of thought and love to the student. The teacher does not illumine any old pathway, but the pathway to God. There is a path (a learning) which leads to destruction, and if Christ is to be believed, that path is wide enough (and general enough) to be comfortable.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs. 

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