I’m a Slow Learner of the Big Picture

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 12, 2019

It took me over ten years to graduate college, changing majors several times. I realize now that my problem was seeing the bigger picture of every topic. I never understood why I needed to learn what was required in each course. For example, The Modern Novel, a course I took for the English major I finally completed. Back in the 1970s, I couldn’t fathom why they called novels from the 1920s modern. Well, now in the 2010s, I do. I just read The World Broke in Two by Bill Goldstein. Goldstein chronicles how Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, and T. S. Elliot struggled in their personal lives to finish their most famous works in 1922. Each floundered in their efforts before finding new narrative techniques.

I now see the “modern novel” in a larger context, and I’m sure if I keep reading the history of everything from 1875-1930 I’ll expand that mental map even larger. Since I was an English major in the 1970s I’ve learned about the revolutions in art, music, philosophy, and other subjects in the early 20th century that add to that bigger picture. If I had taken courses in history, science, art, music, literature, engineering, medicine, etc. concurrently that covered the 18th-century one semester, then the 19th the next, and then 20th century, I would have understood how everything came together in the 1920s to be labeled modern. And that would have helped me comprehend the “post-modern.”

Concurrent to reading The World Broke in Two I’m also reading and studying the history of science fiction short stories. I’ve been reading these since the 1960s, and their evolution is finally coming together in multiple related ways. I realize now that I’m quite a slow learner when it comes to constructing the big picture in my head.

I remember back in high school and college feeling jealous how some of my fellow students always knew the answers. I assumed they studied harder than I did because I knew I didn’t study much. But that’s only part of the reason why they did better in school. I’m just now realizing they were also better at connecting the dots.

One of the big regrets in my life is not finding a passion while young to pursue with great effort and concentration. I knew success requires hard work, but the willingness to work hard requires drive and focus, and I never had that. I now understand that seeing the big picture is part of creating that drive and focus.

I’ve always been somewhat smarter than average, but never very smart. I had enough innate skills to get through school without studying much, but not enough cognitive insight to understand why I should study. I always saw school like the smaller image in the larger image above – a fragment of the whole that didn’t make sense.

Evidently, some people have a knack for seeing the synergy of details when they are young. We know this from the early works of successful people. It must be a cognitive skill like a sense of direction, spatial awareness, or conceptualizing in three-dimensions, but with data and ideas.

I know what I’m saying is vague, but then I’m trying to describe something I’m challenged at understanding. I only have a hint of its existence. I wonder if its a skill they can teach young kids? However, I also wonder if the way they teach subjects in school actually works against gaining this skill. Because schools divide up learning into thousands of lessons we’re trained to memorize individual facts, and not how those facts make patterns. Of course, pedagogy might have changed since I went to school a half-century ago.

I’ve often wondered if in each school year they should teach students the history of reality from the Big Bang to now so they see how all areas of knowledge evolved together. Of course, in pre-K years teachers would have to be very vague by telling kids the biggest generalizations, but with each successive year refine those details. I wonder if kids learned to see how knowledge arose from previous knowledge it wouldn’t help reveal bigger pictures of how things work.



10 thoughts on “I’m a Slow Learner of the Big Picture”

  1. Ever see any of the PBS series “Connections” with James Burke? It was a fascinating show that tried to trace the “butterfly effect” event chains that led to major historical/technological developments. Of course there’s a somewhat opposite view of causation sometimes called “railroad time” – the idea that when conditions are favorable for a new development to occur that it WILL happen, if not through one specific path then through another. Sort of like the Great Man Theory vs Historical Necessity.

    One of my early disappointments in college was signing up for a class called History of Science. I think it may have actually counted as a science credit, but in any case the class didn’t make. Not enough interest!

    1. I loved Connections and its sequel The Day the Universe Changed, as well as his columns in Scientific American. I even got to see James Burke speak once. What a fascinating guy. I wish I had his ability to see the big picture.

  2. That approach you mention – teaching from ‘biggest’ to ‘smallest’ is how I learn. I’ve always done it. If I can be taught the underlying organising principle first, the point-data automatically falls into place and makes sense. The outcome of school was disastrous for me; their method is precisely the reverse of it. At primary school, particularly, they also required people to conform to their method, and relentlessly bashed any kid that didn’t, both figuratively and literally. The result was that I’d end up having to memorise a lot of isolated and disconnected pieces of data, without knowing the underlying framework into which it all fitted. It was all meaningless to me. I was in the New Zealand school system, but I gather the US system (and elsewhere) was similar. As you say, maybe things have changed since… I went there not quite half a century ago, but nearly. These days, I do things my way, and it works.

    1. I didn’t think of the biggest to the smallest, but that is what I was talking about. I like starting with a big picture and drilling down into the details.

  3. MW – you are as close to deriving elementary and Jr High (we don’t do that anymore in the USA) teachings as I can remember. I had the skills and ability to consume the required data and pass through those classes as required. If it weren’t for comics, and Sci-fi “youth” books available at the local library and the local News stand* , I would have turned away to something much more interesting.

    Pulp fiction was the stew of ideas that hooked me into science and history. Not that I ever believed that either one could explain what had happened in the past. But I did realize that “Freddy the Pig” stories were allegories about human interaction, and worse, human/societal misbehavior. That they were told in a simple way, and with good guys & bad guys (and some complex interactions) it kept the story lines clear enough for a 4th grader to understand – and to look for more.

    AKA “Animal House”, without the hard edges and moral imperatives.

    And then there was Laumer’s “The Great Time Machine Hoax”.

    Anybody as old as I am (I’m guessing that is most of the respondents) will understand that we have mostly been left behind by the latest technology. I still prefer reading a book that has a cover and pages that need turning. But I also miss having a limited (but dependable) source of said hard copies, even when I read/search ahead of “publication dates” for new books. Not to mention finding a storage unit for all the other books.

    * As an old f**k, I really miss the corner newstand with magazines and discounted paperback books. I guess that the Internet and other on-line sources has killed that experience for most people.

    Do your best to keep Used Book stores in your neighborhood. They may be the last link to the world we used to live in.

    1. I was told yesterday by a person online she had to take a thousand books to the dump because no one wanted them anymore – not even Friends of the Library. That killed my soul. Yeah, everything I grew up loving is slowly disappearing.

    2. jim-
      As a fellow member of the “Freddy the Pig” fan club, I greet you. My youthful SF habit introduced me to a lot of history, anthropology, and the like that I never got from school. I attribute this back-door education to the fact that a lot of the 50’s/60’s writers were auto-didacts (regardless of their formal education) and had varied life experiences.

      IS-NOT IS NOT NOT-IS, my brother!

  4. Well, um I thought I might light a fantasy candle regarding “The Great Time Machine Hoax” just for fun. Anyone who has seen Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid should remember the cliff scene when they are backed up against a deep river gorge and steep cliffs when the “bad guys – AKA railroad dicks have them trapped.
    I’m pretty sure that the story line was NOT stolen from that point, but it really is a great choice of taking the ridiculous and making it work for the story.

      1. Laumer was indeed great fun, and his Retief stories also played a part in making me a political skeptic.

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