Appetite for Learning

Two weeks ago I wrote about some of the difficulties of learning to teach well. I ended with what I hoped would not be an afterthought: that students must also learn to become teachable. After all, as Barzun says, “Each individual must cure his or her own ignorance.” Earlier this week I had an email from my former colleague who taught a future Senior Wrangler of Cambridge[1], reflecting on the teaching and learning of math.

We agree that appetites for learning tend to be discovered, awakened, and fed rather than instilled, though of course there are exceptions. But we also agree that there are forms of “appetite suppression” that one can learn or become acculturated to. Maybe an analogy is in order.

One of history’s greatest prodigies of eating and drinking must have been King Louis XIV. The Duke of St.-Simon and Nancy Mitford both reported his astounding appetite. His typical dinner, says Mitford, was “composed of four plates of different soups, a whole pheasant and a whole partridge or chicken or duck…stuffed with truffles, a huge quantity of salad, some mutton, two good slices of ham, a dish of pastry, raw fruit, compotes and preserves[2].” He was healthy enough even with his appetite to have reigned for seventy-two years, but his wife said that if she had eaten half as much as he, she would have been dead in a week. Clearly he did not need encouragement to eat a lot. Two contrasts suggest themselves: the person who naturally “eats like a bird,” and the kind of socialite Tom Wolfe calls a “social X-ray,” made skeletal by constant dieting in order to exemplify the Duchess of Windsor’s saying that “you can never be too rich or too thin.” In between lies the person with a typical appetite.

The analogous students are the budding Wranglers, who are ravenous and cannot get enough to study, the students who have little taste for x or y, and the typical student who can manage to finish his homework and sometimes even to ask for seconds. But the student analogous to the “social X-ray” is the one who is certain that having a life means indulging in a kind of intellectual anorexia.

My friend reports that a colleague of his had accepted the rightness of having discussion groups in math class, much like the knots of Exeter students around the Harkness table. A lot of good it did him! As soon as the desks were rearranged for working foursomes, the students would begin conversing about their extracurricular lives, gossip, etc., some of them even taking out snacks to eat as if at a café (“all carrots and salads and nutrition bars…”). “He did everything you are supposed to do, and most of the kids couldn’t care less, and it was an honors course.” Something is terribly wrong here: at the same school where a future Wrangler was studying, whole table-loads of students had for all practical purposes rejected the imperative to take trouble to learn seriously, even when they might have been able to.

It won’t do any good to harp on what the teacher does in the kitchen for a classroom of anorectics.

[1] This year’s Senior Wrangler, the top student in Cambridge’s famously difficult Mathematical Tripos program, is an 18-year-old called Arran Fernandez, who received the British equivalent of a high-school diploma at age 5. He was home-schooled, but my former colleague’s budding wiz studied math at high school (a little) and in university courses (a lot) before going to Cambridge. He received his high-school diploma at the usual age.

[2] If you are curious to see what Louis XIV’s dinner was like, follow this link to a 1966 movie by Roberto Rossellini called La Prise de Pouvoir par Louis XIV, and advance the indicator to 1:17:00. Sorry: no subtitles, but the dish everyone bows to is “the King’s Meat” as it makes its progress from the kitchen to the royal table in a procession.

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