Learning in passing

I heard a story somewhere, that Michelangelo once had a great block of marble. Every day, he would go and stare at it for hours. His apprentice would ask him what he was doing.

“Working,” he’d say. But the block would stay the same.

This went on for weeks, for months, for years. And the block would stay the same. Then, one day, the apprentice came in and was amazed to discover the block had changed.

Michelangelo had created David.

This story is pretty ridiculous, but I like it as a metaphor for the work that happens when you’re thinking.

When I was an undergraduate, for example, I’d have a deadline, and I’d sit on it. Not procrastinating exactly, but not actively working on it either. If I had a paper due, I would think about the topic a lot. I’d think about it in the morning. I’d think about it while doing other things. I’d think about it before going to bed.

Then one day, I’d sit down and write the paper. And it was easy to write. Because I’d written the whole thing in my head.

Not that I was producing any Davids, but I’ve always found this manner of processing to be particularly helpful for me.

If something comes up and I don’t have an answer, I’ll say, “let me sit on that awhile.” And then some day I’ll have an answer. I don’t really know where it came from.

I started thinking about this recently after discussing (in my civic book club) Markus Prior’s Post-Broadcast Democracy, which explores the effect of media environment on political learning and engagement.

One thing that comes up a lot in this book is the idea of byproduct learning.

That is to say, learning from the environment around you, whether you intend to be learning from it or not. Prior gives the example of newsreels, short news films shown in movie houses before the main feature.

People went to the movies to see the movie. But they also saw the newsreel. They also learned from the newsreel. So really, whether they intended to be informed or not, they became informed by watching the newsreel.

A media environment where people can more efficiently find what they’re looking for decreases byproduct learning. If you only see the things you’re actively interested in, you won’t learn from the things that happen to cross your path. With the passing of newsreels and diminishing of broadcast television, Prior argues, byproduct learning is minimal in our current media environment.

But I’m not convinced that all is lost. These traditional venues may be dying, but there’s still opportunity for byproduct learning. There’s still opportunity to share with each other and learn from each other. There are still opportunities to make news accessible and to provide tools and resources that will inform a casual observer.

But are we doing it? And are people learning from this?

I don’t know. I’ll have to sit on that awhile.


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