Posted by: Phoebe | March 19, 2009

Painful But Worth It!


I finally got around to reading an article by a philosopher and teacher named Mortimer Adler.  He was a  born to lower-class parents, but driven by a love of learning became a great thinker and writer.  He attended Columbia university, read all the classics he could get his hands on, and soon after became an instructor there. Throughout his life he endeavored to help people read great books.  Adler was for many years a pagan, but late in life converted to Christianity.

I just learned all this from Wikipedia. I do not know anything about Adler, except this article, which is one of the most inspiring and convicting pieces of writing I have read in a long time.  Perhaps I will now do the hard work and check out one of his books.

In “Invitation to the Pain of Learning,  Adler debunks our desire for learning to be easy and fun, and rebukes our laziness.  This was convicting to me, because many times this semester I have wished my assignments were easier, blamed my professors for not spoon-feeding me information,  and resented having to work hard in service to others and myself.   Adler rebukes me, quite literally, for acting like a baby in kindergarten.  Learning is painful, girl!  Get over it and get going on it!

Why is learning hard? Surely we can “get an education” without stressing?   Adler points out that there are two possible views of an education:

In one view, education is something externally added to a person, as his clothing and other accoutrements. We cajole him into standing there willingly while we fit him; and in doing this we must be guided by his likes and dislikes, by his own notion of what enhances his appearance.

In the other view, education is an interior transformation of a person’s mind and character. He is plastic material to be improved not according to his inclinations, but according to what is good for him. But because he is a living thing, and not dead clay, the transformation can be effected only through his own activity. Teachers of every sort can help, but they can only help in the process of learning that must be dominated at every moment by the activity of the learner. And the fundamental activity that is involved in every kind of genuine learning is intellectual activity, the activity generally known as thinking.  (Emphasis mine.)

Education is not about learning things.  It is about learning how to think. It is not about faking through the next exam in that class unrelated to my major.  It is about going the extra mile and growing as a result.

And it is hard work.  Adler does not throw out inspirational messages about the delights of learning.  Learning is painful.  It entails striving for something that is “over my head,” when that is difficult and discouraging.  I need to believe it is really worth it.

Whoever passes by what is over his head condemns his head to its present low altitude; for nothing can elevate a mind except what is over its head; and that elevation is not accomplished by capillary attraction, but only by the hard work of climbing up the ropes, with sore hands and aching muscles.

I’m experiencing some of that soreness these days.  I have wept tears over my acoustical physics homework, resented my history paper, wished I hadn’t taken that challenging piano accompaniment job.  (And wished, ungraciously, that I was charging more money for it.)  I have complained and moaned about hard work.  Now spring break is coming and I plan to  seek some rest and refreshment, but I do not want to put learning on pause.  April is ahead of me and it is full of the hard work of learning.  I want to embrace it.



  1. We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery–three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos on the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost and are now available.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler on one DVD.

    For those of you who teach, this is great for the classroom.

    I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are–we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

  2. Hey Phoebe Joy,
    As your Mama I always tried to stretch and challenge you in home-schooling, and you responded well. Now the article you shared has encouraged me not to flag in zeal as I teach your littlest brothers. Nor to give up reading a book just because one of them says, “I don’t get it!”
    Thank you!

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