Transformative Learning

The correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth. Suppose someone were to go and ask his neighbors for fire and find a substantial blaze there, and just stay there continually warming himself: that is no different from someone who goes to someone else to get to some of his rationality, and fails to realize that he ought to ignite his own flame, his own intellect, but is happy to sit entranced by the lecture, and the words trigger only associative thinking and bring, as it were, only a flush to his cheeks and a glow to his limbs; but he has not dispelled or dispersed, in the warm light of philosophy, the internal dank gloom of his mind.

― Plutarch

Learning is often conceived of as some kind of accumulation of knowledge. The sedentary nature of our schools encourages this passive outlook of precious knowledge poured out from teachers onto students, for them to pour forth once again onto their exams. Much of what is taught in schools serves only this purpose, and a wise student simply discards the trivialities foisted onto them ― Napoleon's birthday, or the isle to which he was exiled, or the names of all sixty characters in Tolstoy's War and Peace. A student wiser still would never bother to learn these in the first place. By some travesty, students are graded on many of these frivolities, as if they bore any relation to future competence or marked some intellectual asset which might be redeemed at some future date.

How much of our educational energy is devoted to such futility? Modern students rightly learn its uselessness, and learn that such classes are a bore, and learn that life consists of far richer things.

Real learning is transformation, not accumulation.

Ideas Are Their Consequences

"Grant an idea or belief to be true...what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth's cash-value in experiential terms?"

― William James

If aliens came tomorrow to Earth, bringing with them their own language, their own theories, their own tools and crafts, how would we begin to understand them? Across such a wide cultural barrier, the implicit viewpoints of our symbol sets might hopelessly hinder any attempt to cast their knowledge in terms of ours. Analogies we might hope to draw might break down, metaphors key to their understanding might be absent from ours, so that pure communication within the realm of symbols might not be possible. But for aliens to come to our Earth, though they may not share our ideas or symbols, they must inherently share our reality, and in the terms of our shared reality we can communicate.

This is not quite so hypothetical as it might seem. We encounter this phenomenom every day as we communicate across cultures, across individual temperaments, across a myriad of specialties and educational backgrounds. There is often assumed within each academic field some conceptual hegemony. A particularly enlightened field might resist a singular hegemony and allow for perhaps three or four fundamentally different descriptions of reality, each vying for dominance. By the hierarchical structure of education, we naturally assume some canonical representation to be equivalent to "truth". If we dare venture into an adjacent field, we will find a whole new language cogently describing the same things, but differently. The emphasis on canonical symbology creates departmental walls and specialist silos, and enforces boundaries and borders of all sorts. To really understand a field, one must be able to translate its ideas into this shared reality and answer, "how does each of these ideas materially influence my behavior in any context?"1

Any system of knowledge requires some "buy-in", some acceptance of basic principles or terms in order to operate within it. But reality carries no such toll, and no such choice; we are all immersed and present in its machinations despite any force of our will. To bridge from within any system of knowledge to the broader world requires either a forced conversion, a compulsory acceptance, to bring the uninitiated into the fold, or else the initaited must connect their ideas to the world without, back into our shared reality. It requires either a conceptual domination or else the ideas must be grounded in consequences.

There is no harm in ivory towers, protecting a sandbox of ideas so that they may grow and thrive. But the world outside ivory towers should not be bound to follow, it is instead the responsibility of ivory towers instead to lead, to bring their ideas into reality, where they can be inspected and used by all.

Truth is Useful

Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don't lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid.

...ideas (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience, to summarize them and get about among them by conceptual short-cuts instead of following the interminable succession of particular phenomena. Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true instrumentally.

― William James

It is usefulness which separates Truth from a shared fiction. Any nonsense can be propagated within a field, or can be authoritatively foisted upon followers. But when a concept deeply corresponds to reality, its echoes can be found in any domain, unfurling from within itself an unyielding persuasive force spanning any boundary.2

Crossing these boundaries is a crucial step to validate any idea. A useless idea may thrive in its own conceptual backyard; it must venture out into the world and be tested for usefulness to mature and come into its own. Reckless intellectuals often force this testing of their ideas onto others, pushing the risk of failure onto the population at large. They rest on an ill-founded confidence, one not built on hard feedback from reality, not checked by real possibility of failure. There is no credential which can cross domains and certify that one's ideas will hold weight in the real world; only fools think themselves wise enough to stand in for reality's validation. 3

All ideas are tools; if they cannot bear weight, then they should not be inflicted on others.4

Learning is Violent

The observable process which Schiller and Dewey particularly singled out for generalization is the familiar one by which any individual settles into new opinions. The process here is always the same. The individual has a stock of old opinions already, but he meets a new experience that puts them to a strain. Somebody contradicts them; or in a reflective moment he discovers that they contradict each other; or he hears of facts with which they are incompatible; or desires arise in him which they cease to satisfy. The result is an inward trouble to which his mind till then had been a stranger, and from which he seeks to escape by modifying his previous mass of opinions. He saves as much of it as he can, for in this matter of belief we are all extreme conservatives. So he tries to change first this opinion, and then that (for they resist change very variously), until at last some new idea comes up which he can graft upon the ancient stock with a minimum of disturbance of the latter, some idea that mediates between the stock and the new experience and runs them into one another most felicitously and expediently.

― William James

Focusing on the real consequences of any idea, and on the ways in which any idea can be instrumentally useful, the task of inducing learning becomes much clearer. We learn when we fail, when the consequences our ideas bring are not consequences we wish to repeat. We learn when we are insufficient, when the tools we have cannot overcome the tasks life sets before us. We learn to become better, to change ourselves into heroes who can conquer the obstacles which first threw us down.

Transformative learning is a violent act. But learning does not increase violence ― the failures we subject ourselves to when we make ourselves vulnerable to learning are failures which we would have encountered in the world anyway, somewhere, somehow. To focus on learning is to corral the chaos of life into some environment better suited for our metamorphosis, a cocoon where our failures have limited consequence and where the tools which we need to learn to wield are ready at hand for us to grasp.

This is why we place learning on the path to adulthood ― to achieve our transformation into productive, useful members of society. But if our learning is merely words and facts, merely homework and exams, then we remain untransformed, still children, no more equipped to handle life than when we started.


  1. James, Pragmatism, 1907. link.

  2. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, 1998. link.

  3. Taleb, Skin in the Game, 2017.

  4. It does not belittle the humanities to assert that learning should be useful ― how many have in their schooling been transformed by a book or a poem, and from that inspiration changed their whole course in life? But if it is these epiphanies which we seek, then let's not pretend there is some inherent benefit in reading works which don't inspire us. Classics are classics because they are likely to give us such transformative experiences, not because of any popularity or excellence of style. The transformations which affect our lives are private, not public, and inflicting schoolchildren with reading lists which they, by obligation, drudge through, likely closes more doors to potential epiphanies than it opens.