Book learning, a term I often hear spoken with a whiff of condescension, is a necessary but incomplete method of gaining knowledge. The AP (Advanced Placement) exams lean most heavily on this method, the more that the students have read, the better they should be able to answer the expansive questions on the test. In the debates over education across the world, the arguments for those who demand extensive testing are concentrating on book learning and dispensing with most of the other forms for gaining knowledge. Anyone who has studied at a trade school, be it auto mechanic or medical school, has experienced the vast gulf of difference between reading about a subject and confronting the task in the field. From this corrosive and unproductive debate between the perceptions of the method versus its necessary but shared place amongst the other methods of learning, the definition and goals of book learning are distorted, all for the sake of winning an argument.
Book learning is not just reading books, which is a descriptor, not a definition. One can read a hundred books and learn nothing. How many Junior High students have been forced to read Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and left the class the class with the context that young people fall in love and parents hate that they do? Learning to read a book is a process of development of identifying patterns and relations, of placing facts within frameworks and useful contexts.
There are different processes of development for fiction and for non-fiction. Reading a journal article for a science discipline is a different form of skills than reading a book on the same subject, even by the same author. Articles and books have different functions. In non-fiction these different processes give us the tools to follow arguments, evaluate the evidence, and form conclusions about the validity of the arguments or the experiments presented. Knowledge in non-fiction book learning is an acceptance that the facts fit the conclusion or a rejection of the same. This statement is true for every human endeavor that falls under non-fiction from abortion to zoology and it is the definition of scholarship.
Fiction is not a different set of learning processes but a different set of applications. A lot of mythology about the prowess and potency of understanding literature is offered up as definitions of knowledge through the study of fiction. Symbolism and insight, morals and consequences, are tools for telling a story that are elevated to a level of factual points of knowledge. Literacy is an oft repeated word that appears to have no concise meaning but is the agenda of testing or the rejection of testing. What is this form of knowledge called literacy?
The cynic labels literacy as brainwashing. Not a particularly helpful definition but at least it sets a boundary at one extreme. Masters in the field are applauded as erudite, extremely well-informed, a boundary at the other extreme. Between these boundaries are culture, discipline, information, history, empathy, logic and scholarship.
Book learning is only useful if first, it leads to more book learning and second, it informs other methods of learning. Like the great librarians before Google, book learning teaches us how to search for more book learning. The knowledge sought may be fiction or non-fiction, and facts or advice, and insight or theory. A good book learner will read a Wikipedia article with keen skepticism and leap with gusto into the sources cited at the bottom of the article. Book learning is not facts and figures although facts and figures are its tools. Ultimately, book learning is about learning how to teach oneself.