Repetition Is the Mother of Knowledge

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A Russian proverb for the day. Straight from me to you.

We seem to live in a redundancy-phobic age. Everything is about upgrades, innovation, the next season. The day after Christmas, furry pink hearts and boxes of children’s Valentines packed shelves at my local drugstore. “Yeah,” a cashier told me. “We already have Easter in the back.”

But this is how we roll. Glossy fashion magazine covers promise next season’s big trends. My friends rush out to buy the latest iPhone. Never mind that they’ll be shelling out hundreds on a half-baked product. We live in terror of becoming obsolete. Outdated. Is there a dirtier word in modern American English than yesterday?

That’s so yesterday.

Or worse: That’s so last year.

If we’ve seen an episode before, we flip channels. If we’ve read an article before, we skip it. Such a waste of time, we tell ourselves.

Or is it?

How does anyone learn anything?

I’m serious. As a student teacher, I’m concerned. In a global society where repetition is considered wasteful and economically dangerous, how on this green earth does anyone learn anything?

Think back to when you learned the alphabet or fractions or algebra. Did you listen to that first explanation, work that first sample problem with the class–and SNAP!–you had that baby down?

My money’s on no. Probably took you a few months if you were bright, a year if you were average. Hell, maybe you’re still scratching your head.

So if you had to sink some serious time into sorting out something comparatively simple, consider how little time most of us actually invest in the far more complex subjects we have to navigate as adults–from economics to law to social policy.

And that phobia of redundancy? It means we’re encouraged to read one article–written from one limited perspective–and then go vote or shoot off our mouths on subjects we are (compared to our instruction in algebra) ignorant of.

The unpopular truth is that any effective learning requires repetition. LOTS of repetition. Think of the last time you really mastered something. Your golf swing. A videogame. A foreign language. You have to be either obsessed or highly disciplined to become expert enough that people should bother listening to you.

One article on Wikipedia doesn’t cut it.

So how do we solve this? Listen more. Talk less. Recognize the differences between opinion, experience, and expertise. And if you really, really care about something, sink your teeth into it. Read. Take classes. Commit to daily review and practice of what you know. And with only 24 hours in the day, recognize that there are only so many subjects each of us can care that much about.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. That doesn’t mean it gets to count.

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