One of the goals held by eReflect and the team behind 7 Speed Reading is to help people get the tools they need to pursue their educational goals. One of the best ways to prepare for and succeed at advanced degrees is to read as much as possible, and the easiest way to do that is to increase your reading speed and your comprehension skills so that you can get through all of the information required in classes and for independent research projects. One person who has used his reading skills to great advantage is James Barham, a philosopher in Chicago, Illinois. We asked Dr. Barham about his views on education and reading.
7SR: You received your Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas in Austin when you were 20 years old, and completed the coursework for a Master’s degree at age 24. Then some 35 years later, you received a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. You’re an inspiration for everyone who wants to continue to pursue their educational dreams, and living proof that it’s never too late to have those dreams! How were your two university experiences different, at those very different ages?
I would not advise anyone to follow my example, but thanks for your compliment all the same!
Seriously, though, I could not agree with you more that learning is a lifelong undertaking, and that even formal education can be profitably pursued at any age. My case—a total of 19 years in graduate school (surely, some kind of record!)—is pretty unusual. But it at least shows the wisdom of the old saw: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
I sped through my undergraduate training (perhaps too quickly, in retrospect) by skipping my senior year of high school, then graduating in three years with the aid of AP credits and summer school classes. Then, I entered Harvard University’s outstanding program in the History of Science in 1973. Unfortunately, health and some other personal problems intervened which made it impossible for me to complete my first attempt at writing a Ph.D. dissertation (on the history of astronomy), which I officially abandoned only in 1983.
I then continued working on my own for some 20 years—reading, writing, and finally publishing a series of scholarly papers on the conceptual foundations of biology as an “independent scholar,” beginning in 1990. All the while, I was also working as a “househusband” and doing all sorts of “day” jobs to bring in a little income for the family.
Then, in 2003 at age 51, I had the extraordinary good fortune to be able to start over afresh. I re-entered graduate school, this time at the University of Notre Dame and concentrating on the philosophy of biology. I did not have an easy time of it the second time around, either, but was finally able to successfully defend my dissertation, Teleological Realism in Biology, in 2011.
How did my two experiences as a graduate student, 30 years apart, differ? The first time around, I was not really mature enough, either emotionally or intellectually, to do the work I needed to do. I spent years dallying with the idea of writing novels, instead of working full-time developing myself as a scholar. I spent six years living abroad, which was too long of a time away from my university. In short, I did a lot of things wrong, because I was not fully committed to the path I had embarked upon. I had not “found myself” yet.
During my years “in the wilderness” (AKA “the real world”), I finally hit upon my life’s work—a critique of the explanatory sufficiency of the theory of natural selection with respect to the teleological (purposive) character of living systems—and decided to get serious. I had a lot of catching up to do to make up for my late start, but I plunged in and have never looked back.
By the time I arrived in graduate school the second time, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I did it. So, in that sense, the two experiences were entirely different. Otherwise, I would not say that graduate school had changed much in the intervening years. It was still the wonderful, otherworldly, semi-monastic existence that had always held great appeal for me.
The terrible imposition of ideological conformity that we are witnessing on American college campuses today (“free speech zones,” “trigger warnings,” “microagressions,” and the rest of it) had not yet made too many inroads at Notre Dame, and I was not much affected by them. I believe I got out in the nick of time.
7SR: Because of the wide range of your studies (history, classical literature, philosophy, science, and more) you must have been required to read astonishing numbers of books and other publications simply to acquire all of the knowledge you needed to prepare for your classes and develop your dissertations. How did you handle this heavy reading load?
To be honest, I was not and am not a particularly fast reader. No doubt I could have profited from the 7 Speed Reading program!
However, if I am not a fast reader, I do have a few other academic virtues: enthusiasm, ambition, doggedness.
I get a visceral thrill out of the research process. Tracking down a promising new reference never fails to set my pulse racing!
I have always been interested in the largest questions: What are human beings? How do we fit into the larger scheme of things? Even when I was a philologist, I now see that it was the large, philosophical side of the history of science that attracted me most: What is science? How is it different from other human endeavors? Why did it get started when and where it did in the Ancient world? One might say that to be preoccupied with such huge questions betrays delusions of grandeur. I prefer to think that if one aims high, one may fail, but if one aims low, even one’s successes will not amount to much.
Finally, it is clear that of all the virtues, perseverance is one of the most important, in academia as in other aspects of life. You just can’t let your failures stop you.
7SR: Do you have children? If so, how have you encouraged them to develop their reading skills, along with a love of reading?
I have one son, who has grown into a fine young man who is presently finishing his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. I don’t know where he got his talent for mathematics from! But if his Mom and I can lay claim to any credit, it is surely the fact that we read to him continually (in three languages) from a very early age. His TV viewing was also heavily restricted when he was very young. So, I guess you could say we gave him little choice!
I believe that kids can easily develop a love for reading—that it comes quite naturally to them, if given half a chance. The main thing is for the parents to model the behavior they wish to instill in their children. The young can smell hypocrisy a mile off! If you don’t do much reading yourself, the chances are your kids won’t, either.
7SR: You write about concepts that many people rarely think about, and in discussing those concepts you use words like “teleological” and “epiphenomenon” and “phenotype” – words that many people will have to look up before they can even start thinking about the ideas they’re describing. What are your thoughts on the relationships between vocabulary, reading and writing, and ideas and discussions?
That’s a great question! It raises an issue that goes to the heart of our debates on public education, at least here in the U.S. A lot of research (as well as common sense) shows that the whole idea that children do not need to learn facts, but only so-called “critical thinking” skills is deeply misguided. (The books of the educator E.D. Hirsch are an excellent resource on this.)
The point is a simple one: Learning consists primarily in the ability to create connections between new experiences and old ones—to see how the myriad pieces of the puzzle of one’s own understanding of the world all fit together. What the learning process does, above all, is slowly expand one’s domain of comprehension outwards in ever-expanding spheres, as it were.
If we stop requiring children to learn facts on the theory that they can always just look them up using modern technology, we deny them the foundation upon which all learning rests. If they do not already possess an adequate store of information, they cannot add to it effectively. Sure, they can google a word like “teleology,” if they don’t know it. But if the definition on Wikipedia contains a bunch of other words and facts they are unfamiliar with, it will all seem like gobbledy-gook to them, and the task of learning will appear hopeless. Thus, by denying children actual knowledge inside their own heads, we deny them the ability to make sense of the world.
Human civilization has been built up slowly and painfully over the course of millennia. The individual human child is faced with the daunting challenge of absorbing a good portion of that accumulated knowledge in a single lifetime. It cannot hope to do this without committing many, many facts to memory, gradually and over a very long period of time. No technology will ever obviate this basic necessity of human nature.
7SR: Among our readers are people of all ages who are considering going to school for the first time, or back to school to complete a degree program. What advice would you give them?
If I could do it, you can, too! You just have to want it badly enough. And it also helps not to care what anybody else thinks.
If you do go back to school, you should do it primarily for its own sake (though practical considerations will of course also play a role). Education provides the keys to the treasure house of human civilization. Its price is truly above pearls.
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