On Learning New Things

by Bill McKibben

It turns out that Ta-Nehisi Coates spent the summer just down the hill, at Middlebury College where Sue and I both hang our hats. In the summer Middlebury’s famous language school–which makes students sign a pledge that they’ll only speak the language they’re studying all summer–takes over the campus, and this year Mr. Coates was studying French. And studying the act of learning something new, which is an easier process to see (if not to do) past a certain age. His stay resulted in a brilliant essay in the new Atlantic, which has a lot of smart things to say about race in America, the inequality of influence in our culture, and the smugness with which white people caricature African-American attitudes towards education. I, um, learned a lot reading it, and look forward to re-reading it more than once. (It’s also a subtle and persuasive follow-up to his groundbreaking piece on reparations earlier in the year).

Politics aside, it also describes the learning process with wit, rigor, and a kind of joy that makes one want to (as soon as the Labor Day weekend has passed) go out and work hard to learn some new thing!

One afternoon, I was walking from lunch feeling battered by the language. I started talking with a young master in training. I told her I was having a tough time. She gave me some encouraging words in French from a famous author. I told her I didn’t understand. She repeated them. I still didn’t understand. She repeated them again. I shook my head, smiled, and walked away mildly frustrated because I understood every word she was saying but could not understand how it fit. It was as though someone had said, “He her walks swim plus that yesterday the fight.” (This is how French often sounds to me.)

The next day, I sat at lunch with her and another young woman. I asked her to spell the quote out for me. I wrote the phrase down. I did not understand. The other young lady explained the function of the pronouns in the sentence. Suddenly I understood—and not just the meaning of the phrase. I understood something about the function of language, why being able to diagram sentences was important, why understanding partitives and collective nouns was important.

In my long voyage through this sea of language, that was my first sighting of land. I now knew how much I didn’t know. The feeling of discovery and understanding that came from this was incredible. It was the first moment when I thought I might survive the sea.