The One Thing that Guarantees Academic Success

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             Academia is a weird place, man. No really. It's seriously bizarre, but not for the reasons you'd expect. Sure, there's loads of pressure coming from all sides: lecturers, family, friends, work and the perennial online distractions. Sure, there's crazy politics among students and faculty alike, not to mention the decidedly idiotic notion that college life is an "ivory tower" removed from "the real world" (a notion that needs to be attacked, vivisected, burned, buried and possibly even injected with some sort of intellectual superacid -- but some other time). Nevertheless, the real strangeness comes not from being in academia but how it works "under the hood," and the clue is in the word for it's dominant activity: study.

 What's in a Word: the Etymology of Study

             Everyone knows what 'to study' means: to give time and attention to acquiring knowledge, particularly in an academic subject. No one remembers where it comes from, though. Like all of the words for things that modern culture thought important, it comes from Latin, specifically the word studium.

            When you think of studying, you probably think of long nights reading, writing or memorizing. You might think of the agony of forcing yourself to attend lectures that hold about as much interest as the particle interactions of teflon. In short, everything implied by the word 'study' makes looking at silly pictures of cats seem like a valuable use of your time.

            But this all this has absolutely nothing to do with the word studium.

Studium actually means 'zeal' or 'enthusiasm.' You can thank the Jesuits for dissociating the word from this original meaning and turning it into what it is today. After all, it was they who came up with the phrase repetitio mater studiorum est, usually translated as "repetition is the mother of learning." While true so far as it goes -- repetition really does help in memorization --it completely inverts how real learning works.

 Studium: The Key to Learning

            People are capable of staggering feats of memorization. From train timetables to the Klingon dictionary, people freely and willingly store vast quantities of information in the ultimate super-computer that is the human brain. What is more, half of the time they do it without any effort and with a minimum of repetition.

            They are able to do it for two reasons. First, the brain is wired not to store information as little packets of stuff but to create connections -- little tiny hyperlinks -- between points of data. Remembering something is more like following a string of bread crumbs than pulling something out of a well. Second, they want to remember it, and I don't mean they're kinda interested in it or they want something else that this information brings -- like fame or a diploma. They are interested in the information itself because they feel that mastering it will improve their life intrinsically. That is studium, and that is what you need to bring to the classroom in order to ace every single class.

 Why Academia is so Strange

        So why is academia so weird? To put it simply, succeeding in academia is only possible when your primary motivation is not succeeding in academia.

            This is not to say that in order to do well you should want to do badly, but rather in order to do well you should be focused on your subject and not on getting high grades. If your studium is to master your subject, your ability to think and communicate, then you will ace every single class. Focusing on your grades gets you Cs. Focusing on your studium gets you the world.


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This page contains a single entry by Legible Larry published on May 14, 2013 8:57 PM.

Citations: How, Why and What to Reference in Your Essay was the previous entry in this blog.

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