Being a Student

The term “student” is both commonly used and poorly defined. We give the name “student” to kids when they start attending school, and the connotation is that attending a school (something parents make you do) makes a student. But we rarely stop to question common terms. As a result, most students have no notion of what it is that they are – or rather, what they’re supposed to be. They have no notion of how to be the thing they’re supposed to be.

Etymologically, the notion of “student” comes from the term, “to study,” which has the meanings of striving, devotion, and cultivation; eagerness and diligence. A person who acts this way is a student, whether they’re in school or not. Alternately, a person in school who lacks these qualities may be in attendance, but is not a student. Students, as students, have a series of responsibilities and obligations (including moral ones). Failing to meet these obligations, at least in studying humanities, creates a series of problems for the student – from simply failing to creating a limit to their intellectual achievement and self-development. Humanities are of particular interest, because unlike the hard sciences, humanities are much more interdisciplinary in their nature, much more multi-layered, nuanced, and requiring a holistic approach. Thus, while a math book can achieve the same result as a math class, the same is not true of philosophy.

A 16th century Ottoman scholar proposed a list of 10 such responsibilities and obligations for all students. Although his ideas often expanded into the spiritual realm as well (especially for the responsibilities of the educator), the list has stood the test of time, and continues to offer many benefits to all would-be students. I have rearranged the list into different order than the author offered it in, for the sake of simplicity.

As a final note, the following list is supposed to be understood as a process. That means the idea is not that any given person embodies all these characteristics perfectly, but rather that they are committed to and have aimed their lives in that direction. Laziness is not something that you conquer once, and is never a problem again. Instead, every day, you struggle with laziness. Some days, you win. Other days, it wins. And sometimes, you are lazy on purpose – to recharge and get ready for hard work again. As with any habit, the longer you work on these elements, the better you get; and the easier some of them are to push towards greater heights.

1. The student must understand the nobility and importance of knowledge.

Knowledge has the ability to ennoble man; to make of him more than a brute animal. Indeed, it is the intellect that seems to differentiate man from all other animals, and thus the development of the intellect makes one “more human.” The accumulation of knowledge, in a coherent and applied sense, is the basis of this intellectual development; thus knowledge is noble, and may ennoble man. I stress that it may ennoble man, because it is possible that – especially with an educational system that focuses on memorization and steers away from applied knowledge – the old Bosnian adage manifests: if you educate an ass, you have an educated ass (but not a man).

2. The student must know the rudiments of every knowledge (or seek to do so)

It is my firm belief that all aspects of human knowledge are not only interconnected, but form a systematic and holistic picture of the world – in a way that a holistic paradigm or Weltanschauung do. Gaps in knowledge of other fields, at least a rudimentary knowledge, leave us unable to fully grasp our own. Furthermore, and perhaps significantly worse, without a basic understanding of other fields, and the general interplay between various fields of knowledge, we become incapable of understanding the implications and effects of our own work. Thus, a man developing a tool for improved mining accidentally creates the basis for a most destructive military tool, and spends his life regretting his own creation. Unless we understand and can appreciate the complexity of the interconnected nature of human knowledge, we become something of a proverbial monkey with a machine gun.

3. The student must be accustomed to the idea of permanent learning
(education as a process, not an end-goal).

Human ingenuity and development know no bounds. To assume that by attaining a grade in a course, or a degree (including advanced degrees), one has ended their education is a mistake on several fronts. First, it assumes that knowledge is static, or at least so stagnant that it could be fully mastered by a single individual. Second, this position engenders intransigent attitudes, that reject all other opinions out of hand – since the knowledge of the individual is complete and perfect, there is no basis upon which one can possibly hold a differing opinion. Third, it promotes the notion that one should study to pass a class, which contradicts the first responsibility of a student. Finally, it creates a morally, politically, and pragmatically evil notion that mere repetition of past actions solves all problems of the future. This kind of attitude has been the hallmark of failing societies and tyrannical regimes, as it either seeks to recreate some utopian ideal of the past, or attempts to freeze the current moment – both of which are not only non-functional, but tend to become genocidally so.

4. The student has a responsibility to pick a sincere teacher to study under.

This requirement is somewhat more difficult in the modern setting than in the 16th century Ottoman Empire, where one studied under a single teacher for years at a time. Sincerity here represents the idea of embodiment of knowledge, not mere parroting or reporting; carrying a far more important connotation in humanities than in hard sciences.  

The idea, once upon a time, was that teachers are the exemplars of theory. This is partially because, at least in the Islamic world where the author wrote, education was seen as a transformative act; a noble and ennobling pursuit, whose devotees entered into a transformational activity, and emerged as something of exemplars to those who would follow the same path. Much of this remains true today, at least in the notion that educators shape the intellect, ideas, and behaviors of students – who are inevitably acting and reacting to the world, through the lenses presented by the formal aspects of education, as well as practical examples of their educators – in the way they first imitated their parents. It is difficult for a student to take seriously the moral/ethical formal education offered by an educator who openly denies the universal value of such ideas. Simply, if one far more educated in the field disregards it or does not take it seriously, where is the impetus for the student to do so? A half-hearted effort at education by the educator belies their failure to grasp the preceding points themselves, and thus to be generally incapable of teaching them to their students.

The responsibility of the student, then, is to find a teacher who embodies the knowledge they are to teach, in order to ensure that they are exposed to both the formal education, as well as the informal representation of that teaching in practice. Obviously, in the modern context, this is not entirely under a student’s control – and should be understood to imply “to the best of their abilities.”

5. The student must strive after sincerity of intent

While the 16th century author had a spiritual sincerity in mind, the modern take may dispose of the spirituality, must must retain sincerity in at least in terms of striving after knowledge. As often happens, students seek a confirmation of their ideology, not knowledge; and rush to support or criticize blindly, having no real grasp on the information presented.

Sincerity of intent, then becomes a drive to learn and understand ideas as they are – not as they fit into our own narratives and biases. The goal is not agreement, but understanding so that even in disagreement we do not misunderstand, misrepresent, or fail to grasp the implications of the argument before us. With sincerity, we can disregard the source or use of the argument, and instead of reacting to the “evil” of the author (say, Aristotle’s support of natural slavery), we can fully engage with the ideas instead.

6. The student must develop self-discipline

Self-discipline combines several ideas: orderliness, timeliness of work, dedication of time, etc. These qualities are crucial for successful learning, as without them, the process cannot be sustained, and tends to lead to educational burnout.

Part of the developing self-discipline is scheduling one’s time, so that the reading, study, and assignments are not only completed on time – a bare minimum of participating in education – but are carried out in a way that allows the ideas and lessons of the classes to meaningfully develop in one’s thinking.

7. The student must strive to reduce worldly distractions

Especially important in the modern educational system, it is easy to become distracted by the variety of distracting factors, such as social media and numerous content providers. The psychological effect of such distractions on education has been well-documented. Beyond the obvious, however, some parts of the university experience are positively destructive, and introduce an overwhelming number of non-scholarly distractions. The party scene, the various sporting and other events, all draw the student away from the very point that should be the focus of their work – namely education. Obviously, some respite from strict learning curriculum is necessary, but the student must restrict all such activities to the time left over from study – not the other way around.

8. The student must resist laziness

Laziness is both the unwillingness to work, as well as a lack of caring regarding the work. It’s the second definition that is the more crucial. Lazy studies result in time spent, and text read, but no profit from the activity; lazy writing results in a paper of sufficient length, but extremely sub-par – meaning that the student development aimed at by such work has not been achieved.

A full focus of one’s mental powers is necessary for facilitating one’s education.

9. The student must not procrastinate

As a follow-up to the previous point, the question of procrastination is something of a result of not caring about one’s work – hence leaving it off until the last moment. It is all too common an occurrence that students cram before the exams and start their papers hours before they’re due. Cramming has been demonstrated as both a waste of time, and a failing long-term educational device. Quickly written papers show a clear lack of effort, research, and a failure to engage in serious intellectual activity.  

A well-scheduled study schedule allows a student time to reflect on the ideas of the course; to develop questions, seek answers, and connect fully with the concept – in a way that will not disappear after the exam.

10. The student must engage in discussion with other students

Last, but certainly not least, point on the list is peer discussion. While one’s students may drink up all that is said by the sage on a stage, subjective appropriation of intellectual ideas is crucial for the ennobling factor of education. So long as the student can only parrot back the readings or the positions of the professor, they do not actually comprehend the material. However, engaged in discussion with fellow students, they are forced to formulate their ideas in their own ways – to make the ideas truly theirs, whether in agreement or disagreement.

Peer discussions are also a primary way for the students to explore the space of the ideas, and find their limits. No matter the thoroughness of the class, there is no way for the professor to cover all aspects and implications of an idea. However, in a less directed environment, the students are able to explore new and different perspectives, and thus gain a more solid sense of the material. Finally, the student-professor relationship is nearly always marked by a sense of additional formality and reservedness, by the very fact that one is a novice and the other an expert. This is a good thing, as it helps to structure and guide the educational process. However, a relation to one’s peers, which lacks the same restraints, helps to facilitate a more creative exploration of the themes, which feeds back into the more structured process.

A student who fully embraces these responsibilities and obligations will inevitably excel in their studies. More importantly, they will also excel in all work tied to their education, and often beyond it.

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