“What’s the best way to learn?”
“Through reading,” I said.
“Reading, yes,” the instructor nodded.
“But the best way to learn is to teach what you know”.
I’d been sure that reading was pretty much the be all and end all of learning. It made sense. You read the best books, the best websites, the best columnists — it’s the best info you can get. Want to know about the life of a professional footballer? Look no further than Tony Adams’ autobiography. A heads-up on American print journalism in the 20th century? I learnt more from Arthur Gelb’s memoir than I could have from any encyclopedia. Hell, I didn’t know what an IPO was till I read Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline. (Those were the days when I still thought Sheldon was a woman.)
But strangely, the moment I heard that the best way to learn was through teaching, it rang true. That had something to do with a difficult childhood memory. When I was in school, I had trouble with mathematics and a classmate of mine gladly helped out. I didn’t get any better in maths, but he did go on to top the class.
Like all good lessons we learn in life, I promptly forgot about this till reminded of it by the instructor in what was a preparatory class for an MBA entrance exam. (A class which I later quit because the maths involved drove me up the wall). Last week, I once again revisited the truism of this concept.
My parents were both university professors. As such, I grew up in a world filled with books. Guests to our house were routinely asked by my father to “sit if you can” on the sofa in the hall, overflowing as it always was with books. Dad was an English professor, a versatile man with a deep knowledge of various subjects, be it literature, history or philosophy. He loved to read, but enjoyed even more sharing what he read. He had a brilliant sense of humour and loved making people laugh. In return, all he wanted was their attention. “You furnish the laughter,” was the understanding. “I’ll furnish the talking”.
In short, he was a Leo.
After he passed away last year, my family has been conducting informal knowledge-sharing meetings with friends, former colleagues and students once every month. The idea is to share our insights, over the course of a Sunday morning, from any book we have read. Last Sunday, it was my turn.
I chose Dan Rather’s ‘The Camera Never Blinks’. When I first read the book, it took a while to warm myself to it due to what I initially saw as Rather’s sense of self-importance. He opens the book with his famous rebuttal to Richard Nixon in a press conference, when the President asked him “Are you running for something?” amid the hostile reception from the heavily partisan gathering after Rather identified himself as the questioner. Not missing a beat, Rather replied, “No sir, Mr President, are you?”
It was a great comeback by Rather, but not so great that you devote 14 pages of the book to it. It looks overwritten at the best of times. I had just finished reading Walter Cronkite’s autobiography, and that made it look worse. Cronkite’s memoir had two or three anecdotes on every page. His accomplishments were so many that it was one of the reasons I chose Rather’s book over Cronkite’s to discuss last Sunday — it is too hard to pick out the most important events in Cronkite’s life. There were too many.
However, as I continued reading Rather’s book, I realised he was a hard-boiled newsman who built his reputation on sheer determination and improvisation. Now, as I reread the book in order to discuss it, I appreciated how enjoyable a read it actually was. It surely must have suffered from the Cronkite effect when I first read it.
When I discussed the book with guests last week, they were on tenterhooks when I narrated how Rather covered the JFK assassination and his adventurous journey to the India-China border in 1965 following rumours of mobilisation of troops at the border. It was only later I realised that as I prepared notes ahead of the discussion and discussed the book itself, I had come to admire Dan Rather more than ever. With some reporting experience under my belt, (I had not done any reporting when I first read the book) now I could really appreciate his dedication to report the truth and his determination to overcome tremendous odds while doing it. And his improvisation. When in New Delhi during the 1965 India-Pakistan war, he tied a shipping bag from CBS News, which had words stamped in red across the side, “CBS NEWS, RUSH, URGENT, HOLD AT AIRPORT” to the flagstaff of a Limo and used it as a ‘diplomatic flag’ to bypass security restrictions on transportation and avail diplomatic immunity.
I don’t know for sure teaching is the best way to learn, but it’s certainly the most rewarding. If you do a good job and you know you have, it massages your ego in a soothing kind of way. I basked in its warmth a long time after that, and I still smile when I write about it.