Home > posts > Pitkin: itch to understand and the whole art of learning (1931)

Pitkin: itch to understand and the whole art of learning (1931)

December 6, 2020

Sometimes students come to me and ask how can they know if they are well suited to a life of scholarship, to be a professor or professional researcher for decades and decades. I tell them that if they love the process of learning and research, and if they have dozens of questions they are bubbling over with enthusiasm to get to the bottom of no matter how long it takes to do so, and they wake up each morning with eagerness to tackle them that day, then they can know.

I stumbled across a question that is very much related: how do I know I have it in me to master the art of learning, which is so critical to a successful life of scholarship? The passage below is the answer provided by Walter Pitkin, former undergraduate student at University of Michigan (class of 1900) and later professor of journalism at Columbia University from 1912-1943. In summary, you must “itch to understand”. I fully agree with Pitkin.


When all is said and done, your success as a learner depends enormously upon your philosophy of life. Your perspective determines what you are going to do about it; and the energies which emerge in your attitudes and emotions give vigor and scope to your ways of learning.

Do you see life as a mere struggle for money? Then you will shun all study which pays no quick cash dividends.

Do you look upon yourself as a creature of blind chance, helpless in an all-engulfing chaos of futility? Then you will probably find no pleasure in well directed intellectual effort.

Do you consider this world of yours and all its creatures simply as a curious, lovely, alarming, grandiose, noisy, gaudy, thrilling spectacle, which you contemplate as an innocent bystander? Then you remain forever an esthete and contemplative, uninterested in the deeper forms of learning.

Do you itch to understand every machine you see, every odd act of a friend, every absurdity of politicians and actors and debutantes, every obscure news item, and every strange light in the night sky? Then you have it in you to master the whole art of learning.

From W.B. Pitkin, The Art of Learning. McGraw Hill, 1931.

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