Merlyn on Learning

The last time I met with students face-to-face this year was March 13. It was a regular teaching day, but as I talked with my first-year students about the differences between periodical and scholarly articles, I was receiving email after email on my phone as the world shut down. By Sunday evening of that weekend, the government had announced the suspension of face-to-face classes throughout the province. The term ended in an online scramble that had instructors and students alike learning new ways to learn. COVID 19 may have altered the way universities deliver content—perhaps permanently—but there’s a constant here people need to bear in mind: university is about teaching, but even more it’s about learning.
When in doubt, ask a favourite character. When it comes to learning, I turn to Merlyn from T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone. Here’s what Merlyn says to the Wart about learning:
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn—pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theo-criticism and geography and history and economics—why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”
(White, T. H. “Chapter XXI.” The Sword in the Stone.)
In the last couple of months I took this advice to heart in various ways. I found a book that I’d put off reading and dived in, Why Dinosaurs Matter by Kenneth Lacovara. This is a short book outlining the history of the dinosaurs. Lacovara explains where dinosaurs sit on the tree of life, and he describes in detail his discovery of the dreadnoughtus during a dig in Patagonia. It’s estimated the dreadnoughtus measured twenty-six metres in length and weighed more than eight male elephants, or more than a Boeing 737.
Lacovara offers a vivid and compelling discussion of dinosaurs and why their lives and eventual extinction remain relevant today. For one, you can see and hear the descendants of dinosaurs every time you take a walk outside. They feed from your bird-feeders and fly overhead. These avian dinosaurs are what remained following the chicxulub impactor, the asteroid strike that caused the last major extinction event, 66 million years ago. This giant space rock hit the Yucatan Peninsula, creating a crater more than a hundred miles across and twelve miles deep—forever altering the global climate and changing the course of evolution.

A photo taken at the Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller.

The best way to experience dinosaurs is close up—close up in a museum, such as the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. Always a fascinating place to visit. But if you can’t get there, you can visit online.
Merlyn is a hands-on teacher, but I think even he would have approved the use of the internet to continue learning in a global pandemic. COVID 19 has changed the way we interact, how we work, how we live our lives. But we need to continue learning. And when you need a break from the screen, make sure and get out for a walk. The natural world is the best teacher—it’s always ready to show us something amazing,, and it never tires of doing so.