A student should train him or herself to extract “signals from noise” in the world all around oneself.
You see the British movie Carrington with Emma Thompson concerning the British painter Dora Carrington. In her “circle,” which overlaps the Bloomsbury Group of such luminaries as Keynes and Bertrand Russell, there’s a scholarly member called Gerald Brenan, who became a world-famous analyst of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939):
“Edward FitzGerald ‘Gerald’ Brenan, CBE, MC was a British writer and Hispanist who spent much of his life in Spain. Brenan is best known for The Spanish Labyrinth, a historical work on the background to the Spanish Civil War, and for South from Granada: Seven Years in an Andalusian Village.”
His basic information is:
Born: April 7, 1894, Sliema, Malta
Died: January 19, 1987, Alhaurín el Grande, Spain
Spouse: Gamel Woolsey (m. 1931–1968)
Movies: South from Granada
Think of Brenan’s book title, The Spanish Labyrinth. Ask yourself if the concept of a national labyrinth is not exceedingly eye-opening. Would it not be very educational to study the features and characteristics of the American, Chinese, or Russian “labyrinths?” Would not any country’s political economy overlaid with its labyrinthian realities be very instructive?
Think of the Trump labyrinth in October 2019, all the players, deceptions, overlapping functions, pressures. paymasters both hidden and overt and obviously it’s all a kind of “deception machine” which is its own labyrinth. Thus, without even having read the Gerald Brenan masterpiece on Spain, the very name of the book is eye-opening and informative in a “meta-intelligent” way (i.e., it tweaks your sense of overview right away).
Another example: you look at a syllabus for a history course on English history and notice a title: The Shaping of the Elizabethan Regime by Prof. Wallace T. MacCaffrey (1968/1971). The very title alerts you to the fact that the evening news right now is about “the shaping of the Trump regime.”
The word “regime” supplants the usual “the administration” and the power politics and musical chairs are constant. The Elizabethan regime had similar features on a smaller scale. The basic phenomena are comparable and apply to all regimes. Your sense of overview becomes stronger by ranging between then (Elizabethan times, Tudor England) and now (Trump regime juggling.)
Take an example from TV: PBS had a Nature program entitled The Queen of Trees which takes one single tree in Africa and shows you the complexity of the micro-ecosystem it lives by:
“Nature reveals the importance of an unlikely partnership between a regal tree and a tiny wasp in The Queen of Trees.
“It may be one of nature’s oddest couples: a tiny wasp that can barely be seen, and a giant fig tree, the sycamore, which shelters a remarkable menagerie of wildlife among its limbs. The wasp and the fig depend on each other for survival. Without the wasp, the tree could not pollinate its flowers and produce seeds. Without the fig, the wasp would have nowhere to lay its eggs.
“The Queen of Trees shows this delicate dance of survival in exquisite detail, including spectacular close-ups of the wasp’s remarkable life inside a ripening fig. To capture such incredible images, filmmakers Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble spent two years camped out near a giant sycamore fig in Kenya’s outback, documenting the tree’s pivotal role as a source of food and shelter for everything from gray hornbills, Africa’s largest bird, to swarms of invading insects searching for food. In a surprising turn, some insects come to the tree’s aid—sparking a battle.”
The intricacies of the tree give you a sense of the limits of knowledge: if we can hardly really understand the “life and times” of one tree in Africa, does the pretense of science that we will one day know everything about everything expressed in rigorous equations, no less (à la Stephen Hawking’s visions) seem suddenly very unlikely and quixotic? The tactics and alliances and “politics” of the tree are “infinitely” complicated by themselves and thus getting an overview of the multiverse seems supremely hubristic.
These three examples show you the process of extracting “signals” from the “university” all around you.