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From: How to Use Your Mind

"I can't get interested in Mediaeval History." This illustrates a kind
of complaint frequently made by college students. It is our purpose in
this chapter to show the fallacy of this; to prove that interest may be
developed in an "uninteresting" subject; and to show how.

In order to lay a firm foundation for our psychologizing, let us
examine into the nature of interest and see what it really is. It has
been defined as: "the recognition of a thing which has been vitally
connected with experience before--a thing recognized as old"; "impulse
to attend"; "interest naturally arouses tendencies to act"; "the root
idea of the term seems to be that of being engaged, engrossed, or
entirely taken up with some activity because of its recognized worth";
"interest marks the annihilation of the distance between the person and
the materials and results of his action; it is the sign of their
organic union."

In addition to the characteristics just mentioned should be noted the
pleasurableness that usually attends any activity in which we are
"interested." A growing feeling of pleasure is the sign which notifies
us that we are growing interested in a subject. And it is such an aid
in the performance of work that we should seek earnestly to acquire it
in connection with any work we have to do.

The persons who make the complaint at the head of this chapter notice
that they take interest easily in certain things: a Jack London story,
a dish of ice cream, a foot-ball game. And they take interest in them
so spontaneously and effortlessly that they think these interests must
be born within them.

When we examine carefully the interests of man, and trace their
sources, we see that the above view is fallacious. We acquire most of
our interests in the course of our experience. Professor James asserts:
"An adult man's interests are almost every one of them intensely
artificial; they have been slowly built up. The objects of professional
interest are most of them in their original nature, repulsive; but by
their connection with such natively exciting objects as one's personal
fortune, one's social responsibilities and especially by the force of
inveterate habit, they grow to be the only things for which in middle
life a man profoundly cares."

Since interests are largely products of experience, then, it follows
that if we wish to have an interest in a given subject, we must
consciously and purposefully develop it. There is wide choice open to
us. We may develop interest in early Victorian literature, prize-fight
promoting, social theory, lignitic rocks, history of Siam, the
collection of scarabs, mediaeval history.

We should not be deceived by the glibness of the above statements into
assuming that the development of interest is an easy matter. It
requires adherence to certain definite psychological laws which we may
call the laws of interest. The first may be stated as follows: _In
order to develop interest in a subject, secure information about it_.
The force of this law will be apparent as soon as we analyze one of our
already-developed interests. Let us take one that is quite common--the
interest which a typical young girl takes in a movie star. Her interest
in him comes largely from what she has been able to learn about him;
the names of the productions in which he has appeared, his age, the
color of his automobile, his favorite novel. Her interest may be said
actually to consist, at least in part, of these facts. The astute press
agent knows the force of this law, and at well-timed intervals he lets
slip through bits of information about the star, which fan the interest
of the fair devotee to a still whiter heat.

The relation of information to interest is still further illustrated by
the case of the typical university professor or scientist. He is
interested in certain objects of research--infusoria, electrons, plant
ecology,--because he knows so much about them. His interest may be
said to _consist_ partly of the body of knowledge that he possesses. He
was not always interested in the specific, obscure field, but by
saturating himself in facts about it, he has developed an interest in
it amounting to passionate absorption, which manifests itself in
"absent-mindedness" of such profundity as to make him often an object
of wonder and ridicule.

Let us demonstrate the application of the law again showing how
interest may be developed in a specific college subject. Let us choose
one that is generally regarded as so "difficult" and "abstract" that
not many people are interested in it--philology, the study of language
as a science. Let us imagine that we are trying to interest a student
of law in this. As a first step we shall select some legal term and
show what philology can tell about it. A term frequently encountered in
law is indenture--a certain form of contract. Philological researches
have uncovered an interesting history regarding this word. It seems
that in olden days when two persons made an agreement they wrote it on
two pieces of paper, then notched the edges so that when placed
together, the notches on the edge of one paper would just match those
of the other. This protected both parties against substitution of a
fraudulent contract at time of fulfillment.

Still earlier in man's development, before he could write, it was
customary to record such agreements by breaking a stick in two pieces
and leaving the jagged ends to be fitted together at time of
fulfillment. Sometimes a bone was used this way. Because its critical
feature was the saw-toothed edge, this kind of contract was called
indenture (derived from the root _dent_--tooth, the same one from which
we derive our word dentist).

The formal, legal-looking document which we today call an indenture
gives us no hint of its humble origin, but the word when analyzed by
the technique of philology tells the whole story, and throws much light
upon the legal practices of our forbears. Having discovered one such
valuable fact in philology, the student of law may be led to
investigate the science still further and find many more. As a result
still he will become interested in philology.

By this illustration we have demonstrated the first psychological law
of interest, and also its corollary which is: _State the new in terms
of the old_. For we not only gave our lawyer new information culled
from philological sources; we also introduced our fact in terms of an
old fact which was already "interesting" to the lawyer. This is
recognized as such an important principle in education that it has
become embodied in a maxim: Proceed from the known to the unknown.

A classic example of good educational practice in this connection is
the way in which Francis W. Parker, a progressive educator of a former
generation, taught geography. When he desired to show how water running
over hard rocky soil produced a Niagara, he took his class down to the
creek behind the school house, built a dam and allowed the water to
flow over it. When he wished to show how water flowing over soft ground
resulted in a deltoid Nile, he took the class to a low, flat portion of
the creek bed and pointed out the effect. The creek bed constituted an
old familiar element in the children's experience. Niagara and the Nile
described in terms of it were intelligible.

Naturally in modern educational practice it is not always possible to
have miniature waterfalls and river bottoms at hand, still it is
possible to follow this principle. When, in studying Mediaeval History,
you read a description of the guilds, do not regard them as distant,
cold, inert institutions devoid of significance in your life. Rather,
think of them in terms of things you already know: modern Labor Unions,
technical schools, in so far as the comparison holds good. Then trace
their industrial descendants down to the present time. By thus thinking
about the guilds, hitherto distant and uninteresting, you will begin to
see them suffused with meaning, alight with significance, a real part
of yourself. In short, you will have achieved interest.

There is still another psychological law of interest: _In order to
develop interest in a subject, exert activity toward it_. We see the
force of this law when we observe a man in the process of developing an
interest in golf. At the start he may have no interest in it whatever;
he may even deride it. Yielding to the importunities of his friends,
however, he takes his stick in hand and samples the game. Then he
begins to relent; admits that perhaps there may be something
interesting about the game after all. As he practises with greater
frequency he begins to develop a warmer and still warmer interest until
finally he thinks of little else; neglecting social and professional
obligations and boring his friends _ad nauseum_ with recitals of
golfing incidents. The methods by which the new-fledged golfer develops
an interest in golf will apply with equal effectiveness in the case of
a student. In trying to become interested in Mediaeval History, keep
actively engaged in it. Read book after book dealing with the subject.
Apply it to your studies in Political Economy, English, and American
History. Choose sub-topics in Mediaeval History as the subjects for
themes in English composition courses. Try to help some other student
in the class. Take part in class discussions and talk informally with
the instructor outside of the classroom. Use your ingenuity to devise
methods of keeping active toward the subject. Presently you will
discover that the subject no longer appears cold and forbidding; but
that it glows warm with virility; that it has become interesting.

It will readily be noticed that the two laws of interest here set forth
are closely interrelated. One can hardly seek information about a
subject without exerting activity toward it; conversely, one cannot
maintain activity on behalf of a subject without at the same time
acquiring information about it. These two easily-remembered and
easily-applied rules of study will go far toward solving some of the
most trying conditions of student life. Memorize them, apply them, and
you will find yourself in possession of a power which will stay with
you long after you quit college walls; one which you may apply with
profit in many different situations of life.

We have shown in this chapter the fallacy of the assumption that a
student cannot become genuinely interested in a subject which at first
seems uninteresting.

We have shown that he may develop interest in any subject if he but
employs the proper psychological methods. That he must obey the
two-fold law--secure information about the subject (stating the new in
terms of the old) and exert activity toward it. That when he has thus
lighted the flame of interest, he will find his entire intellectual
life illuminated, glowing with purpose, resplendent with success.

In concluding this discussion we should note the wide difference
between the quality of study which is done with interest and that done
without it. Under the latter condition the student is a slave, a
drudge; under the former, a god, a creator. Touched by the galvanic
spark he sees new significance in every page, in every line. As his
vision enlarges, he perceives new relations between his study and his
future aims, indeed, between his study and the progress of the
universe. And he goes to his educational tasks not as a prisoner
weighted down by ball and chain, but as an eager prospector infatuated
by the lust for gold. Encouraged by the continual stores of new things
he uncovers, intoxicated by the ozone of mental activity, he delves
continually deeper until finally he emerges rich with knowledge and
full of power--the intellectual power that signifies mastery over a


Readings: James (8) chapters X and XI. Dewey (3)

Exercise I. Show how your interest in some subject, for example, the
game of foot-ball, has grown in proportion to the number of facts you
have discovered about it and the activity you have exerted toward it.

Exercise 2. Choose some subject in which you are not at present
interested. Make the statement:--"I am determined to develop an
interest in--. I will take the following specific steps toward this



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