HOW TO BECOME INTERESTED IN A SUBJECT





"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

subject.



READINGS AND EXERCISES



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

end."





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