It would be easy to make a series of intelligent remarks about learning with which everyone would agree.footnote1 That it is useful and necessary, that it can be enjoyable but involves a great deal of hard work, that it is a life-long process, that it is quintessentially human—but animals can learn too . . . Amid such sentences one is in a well-tended garden, walking on specially designed paths so that nothing gets crushed and there are no thorns to scratch. There is no disagreement, no contestation. Yet the word ‘learning’, if I just let it get close enough to me, brings on a deep sense of discomfiture. It attaches itself to memories of command and attempted obedience, of failure and displeasure, of guilt. Stored under that heading are primarily memories of the times when I didn’t manage to learn what I should have, or wanted to. Memories of inability, refusal, blockage.

For example, there was learning to read in the first year of primary school. Reading practice was set as a homework task and presented itself as an unattainable goal, athwart the sunny afternoon. They gave us a primer for it. I stared at the characters, whose names I knew, and strove to find some meaning in their juxtaposition that could be spoken or understood. It didn’t work. The letters kept stubbornly to themselves; two characters together yielded nothing, let alone three or more. I sat in despair for what seemed like hours over the curves and strokes; it didn’t help that they were so big and brightly coloured. ‘She isn’t stupid otherwise’, my mother told my aunt, who had come round specially to help, ‘she’s just obstinate—pigheaded.’ That word, verbockt, encompassing innumerable situations in which I learned nothing, was another name for denial. I had to stay indoors while my brothers and sister could go out and play. My aunt read me the words, but I forgot them again—forgot, above all, the connections between particular signs and words. I wanted to run out and play. It was unfair to impose this senseless stuff on me that I just couldn’t learn. ‘Some children put the book under their pillow while they sleep,’ a neighbour reported. ‘When they wake up in the morning they can read.’ I grasped straightaway that this was superstitious nonsense, so didn’t try it.

At some point the letters must have turned into words, and this process must have been meaningfully transformed into an activity that one might want to practice. In a study of learning, it would be important to take note of this. But I don’t remember this drive to learn, only and exclusively the time of failure.

So is learning something that can only be grasped and spoken of in the present, when the goal has not yet been achieved, when one’s own strategies and efforts have still to be developed, and which is therefore named and remembered as a negative experience, as unsuccessful learning? Can we glean nothing, then, from our own experience—which in fact involves the everyday occurrence of simple, successful learning processes—for learning as an occupation?

I can’t believe that. I know about curiosity and the desire to learn, so I must have memories, however deeply buried, of positive learning experiences. But why the burial? Why should a few memories cast such a pall on the term, when I understand very well why learning is recognized as a social good? Think of other experiences, then.

I couldn’t throw a ball. So I had to learn, because it was one of the games that we had to play over and over again during pe. But this wasn’t just about school. Throwing was useful for lots of other things: skimming stones across the water, for example, or flinging a stick for a dog to fetch. I thus qualify my too-hasty conclusion, linking the inability to learn to school. Learning as a negative experience can be mapped not just to institutional and thus externally determined practices but also to ones that are pleasurable, playful and free. I tried for years to learn how to throw—in vain: my muscles tensed up and the ball fell at my feet, or hit the dog, waiting a few metres in front of me ready to jump up in anticipation. I watched with envy and despair the long, high arcs traced by others’ balls as they whooshed through the air. No prize, no promise, no effort helped; I just couldn’t learn. I reconciled myself to not being able to throw and, unlike reading, I still don’t know how to do it.

Perhaps then it makes sense to speak of learning only in contexts where mastering given practices requires taking one’s own steps, strategizing, consciously acquiring skills—and abandoning the hope of pleasurable, happy learning to the realm of wishful fantasy? Learning would be tied to training, and it would be necessary to design the best programmes and constantly improve existing ones to achieve the greatest possible success. Competences are acquired by hard practice, the path is stony, the going is tough and made possible only by external or internal compulsion. It’s good to start early, when people are more pliable. Get them when they’re young, as the saying goes.