Learning - Sought With Ardor

Jackie Gingrich Cushman
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Posted: May 31, 2009 12:01 AM

Everyone has something to teach you, if only you can find the right question to ask.  To learn, you have to focus.  Too often we think that being present is enough. It is not. You have to be more than present; you have to be engaged.  Remember your grade-school math teacher, who used to tell you that learning requires not only memorizing equations, but understanding why they work. 

When failure happens, it is not only an obstacle to be expected and overcome; it is an opportunity to learn. How you perceive failure will determine how you react to failure when it happens.  Learning from failure is important.

Carol Dweck talks about the importance of our beliefs regarding failure in her book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.”  According to Dr. Dweck, a person’s belief in their ability to affect intelligence might be more important than their actual intelligence. Students who have a growth mindset believe that "intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work," she writes. The ones who hold a fixed mindset "believe that intelligence is a fixed trait." 

In studies Dweck conducted, when failure occurred, "students with a growth mindset said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material." Their belief that they had an impact on the outcome through the application of their effort led them to work harder or create a new approach.  

The important lesson is not that people are smart or stupid but that, through effort and hard work, brains can grow and people can change.  “Learning is not attained by chance,” wrote Abigail Adams, “it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.”

Adams was the wife of President John Adams. She made those comments back in 1780, but they still apply today.  Reading and learning has always been fun for me.  I was the girl who sat at the back of the room and read novels during math class.  Most of my lunch periods at Robert Frost Junior High School in Fairfax, Virginia were spent reading in the library rather than eating in the cafeteria. 

This love of reading and learning made Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s story resonate with me.  “After her father’s death, Sotomayor turned to books for solace, and it was her new found love of Nancy Drew that inspired a love of reading and learning, a path that ultimately led her to the law,” notes the release from the White House. 

Sotomayor’s life story includes dreaming big, working hard, and learning.  These attributes are three of the principles discussed in depth in my new book, “5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours,” co-authored with my father, Newt Gingrich.

The current discussion regarding President Obama’s nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to Supreme Court Justice requires proper framing to understand the implications and ramifications. 

The appointment to Supreme Court Justice is for the life of the judge. 

“As the final arbiter of the law,” according to the Supreme Court website, “the Court is charged with ensuring the American people the promise of equal justice under law.” 

James Madison wrote of the importance of independent judges, focused on the law, rather than political passion, partisan beliefs or competing factions.  In a nation of passionate people, often caught up in defending or advancing their beliefs, there are nine people who are called on to be impartial, independent, and focused on the law.  They are the nine Supreme Court Justices.

The picture of the statue of Justice—blindfolded and holding a scale—comes to mind when I recall learning about the Supreme Court in elementary school.  The phrase “Equal Justice Under Law” is prominently displayed above the main entrance to the Supreme Court Building, and it echoes the belief that justice should be served equally to all.

Perhaps the concept of blind justice and impartiality could be thought of in the same light as intelligence.  Those who think it is possible to be impartial will try to grow in that direction, while those who focus on differences and retain prejudices will give up trying to achieve impartiality.

“I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage,” said Judge Sotomayor, “but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate.”

But the question remains: when are these opinions, sympathies and prejudices ever “appropriate?” Who is to be the judge of this? In other words, when is the judgeship legitimately prejudiced by heritage, ethnicity, and personal considerations, and who deems it legitimate when the stated goal is the promise of equal justice under law?   

Let us hope that Judge Sotomayor’s statement doesn’t place her in the category of those who have given up on impartiality.

To paraphrase Abigail Adams – it may be that the lesson to be learned here is that impartiality is not attained by chance; it must be sought with ardor and attended to with diligence.