Social Question

LostInParadise's avatar

Can anyone be taught anything?

Asked by LostInParadise (29658points) June 24th, 2011
18 responses
“Great Question” (5points)

Assume a person without a congenital disorder like Down’s Syndrome and assume a sufficient motivation for learning. Can any such a person could learn to fly an airplane, play the violin, understand the theory of relativity or run for political office?

I realize that people have natural aptitudes in different areas, so some people will learn more quickly than others. Is it just a matter of time then, or are there blind spots and deficiencies that we have that make learning certain things impossible? The mathematician John von Neumann said, “In mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them.” To what extent is that true of not just mathematics, but of everything else? Is it just a matter of acclimating oneself to certain concepts, which would imply that learning these things would be open to anyone?

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Cruiser's avatar

No…some lessons are just to hard to grasp and yes….you just get used to them.

downtide's avatar

No. I think some things (art and music for example) require a natural aptitude, and that is either present or not. No amount of training can create a gift that isn’t there to start with.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

No. To learn a complex task, you need to learn many simple tasks to perfection, and then be able to combine them to perform the complex task. Take flying a helicopter for example. Given any control on its own, I expect any idiot could regulate the engine speed, or balance the tail rotor, or change the tilt of the blades appropriately. The trick to flying a helicopter (no, I can’t myself) is to be able to combine these tasks into one complex process.

People with mental disorders, such as Down’s Syndrome, and even normal people, have tasks that are simply beyond them. I had a student once I was trying to tutor in maths. He was fairly good at it, but only while I was teaching him. Over about a year, I tried to get him up to the level of basic calculus, but he could never quite remember quadratics well enough to be able to move on to the next stage.

I think people can learn certain tasks to a particular level, at which point all their mental faculties are devoted to maintaining their current ability. They do not have what it takes to progress further. Kind of like a fast car – it can pump out its maximum power and accelerate like a devil, but there comes a point where that power perfectly balances the forces trying to slow it. We call this its maximum velocity. People learn to a point where all the effort they can spare perfectly balances their natural propensity to forget, and that is their maximum level of ability with that subject.

GracieT's avatar

Unfortunately, no. I’m a good example of it, although mine is not congenital. My TBI was serious- six months in a rehab hospital and years of outpatient rehab. I had actually died but was brought back. I was an excellent student before, but after my injury I’m not. My injury was when I was 22 and was in the frontal lobe of my brain. I had no problems learning almost anything before. There were things I couldn’t learn then, there are many more things now. Unfortunately as much I wish I could say yes, my vote must be no.

ucme's avatar

Nah, genius can’t be taught. You’re either born with it or not.

marinelife's avatar

No, not everyone could learn to fly an airplane well enough to actually do it. There are many other skills that not everyone could master.

thorninmud's avatar

There’s the problem of neural connectivity. Young brains are rich with potential, ready to be configured according to the demands of the environment. Much of that capacity for adaptation is lost with age, so that untapped brain potentials are pruned away.

The brain does retain a measure of plasticity even in maturity, but it would be extremely difficult for a mature brain to develop capacities in domains that had really never been exercised previously. I think of the Amazonian Pirahas, who have no real concept of number beyond 1,2, and “many”. Some adult Pirahas seem to be able to make some very minor advancement in understanding number with training, but there are clearly some substantial brain plasticity issues there that would keep them from learning mathematics.

YoBob's avatar


Not everyone shares the same gifts and it is absurd to try to pretend that a kid with learning disabilities and an IQ of 60 will one day grow up to be a Nobel prize winning research scientist, no matter how much effort is put into educating them. However, that being said, most of us never come even close to our ultimate potential. OTOH, there is a lot more to a rich and full life than relentless pursuit of one’s ultimate potential.

Regarding helping those with sever learning disabilities, it takes a very special kind of person to work in that field. As a young woman my mother thought she might want to work with such children. Then, as she put it, came to the realization that you can work for years with some children and at the end of the day the best you can hope to achieve is that they might finally learn to tie their own shoes. This can be quite frustrating. Ultimately she became an orthoptist (eye muscle problems).

Coloma's avatar

No. Just like the physical realm.

No matter how motivated I was I could never be a Prima Ballerina or a Jockey, body is just not built for it. Same goes for brain power.

LostInParadise's avatar

@thorninmud , That as a good example. I wonder how much of the difficulty in teaching numbers is culture shock. We are so used to numbers that we are not aware of how much they change our perception of the world. I am guessing that if these people have trouble understanding the use of numbers for counting, they are going to have a real hard time with the idea of using numbers for measurements of length, temperature, weight, etc.

LuckyGuy's avatar

Apparently not. Women keep finding bad boys attractive, and men keep on staring at boobs.

wundayatta's avatar

It depends when you start. If you start at birth, you have the greatest chance of being able to teach the child anything. Although you can’t necessarily teach them physical skills that their body isn’t equipped to do well at.

The longer you go, the more a person is set in their ways, and the less you can teach them anything at all. However, there are some things that conventional wisdom says cannot be taught to an older person that are, in fact, teachable. Music is one of these things. In the case of music, it’s always the issue of getting to Carnegie Hall.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

Hibernate's avatar

Some aptitudes cannot be learned .. like you cannot play the violin perfectly , you just learn mechanically and after play the same.
The getting used to things is indeed what it’s there. You learn to [ know how to .. ] .. wash the dishes, use a computer, have sex, explain things to a child, play soccer, understand chemistry, pilot the airplane etc etc

One can learn almost anything if someone explains what’s what but if he doesn’t have aptitudes for that thing he won’t be able to create new things there. One can play the piano perfect but cannot be able to create new pieces because he does not hear the music , all he sees is the notes on a paper.

yankeetooter's avatar

Apparently…I learned Physics.

LuckyGuy's avatar

@yankeetooter And I’ll bet you use it every day! I sure do!

_zen_'s avatar


Recently, very recently, they discovered that contrary to common belief and misconception, a child diagnosed early for autism, early like baby less than a year old – as opposed to how they would determine this at the age of 2–4 – can be COMPLETELY “cured” or treated rather, and live a normal healthy life.

I think that starting young enough, with the proper tutoring and encouragement – a child can learn to do anything.

yankeetooter's avatar

@worriedguy…I don’t know if you would say I use it, but every time I am doing something using one of the principles of physics, I have to look back and smile…

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