The Amritsar Massacre

On 13 April falls the 100th anniversary of the massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh. For the uninitiated, this is a garden in the Indian city of Amritsar. The garden is pretty close to the city’s famed Golden Temple, the holiest site in Sikhism.

On the day in question, British troops led by one Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer opened fire on the crowds in the garden. At least 379 people were killed. That number is the British estimate. The Indian estimates for the death toll are much higher.

It is depressingly easy to think of other incidents of British troops firing into harmless crowds. Think of Northern Ireland’s Bloody Sunday of 30 January 1972 with its 14 dead, or the Boston Massacre of 5 March 1770 where five people were killed.

Those incidents are separated by a total of 202 years and you should not mistake my meaning. I ascribe no special malice or talent for massacres to the British. Indeed, I lived in England for quite a few years and retain special fondness for the people of the United Kingdom.

It would be more accurate to repeat a piece of wisdom imparted to me by an old Spanish woman, who shocked me with her praise for Franco, the dictator who ruled Spain from 1936 to 1975. Every country, she told me, has bad things in its history. There are no exceptions to this rule.

She was blinkered in her praise for Franco but her remark was absolutely on the money. We all want to think good things about our own country’s past but there were always bad things that happened alongside the good. Every country that has ever been has produced bad men and psychopaths.

Anyway, given the sweep of history you might think it strange that the three incidents I’ve listed are remembered so clearly. India has suffered worse massacres than Amritsar; the United States has seen three school massacres in the past decade alone with higher body counts than Boston; and Northern Ireland’s Troubles saw multiple massacres that killed more people than Bloody Sunday.

In other words, on a statistical basis alone it makes no sense to remember these particular events.

But none of them were about sense or statistics. Each was about unarmed people getting killed, and each had an outsize impact on events that followed. That’s why they’re so important.

Legal proceedings over events associated with the Troubles will probably continue for many years to come. Likewise, I believe that every American child learns about the Boston massacre.

And so it is that every Indian child will probably learn about the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. This 13 April, being the 100th anniversary it will be remembered to an extra degree. And for the impact it had on everything that came after, that’s how it should be.

The Melancholy Roman

On learning stuff

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This is a short guide to learning things, distilling the wisdom I’ve picked up over the years. None of what is written here is a secret and it’s also much, much harder to follow advice than it is to give it. Nonetheless, here is some advice about learning things:

1. You must put in the necessary time.

There are many things you can bluff, cheat or otherwise take shortcuts on. You can even pretend to have learning that you don’t and possibly base a whole career on it. But if you want actual, honest-to-god learning, you must put in the time. There is no substitute.

2. The different styles of learning thing is codswallop.

You may have heard that there are three learning styles: Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic. In other words, some people learn best by seeing, some by listening, and some by physically doing.

Then the remark is usually qualified, by saying that your own style might be a mix of all three. I’ll go further. There’s no evidence that the world divides into three different learning styles and anyone who says otherwise is invited to provide evidence. I won’t hold my breath.

3. Explain things to an invisible friend.

There’s a school of thought that says you don’t really understand something until you can explain it to a person who knows nothing about the subject. That isn’t always possible but you can explain it to an imaginary audience. Will you feel stupid? Possibly, but damned if it doesn’t work. Explaining an idea out loud really helps you to clarify it.

4. You must have an awkward phase.

I got this one from one of my favourite ex-bloggers, Ta-Nehisi Coates. He’s now a well-known public intellectual and the best-selling author of Between the World and Me. Before that he blogged for years on The Atlantic magazine’s website.

His blog post of 17 January 2014 was titled “Neal Brennan: White America’s Greatest Klingon Writer”. The whole post is worth reading but the money quote is this: “Never try to look cool and learn something at the same time. You must have an awkward phase. All of us would like to skip that awkward phase. That is not how it works. Here is how it works: Get your ass in the water. Swim like me.”

5. Aim for learning, not marks.

Every schoolkid gets this wrong and so do many university students. It’s not from stupidity. In fact it’s precisely the opposite: they know that marks are treated as the KPI of learning and so they try to maximise them. When you’re aiming for a piece of paper that says you’ve been well educated, a well-written, plagiarised essay that isn’t detected is worth more than the badly written one you prepared yourself.

The trouble is that there’s no learning in that plagiarised essay; or whatever the equivalent mode of assessment is. In other words, if you want actual learning then you have to do the actual work. This is a repeat in some ways of point (1) but the point is that you must concentrate on the learning itself. Marks then become the icing on the cake from good learning, which is exactly what they’re meant to be.

6. Read things twice.

Maybe this only works for maths, but I’ve found that when I’ve studied something once, reading the material a second time is much, much easier. I get a bigger-picture sense of how everything fits together and that helps with overall comprehension.

7. Use flashcards, but cautiously.

Need to remember a whole bunch of facts? Then an electronic, spaced-repetition flashcard system may be one of the friends you never knew you needed. For other sorts of learning, not so much.

By the way, highlighting, or rereading your notes over and over? Fairly ineffective.

8. Chain ideas together.

This is carefully linking up ideas in your head. You learn Fact 1. Then you learn Fact 2 that goes with Fact 1, so you mentally revise Fact 1 then Fact 2. And then you learn Fact 3 and so you mentally revise again: you first recall Fact 1, then the connection from it to Fact 2, then how that leads to Fact 3. And so on.

This probably sounds very repetitive and certainly the first few facts get repeated over and over in your mind. But if you want to learn connected things, revising everything like this when a new detail is added can be very, very effective. I’ve used this technique to remember bits of mathematics where each result builds to the next; I’ve also used it to memorise complex building layouts.

9. Exercise

Yes, physical activity. Every single decent study guide will tell you that you must take a break from your studies at some point to unwind, and every single study guide recommends physical exercise.

Yes, you can unwind by watching YouTube videos of Dave Chappelle, or cats on roller skates, or whatever. But you need to get out there and get physical exercise as well. Trust me on this. Just trust me.

In his biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, Robert Caro goes into great detail about how Moses accumulated great power and was a legendary workaholic. The man practically lived for his work. But Moses also always found time each day to go for a swim. Yes, your body needs that physical exertion as part of the learning process.

The Melancholy Roman