“There is an art of study. We were told in youth to study. We were never told how to study, or, in other words, how to get ideas. Committing to memory words, sentences, and rules, is not getting ideas. … If you commit to memory a great many words and sentences, you are simply over training a part or function of your mind. …
“Words are not ideas. They are only the signs or means by which, through the sense of sight or sound, a printed word or spoken word may represent an idea to the mind. …
“The more that is committed to memory, the greater the burden placed on the department of memory. … The memory is useful only to hold what is grasped by the spirit. No amount of book-learning can teach a man to sail a boat well. He must educate himself. When he learns through practice and many failures that the rudder must be kept in a certain position to counteract the force of the wind, his memory at last holds what such practice has taught him. … Did you learn to dance by first committing to memory the rules for the guidance of your steps? No, you received the idea from someone else who could dance. You absorbed that idea or thought.
“Every person, to learn quickly, must learn to throw himself in a certain mood of mind. That is the mood of serenity and repose.” ~Prentice Mulford
Memorizing is not Studying
If you are learning to be a carpenter, memorizing the names of the tools used by a carpenter may be helpful. Yet even after you have memorized all those names, you still don’t know how to be a carpenter. A parrot could have done the same, yet there is no chance that it will become a carpenter. There are times when memorizing is useful, and it is often a good first step to learning a new skill, but practice and experience are necessary for almost every skill except winning a spelling bee. And even with a spelling bee, memorizing the spelling of many words doesn’t mean you will be able to handle the pressure of being on stage or competing with other spellers.
Words are not Ideas
Many people would take offense at this claim by Mulford, but with few exceptions, he is correct. I think the only time a word could be said to be an idea is when something new is discovered or invented and they are trying to give it a name. Even then, once the thing has a name, the name is not the thing, not the idea, but a way of communicating the idea. That communication only works, however, if everyone agrees on what the word means. There are a lot of communication failures because different people have different ideas of what a word means. A simple example is that greed, which used to be a negative thing to almost all people, has somehow become a positive attribute to many.
The function of words is to form an image in the mind. It is that image which is the idea, not the word that represents it.
Art of Study
The main point Mulford is trying to make is that the best way to study most things is to do it. Experiencing the thing is far better than simply reading about it. There are a few exceptions. There are a few exceptions. If you want to learn about war or murder, it would be best to limit that study to book-learning. But for most things, experience is better.
While many people don’t realize it, apprenticeship is still popular in many professions and skills. Book-learning may be part of the training, but is never all of it. Working with someone who already has the skill is necessary. Carpentry, masonry, and medical doctor are just a few examples where this method of learning is still practiced. And even when one is learning to fly a plane using a simulator, that is a variation of learning by experience. The art of study, as Mulford calls it, should probably be the science of study.
Art of Study for Spiritual Matters
One area where all real experts agree that the only way to truly learn is by personal experience is spiritual growth. The art of study, in this case, is almost always primarily one of experiencing spiritual matters rather than just reading about them. This is partly for the same reason Mulford recommends this art of study for material things, but also for another reason. The realm of spirit is so different from the realm of matter that language designed to use for physical fails miserably in describing it. That is one of the reasons why spiritual writers generally use allegory to describe their experiences. Another reason is that the experience of spiritual awakening and the attaining of spiritual knowledge is different for each of us. So while books may point us in the right direction, you can’t learn about spiritual worlds from them. The art of study for spiritual matters is definitely personal experience.