God created human beings with unique learning abilities. God gave man the rational ability to understand and communicate knowledge. Some knowledge is innate that the Bible describes as “evident within them” (Romans 1:19). They also learn by empirical experience. The Bible explains in terms of “being understood through what has been made” (Romans1:20). Isaac Watts identified five ways that rational creatures might use God’s gifts.
There are five eminent means, or methods, whereby the mind is improved in the knowledge of things; and these are, observation, reading, instruction by lectures, conversation, and meditation; which last, in a most peculiar manner, is called study. (The Improvement of the Mind, p. 19)
These means that Isaac Watts identified may sound juvenile and rightly they should be. The learning tools that God has given His rational creatures ought to be exercised with abundant thanksgiving. However, the evidence for the exercise of rational inquiry is not so evident in the contemporary culture. Google has become the primary learning tool in the internet world. The question that must be raised is, “How reliable is Google?” Test the reliability using the five means suggested by Watts.
Observation using natural sense perception for the purpose of gaining knowledge of the world around us is obsolete in the face of video games and television. In fact, most people are too busy with sensational pleasures to learn through observation. The return to serious reflection on the significance of various intelligent expressions will have a remarkable effect on the mind.
Reading books for the acquisition of knowledge is more the exception than it is the rule. Reading has been replaced by stimulation of the senses with imagery. A very popular phrase twenty years ago was “image is everything.” Reading opens the door to the storehouse of knowledge. Reading is most useful in understanding timeless principles that regulate religious, social, philosophical, and economic values.
Instruction by lectures is a valuable source to obtain knowledge of some particular subject. Academic lectures have been replaced by seminars often conducted by people who need to hear lectures by qualified lecturers. The church ought to be the primary resource for providing lectures that pertain to theology and philosophy.
The value of conversation as a learning tool has been lost in the world of instant communication. I find it most useful to discuss subjects with educated and articulate individuals. One of the benefits of conversation is the mutual discourse that allows for questions and answers.
Meditation is another source for acquiring knowledge. Isaac Watts says “in a most peculiar manner, [it] is called study.” This particular aspect requires effort; it requires work. Study and meditation must receive undivided attention.
These are very simple principles, but they are too often absent in the modern world. During the 18th century distractions were less available. Children did not have video games; adults were not diverted by entertainment and sports of every type.
Although you should examine each one in more detail, Isaac Watts leaves this summary.
These five methods of improvement should be pursued jointly, and go hand in hand, where our circumstances are so happy as to find opportunity and conveniency to enjoy them all; though I must give my opinion that two of them, viz. reading and meditation, should employ much more of our time that public lectures or conversation and discourse. As for observation, we may be always acquiring knowledge that way, whether we are alone or in company. (The Improvement of the Mind, p. 31)