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Training In Association

Since association is at bottom nothing but habit at work in the mental
processes, it follows that it, like other forms of habit, can be
encouraged or suppressed by training. Certainly, no part of one's
education is of greater importance than the character of his
associations. For upon these will largely depend not alone the content
of his mental stream, the stuff of his thinking, but also its
organization, or the use made of the thought material at hand. In
fact, the whole science of education rests on the laws and principles
involved in setting up right systems of associative connections in the

THE PLEASURE-PAIN MOTIVE IN ASSOCIATION.--A general law seems to obtain
throughout the animal world that associative responses accompanied by
pleasure tend to persist and grow stronger, while those accompanied by
pain tend to weaken and fall away. The little child of two years may not
understand the gravity of the offense in tearing the leaves out of
books, but if its hands are sharply spatted whenever they tear a book,
the association between the sight of books and tearing them will soon
cease. In fact, all punishment should have for its object the use of
pain in the breaking of associative bonds between certain situations and
wrong responses to them.

On the other hand, the dog that is being trained to perform his tricks
is rewarded with a tidbit or a pat when the right response has been
made. In this way the bond for this particular act is strengthened
through the use of pleasure. All matter studied and learned under the
stimulus of good feeling, enthusiasm, or a pleasurable sense of victory
and achievement not only tends to set up more permanent and valuable
associations than if learned under opposite conditions, but it also
exerts a stronger appeal to our interest and appreciation.

The influence of mental attitude on the matter we study raises a
question as to the wisdom of assigning the committing of poetry, or
Bible verses, or the reading of so many pages of a literary masterpiece
as a punishment for some offense. How many of us have carried away
associations of dislike and bitterness toward some gem of verse or prose
or Scripture because of having our learning of it linked up with the
thought of an imposed task set as penance for wrong-doing! One person
tells me that to this day she hates the sight of Tennyson because this
was the volume from which she was assigned many pages to commit in
atonement for her youthful delinquencies.

INTEREST AS A BASIS FOR ASSOCIATION.--Associations established under the
stimulus of strong interest are relatively broad and permanent, while
those formed with interest flagging are more narrow and of doubtful
permanence. This statement is, of course, but a particular application
of the law of attention. Interest brings the whole self into action.
Under its urging the mind is active and alert. The new facts learned are
completely registered, and are assimilated to other facts to which they
are related. Many associative connections are formed, hence the new
matter is more certain of recall, and possesses more significance and

ASSOCIATION AND METHODS OF LEARNING.--The number and quality of our
associations depends in no small degree on our methods of learning. We
may be satisfied merely to impress what we learn on our memory,
committing it uncritically as so many facts to be stored away as a part
of our education. We may go a step beyond this and grasp the simplest
and most obvious meanings, but not seek for the deeper and more
fundamental relations. We may learn separate sections or divisions of a
subject, accepting each as a more or less complete unit, without
connecting these sections and divisions into a logical whole.

But all such methods are a mistake. They do not provide for the
associative bonds between the various facts or groups of facts in our
knowledge, without which our facts are in danger of becoming but so much
lumber in the mind. Meanings, relations, definitely recognized
associations, should attach to all that we learn. Better far a smaller
amount of usable knowledge than any quantity of unorganized and
undigested information, even if the latter sometimes allows us to pass
examinations and receive honor grades. In short, real mastery demands
that we think, that is relate and associate, instead of merely
absorbing as we learn.

Next: Problems In Observation And Introspection

Previous: The Types Of Association

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