10/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Education of a Cipher

I am in the teaching and learning business, specifically the public policy teaching and learning business, and there is one thing I can tell you: real learning takes some time. You cannot skip steps.

Time-for-learning norms in fact have developed over hundreds of years. There is a reason that university students only take between four and six classes at a time, and why it takes a quarter or semester per course; there is only so much a mind can take in, hold on to, and apply correctly.

As anyone knows, if a student wants to specialize or major in, for instance, international relations, she takes an introductory course with a series of lectures, readings, written assignments, and discussions. Following that, there are five to ten courses like it, depending on the level or the degree. At the higher end, she might take a course, titled something like, "American Foreign Policy from Reagan to Clinton," which has prerequisites to ensure the ability to master myriad contexts one needs to analyze so complex a topic.

Overall, it is at least a two-to-four year process, depending on the degree, before a university will say, "OK, you know what you are talking about, we'll certify that."

Accelerated learning is possible, especially in subjects like languages, where memorization and repetition are the main requirements, or in mathematical or technical topics where the learning is linear and unambiguous. However, in fields like international relations, where there is ambiguity, depth, and a range of views in a big old goofy world, not so much.

There are, naturally, other ways of learning something like international relations; one can become a national legislator or a news reporter and travel around, read, observe, and learn from experts. That, too, takes time before one achieves expertise. Educators use words like internalize and synthesize to describe the learning process. The point is the real learning of complicated stuff takes time.

Governor Sarah Palin has enrolled in a crash course called John McCain's Domestic and Foreign Policies. It is a high level, specialized course, with unique norms of truthiness, which requires grounding in history, economics, public policy, and political philosophy. It is not easy; even John McCain seems to be having trouble with it. Not only does Governor Palin have to learn it, she simultaneously has to teach it.

With Charlie Gibson, Governor Palin came off as an undergraduate with a patchwork grounding in the subject matter, about two weeks into a course, a little lost, trying to fake her way through her first round of questioning by a smart professor who did not want to humiliate her or come off as a bully himself.

It is inconceivable to me that she is going to be able to get up to speed for more interviews that build on that one, or for her debate with Senator Biden, or, gulp, to be leader of the free world at any point in the next two years. Talking points, off topic, just are not going to cut it.

I rather feel bad for her. I think she is beginning to realize she is in over her head. It is not as if she is Matt Cassell taking the place of Tom Brady this weekend. They cannot just simplify the playbook or go to the run.

It is going to be for Governor Palin as it was for a friend of mine, Aaron, when he appeared on Jeopardy. As the houselights went down and they started counting down to the entrance of Alex Trebek, Aaron said, "Suddenly my brain was trying to think of everything I've ever known at the same time, then pose it all in questions." Aaron, (Wesleyan, Yale), lasted two rounds and got a trip to Australia.

I am afraid that Governor Palin, (Hawaii Pacific College, Northern Idaho College, University of Idaho, Matanuska-Susitna College, and back to Idaho), will suffer the same sensation Aaron did, but is unlikely to do as well when the questions start.

You cannot skip steps.