The Learning Life

September 28, 2015

I have now been an educator for more than 20 years. I have at various times been overjoyed, satisfied, thrilled, saddened, and nostalgic during those years, with occasional moments of hope. I won’t say that the state of education is getting worse, nor that students are. This is an old trope that those who teach latch onto every now and again, and I am reluctant to adopt it without some solid evidence. Good students, those who strive for knowledge and challenge norms have existed in every era, and at every level of education. However, I do think that the future of a classical liberal education is very much threatened, and this is a theme I return to with some regularity in my postings.  Still, I am hopeful.
When I was in high school, I was asked to deliver a talk to the board of the school (it was a small private school in Buffalo NY) regarding the question: what had formed me. Of course, at only 16, I was barely formed, and this is something I had to admit in my talk. What I did describe, for I was lucky to have teachers who gave me the tools that would help me thrive, and best of all: teachers and parents who helped feed my curiosity and made learning about things – everything — part of my daily existence.
What I learned best was how to learn best for me, which meant reading a lot of books, tinkering around with things in the garage, and exploring the outdoors. I also learned a lot of shortcuts, and took them when I had to. Tests, for instance, were the bane of my education until I was a sophomore in high school. I don’t think anyone particularly likes tests, especially when they are timed, and as a professor I have to say I neither enjoyed giving them nor grading them. They are a hurdle, and one can learn a few tricks to make taking them easier, but both from my experiences as a student and as a professor, I can say with some certainty that learning for the purpose of taking tests tends to benefit one only in the short-term. What a good test score proves is that you can take a test, it says very little about what you know, and only if properly designed does it tell you something valuable about how you reason.
The nature of modern education is geared toward employability. Learn these basics, prove you can do them on these tests, get this or that degree, then join the workforce. If you’re lucky, you get a job, then work often ridiculous hours to help pay off the debt you’ve accumulated getting through those hoops. There is no guarantee now either that making it through the hoops will bring you to the destination of a job. Finally, at the end of the day, what have you become?
I’ve written here about the coming employment apocalypse as more jobs become automated. Increasingly, the sorts of jobs that are available are low paying, and who knows how satisfying ultimately. You’ll work it for an average of about seven years, then find something else. Again, if you’re lucky.
And so my advice, against this litany of apparent pointlessness? I have two young kids now, each of whom I am now extremely interested in teaching a love of learning, and also helping to navigate the hoops that modern education has provided. The two can be kept in perspective. My daughter enjoys learning new things, asks questions constantly, and does fine at school so far. I’ll be happy if she sticks with the former two traits, even if the last falters occasionally. Enjoy the process, ask questions, challenge authority, delve into topics that interest you whenever you wish, find books. Oh if I had the internet when I was a kid, I would have read so much more. Our rural lending library had a limited range of topics. Now, the world is open to you, mostly for free. Pretty much anything you want to learn, you can for free on the internet. If you don’t want to read primary sources (go to Project Gutenberg for hundreds of thousands, for free), there are thousands of well-curated secondary sources. If philosophy is your thing, read through articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online, for free.
Learning is our final freedom, something to which we can be responsible personally, and which we can now guide in ways we wish at will, once we figure out a way to feed ourselves – yes, checking my privilege, this is a big contingency. I got lucky in the sense that my careers have always served as cover for my own selfish interest in learning, and if you can find a way to do that, you too can be lucky. Understand that the hoops are merely waypoints, means to prove something to a system that demands metrics, but the goal is so much greater, and never can be reached. Figure out the tricks to jumping through them. I used to give them freely to law students, for instance, when I taught at law school since I used mostly a variety of algorithms to pass the bar, which by the way has almost no relevance to the practice of law.
The future of education need not hinge upon the system. While we navigate an increasingly corporate, metric-driven system that frankly dehumanizes and makes learning a chore, we have only ourselves to blame if we do not educate ourselves despite the system. Encourage your kids likewise, help nurture their curiosity and help to give them the tools to teach themselves from an early age, and they will continue to learn, to explore, to love the process wherever necessity takes them. My best students these past 20 years have been those who took off on some tangent on their own, followed it, and devised some wonderful new way to understand the world, rather than merely listened to my lectures. We are never fully formed, and I have learned and enjoyed more from students questioning and pursuing their own curiosity than in the degree programs I slogged through. The future of education is us.