Once upon a time I thought I didn’t need school. That seems funny now since I’m a teacher. It wasn’t that I despised learning, or saw no benefit in it—quite the contrary. To me, school just seemed like society’s biggest hoax. Why should I be subjected to mediocre lessons while shifting in my hard, uncomfortable seat trying to ignore the creature next to me who was picking his nose and curating a collection on his desk? I could be directing my own pursuit of knowledge whilst lounging on a plush wing back chair like the one at my grandma’s house. Examining countless volumes of history—pulled at my leisure—I might actually learn something applicable to life.
This desire to guide my own learning in a full-time sense has yet to reach fruition, but I have come close a few times. [Close here is defined as the pursuit of knowledge with no functional application goal. Learning something just to know it.] In high school I read a book about bodies mummified in European bogs. On a trip home from college I listened to a work on the lessons humanity can learn from history. While living in rural West Virginia the absence of a close-by card catalog meant I had to turn to the Internet, and so I religiously visited the CIA World Factbook each evening and copied down three morsels about a new country.
The result of these endeavors did not lead me to visit remains in Europe, change my pattern of living in light of the past or even leave me with the ability to rattle off worldly facts. You might say I didn’t learn anything since I the amount of information I can recall is minimal. The time spent, however, was not in vain. The memory I created by witnessing my pursuit of something for the joy of experience is empowering. These are quests I started, and I can return to them at anytime. This is an experience nearly anyone can have. Public institutions of self-driven learning are, in fact, considered one of the seven wonders of human advancement.
If all this wealth of knowledge is free for the taking, why am I not a genius? Well, for starters, it isn’t free. Time is a resource, and learning takes time, so learning costs time. Society has led me down a path where I feel the need to qualify time with product. What am I getting for the amount of time I put into a task or an activity? Did I help someone learn something? Did I clear the walkway of snow? Did I earn money to purchase necessities? Did I cook a healthy dinner? Did I strengthen meaningful relationships? Did I connect with a greater power? An average day takes the same amount of time as an extraordinary day, but we’re content let minutes tick away on frivolous tasks.
I’ve lived without television service for over eight years, but within that time the Internet has risen as a media mogul. The rich experiences I get through series and film productions leaves me feeling entertained and informed. I’ve watched the collected seasons of Boston Legal, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Finder, Downton Abbey and countless others. Despite the hundreds of hours I’ve spent in front of a screen laughing, crying and enjoying these shows in the company of other intelligent beings, I cannot recall many crucial plot elements from any of these shows.
Do I just have a poor memory, or is there something bigger going on here? In school we give/take notes and assign/take assessments. Often times, after the assessment, we let the information go because we aren’t readily accessing it. After reading about bog bodies, lessons of history or Algeria, I didn’t return to the information, and so it was replaced with something new, and the process continues indefinitely…unless I consciously decide otherwise. I thought that taking copious notes from the World Factbook or on the books I read for graduate school would cement them in my mind, but I’ve since learned that it is a practice of regular exposure and emotional assignment that will turn short-term learning events into long-term experiences with accessible application.
I seem to have set up an argument that contradicts the first line of this post. School, like any of the other learning endeavors I’ve described—even watching copious amounts of drama on a screen—provides us with opportunities to witness and take in information that differs from that which we encounter in our everyday lives.
We can’t possibly imagine or understand every job, circumstance or emotion there is to experience on this planet, nor would we want to. Poet Sarah Kay describes this in her TED talk “How Many Lives Can You Live?” by sharing that her furious story-collecting teenage years stemmed from a deep desire to understand all the possible lives and experiences she would never feel herself. I too once waved the banner for storytelling, and I still believe that it is through stories and knowledge that we can try to understand ourselves, our neighbors and strangers in a way that can promote acceptance, cooperation and admiration.
Yes, there are specific bodies of knowledge and skill sets that people need to know—especially as they pertain to our ability to communicate, care for ourselves and others, and participate in society—but the result of immersing ourselves in some stories (real or fictitious), experiences and information does not have to have a tangible result. I believe there is a greater level of understanding we each possess; it is through the mixing, melding and harmonizing of many ideas, sensations and observations that we truly develop our lives. Nothing I ever create is brand new—every one of my thoughts is influenced by the years of gathering I’ve done. Recognizing the power that knowledge has beyond its basic application allows for the mind to reach understandings that transcend that which we can consciously fathom. What is sad to me is how many people limit their exposure to new things because they simply don’t see the point.
There’s a feeling brewing in me right now; a wealth of options await.