Lesson 2 — Being a Learner

The process of crafting rewarding lives for ourselves calls for much learning, and it is important that we realize three things:

  1. There are many learning options other than schools.
  2. We must take personal responsibility for the learning process.
  3. In this post-modern knowledge-based world we will need to spend our entire lives learning.

In recent years, things have become twisted around. Somehow the focus has shifted from the learning end of things (human curiosity, human need-to-know, and the appropriateness of self-directed exploration) to the teaching end of things (schools, teachers, and classrooms).

Learning is fundamental; teaching is secondary, incidental, instrumental. Teaching may help learning to happen, but so may a good night’s sleep, being in an interesting place, and a thousand other things. Skilled teachers, and parents, and friends can help us learn, but the learning itself is up to us. As teachers readily admit, if someone doesn’t want to learn, teaching them won’t cause much learning to take place. There will no doubt continue to be a place in our lives and the lives of our children for schools of some sort, but learning is not just a time-limited school-connected thing.

Learning is up to us. We are responsible for our own learning. As individuals, we must decide that we want to learn, what we want to learn, and take responsibility for making it happen. Many people emerge from their schooling never having learned that, and today find themselves in a terrible bind. The days are long gone when what you learned by age 20 or 25 would do you for the rest of your life. Rapid changes in world and workplace are rendering whole industries obsolete within breathtakingly short periods, and this pace of change seems destined to continue. Lifetime learning is here, and here to stay, and the fortunate ones will be those who are drawn to it with enthusiasm.

There are today, and always have been, people who saw the appropriateness of self-directed learning. It is not a new idea. A century ago it was championed by the Chautauqua movement. A few decades later the American philosopher and educator John Dewey promoted it. And since the 1960s, the resources available to self-directed learners have greatly increased, both in variety and quantity.

Concerning the education of children, there have always been parents who focused on learning rather than schooling. The education of anthropologist Margaret Mead is an example. Margaret grew up in a family that valued academic achievement. Her father was on the faculty of the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania. Her mother was a graduate of the University of Chicago who later in life, after the demands of child rearing waned, went back to work on her Ph.D. Yet between kindergarten and high school Margaret spent only one year in school. The rest of the time she learned under the guidance of her grandmother who spent about an hour a day with her. As Margaret put it in her autobiography, Blackberry Winter:2

I was not well drilled in geography or spelling. But I learned to observe the world around me and to note what I saw — to observe flowers and children and baby chicks. She taught me to read for the sense of what I read, and to enjoy learning. . . . Looking back, my memories of learning precise skills, memorizing long stretches of poetry, and manipulating paper are interwoven with memories of running — running in the wind, running through meadows, and running along country roads — picking flowers, running through meadows, hunting for nuts, and weaving together old stories and new events into myths about a rock or a tree.

It would be hard to find a better example of a lifelong learner than Margaret Mead. Her grandmother’s approach obviously worked. It stimulated attentiveness, curiosity, and imagination — an orientation to life which helped Margaret Mead become one of this century’s great anthropologists.

Whether the young people in our lives attend school or are home schooled, we parents and grandparents can help them get into the curious, excited, self-directed learning mode. And if they attend school, we can encourage the school to be responsive to their real needs. The turn of the century Russian, Peter Kropotkin, had some excellent advice for all us learners, young and old: “Find out what kind of world you want to live in, what you are good at, and what to work at to build that world. What do you need to know? Demand that your teachers teach you that.”

Your childhood is over, and so is mine. Our schooling was whatever it was, and left its residue — some good, some bad. It failed to give us an ideal preparation for life, and now, no one is knocking on our doors offering to fill in the holes or repair the damage. It is up to each of us, as individuals, to do that. What are our options? What can we do to help ourselves and those we love to become enthusiastic life-long learners?

The starting point, as outlined in Lesson 1, is some clarity about what kind of lives we want for ourselves — some sense of where we’d like to go with our lives, or at least a sense of what we want to explore or accomplish next. Once some degree of overall focus exists, it’s time to get specific. What do the intentions you have about your life say about your next arena of action? And what skills do you need to develop to move into that arena? Are there any credentials that you need to acquire? Some sort of certification? What sort of learning strategy would allow you to accomplish what needs to be accomplished with an acceptable balance of time, money, and fun? Do you, for instance, take a Spanish course evenings at the local community college (low cost, little time, little fun)? Or do you spend three months in Cuernavaca, Mexico attending classes at a local language institute (higher cost, more time, more fun)?

Exploring for resources is a highly individualized process. Our interests differ. And different people have different learning styles. For some, sitting in a classroom works — and feels right. For others it’s immersing themselves in reading and following the path that opens up as each book or article leads to the next one. For still others it’s an apprenticeship — learning by watching another person, and then trying the task ourself with that person looking over our shoulder and making suggestions.

One reason that self-directed learning is highly individualized is that learning resources are unevenly distributed. If one special person is your resource of choice, or one special educational institution, then you must be where that person or institution is. At the other extreme, if you are fortunate enough to learn readily from books and other print materials, or through on-line interaction at a computer screen and keyboard, geographical constraints may disappear entirely.

Information about the offerings of educational institutions is available in many communities. Check your local library for college catalogs and other descriptive material. And if the information you need is not there, your librarian can help you find addresses to write to for that information.

Tracking down non-institutional resources can be more of a challenge. Besides reading, what other kinds of self-directed learning options are there? Three popular ones are

  • one-on-one mentoring and apprenticeship,
  • learning through computer communication, and
  • learning-oriented travel.

In times past it was common for would-be learners to seek out highly skilled people and arrange to learn from them. If it was a craft you wanted to learn, you apprenticed yourself to a master and worked under that person’s influence and guidance. If you were academically inclined, you tried to become associated with an institution where the great minds in your field hung out. Newly graduated Ph.D. scientists tried to get work in the labs of their scientific heroes. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it’s my impression that many of us today have egos that are too big to be comfortable doing this sort of thing. Fewer people are willing to humble themselves enough to say: “I would like to learn from you.” Yet the benefits of establishing a teacher/learner relationship with a highly talented person can be enormous.

If your proposed path of learning is in an unusual or specialized area, finding the right person to teach you could be a challenge in itself. One approach is to subscribe to magazines, journals, and newsletters that deal with the specialty. Read each issue carefully, and then follow up leads. Write to authors of articles, answer classified ads, or insert one of your own. Above all, don’t hesitate to ask people for help in pointing you toward the kind of learning resources you’re trying to find.

The Internet is one of two significant doors-to-learning that the computer has recently opened up. Because there are so many people on the Internet, so much information available, and so many groups devoted to specialized interests, Internet involvement presents the user with vast possibilities for interpersonal conversation, information exchange, and learning.

Much of the interaction and learning takes place in Usenet News Groups, and many Internet users find these groups a perfect place to meet knowledgeable people in their areas of interest. Each news group has a short Internet name and a defined topic area. You can join any group (or leave it) at your pleasure, and there are no costs beyond those associated with connecting to the Internet network itself. When you check into a news group you have the opportunity to read messages posted by members of that group, starting with those most recently posted. You can skip the messages you don’t want to read, read the ones you do, and post your own messages for the rest of the group to read.

Especially if you are looking for esoteric information, posting a message can be very fruitful. Whatever your question is, it is very likely that within a few hours of posting your query, one or more people would have posted reply comments.

Other major Internet aids-to-learning include e-mail, “listserv” mailing lists, and electronic publications. News Group interactions frequently lead to friendships and to one-on-one exchanges of information by e-mail. The listserv function allows whole groups to be served by e-mail. An e-mail message to a listserv address results in duplicate messages being sent to all members of that listserv group. Electronic publications are magazines or academic journals that are distributed to subscribers (usually at no cost) by e-mail.

The Internet is vast, complex, and constantly changing. That said, the Internet is also very easy to get involved with and explore. You don’t have to have a whit of interest in computers, or any technical savvy at all. You just need a basic computer, a modem, and communications software — all of which can be set up for you by some computer-literate other person, perhaps the teenager next door. The exploring itself involves typing short commands on the computer keyboard — something that grade-schoolers soon get quite adept at. If you can hunt and peck type on a typewriter, you can cruise the Internet on a computer keyboard. With some software, it’s even easier: you just “point and click.”

A good way to get a sense of Internet resources that might be of interest is to browse through one of the many directories and guides available at book stores and public libraries. If what you see there twigs your interest, the next step is to track down a service that will give you and your computer access to the Internet. These differ greatly in the level of service offered and the cost to the user. Talk with computer-savvy people about the connection options available in your area.

Distance education or distance learning is the second computer-assisted door to learning. It’s the latest wrinkle in home-study or extension education, but its adoption by some prestigious institutions lends weight to the possibility that we really do have something significant here, and not just a fad. In one ad, New York’s venerable New School for Social Research says that they now offer “a new way to complete courses for academic credit or personal development without traveling to attend class. Using a computer and a modem, you can go to class at any time from work, from home, or on the road — just turn on your computer and be at The New School . . .”3

Learning-oriented travel can take various forms. All travel helps us learn — even the most unplanned, unstructured, casual travel. Actually going there makes places come alive and people become real in ways that reading about them never could. On the other hand, well-prepared travelers do get more out of their travel experiences than poorly-prepared ones. Some of my friends read extensively before they travel. In doing so they learn about “can’t miss” places to visit as well as places they’d just as soon avoid. One of my friends is an architecture buff, and he reads up beforehand on every cathedral and other major building he plans to visit, and enjoys them all the more for having done that.

Some people combine travel and taking courses. Naturally, if you have the time and the money, you can simply arrange with a far-away educational institution to attend classes there for a single term or longer. More feasible for many people over age 60 are the short courses and low-cost accommodations offered through Elderhostel.4 There are Elderhostel programs all over North America and in a few other places in the world. The quality of accommodations, food, and courses varies from situation to situation, and is somewhat difficult to assess from a distance, but hey, a bit of risk is part of the adventure, isn’t it?


2. Margaret Mead, BLACKBERRY WINTER: My Earlier Years, New York: William Morrow & Company, 1972. (Brief quotations from BLACKBERRY WINTER, by Margaret Mead. Text: Copyright © 1972 by Margaret Mead. By permission of William Morrow & Company, Inc..)

3. Information on the DIAL (Distance Instruction for Adult Learners) system can be obtained from The New School, 66 West 12th Street, New York, NY 10011 USA.

4. Elderhostel, 75 Federal Street, Boston, MA 02110, USA. 

Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:

About what subject(s) have you been a “curious, excited, self-directed” learner?

Topic: “Some Things I Have Learned on My Own”

Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions? Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others? If so, just enter it in the box below and it will soon be turned into a posted comment.

(For other wisdom-related resources, visit THE WISDOM PAGE at www.wisdompage.com.)

Lesson text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom.

2 Responses to “Lesson 2 — Being a Learner”

  1. mercerd Says:

    interesting material, where such topics do you find? I will often go

  2. emmanuel Says:

    it is a nice piece of writing, i have always made a habit of learning something new everyday , so am glad i found this site, check out my blog on adding value to your life

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