The many joys of learning to learn

As teachers, our chief occupation should be teaching students to how learn.

Graphic by Joshua Awolade
Graphic by Joshua Awolade

Liberal learning has been the center of my professional life for many years, but by no stretch of the imagination does this mean that I am learned. In the end, the typical learner will likely confess to knowing very little.

The inveterate learner is more concerned with seeing and loving the reality before them than in possessing a vast store of knowledge. Whereas training can often wither, the ability to learn can sustain us as we age, support us in times of illness and keep us steady during times of persecution or disgrace.

To learn is to take an aspect of the world into one’s mind, gaze at it with wonder and manipulate it with curiosity and delight, finding in such contemplation new paths to undiscovered territories. This act of learning is potentially available to every person and is characteristic of the human species. But some people never do learn to learn. They acquire information, large data sets and intimate knowledge of a system and its complex processes — they can even recombine information to fit new situations and solve new problems. Yet some of these competent individuals may have been denied the joy of learning and may never have felt its utterly transforming power.

Among individuals who have not had much formal education, there yet exists a wisdom that comes from a rather faithful attention to the cycles of nature, the rhythms of life, attention to the multi-faceted nature of objects, the plasticity of our earth; they attend to the necessities of living and dying. In sum, in their wisdom they present a personal image of harmony, humility and hardiness.In the midst of social upheaval, there are very few of us who maintain the order of our existence without bureaucratic interference or the constant interference of social media forming the contours of our lives. And those in charge of such systems may be people who have had neither the formation of character nor the transforming experience of liberal learning.

Yes, they have acquired the ability to reason to a logical conclusion and from the available facts go on to make certain assumptions. But it is an error to consider such professions of thought liberal learning.

Learning implies a move to a higher stage of understanding, a move into a new relationship with our world. It involves distancing oneself from the personal and at the same time, moving toward a union with the thing through which learning occurs. Learning implies nothing less than expanding our cosmic consciousness, even if that consciousness is partial. It is not that one learns something but that one is changed through the joy of learning, changed by the ecstasy of discovery. The joy of learning is seeing form in amorphous matter and incorporating it into one’s heart. It is seeing the corporeal informed by the spiritual, the darkness informed by the light; it is seeing evil informed by good.

Some years ago a student knocked on my office door and when I opened it, he said that he needed to see me immediately. Thinking there may be a crisis brewing, I invited him in. He told me, with tears in his eyes, that he had been working in the library on a paper and said, “I found myself really thinking — really learning.”

His experience was so moving, so full of joy, that he had to share the feeling immediately. For this student, such was the ecstasy of discovery, the shivering joy of learning. In liberal learning we sense of the marvellous transforming power of poetry, art, music, and encourage those who follow those aesthetic paths. There is a transcendent quality to the study of Vincent van Gogh, Jane Austen and Aleksandr Scriabin. Those of us who read literally or listen for the complex harmonic structure in the song or respond to the aesthetics of colour, those who follow without discerning the inner meaning, had better turn back. For poetry, music and fine art taken in such a manner can dangerously mislead.

Only those few who have learned how to learn, to take art as leading to the inner meanings, to take music as refreshing the soul, to allow poetry to tug us beyond our familiar terrains, can entrust themselves to the turbulent waters of wisdom without fear. Through liberal learning we walk hand-in-hand and follow those many paths with heart, occasionally scolding stupidity and cowardice but always praising those tentative motions to embrace the truth. Together, we make the same spiritual journeys as Dante, Rene Magritte and Virginia Woolf, and we gaze upon those same splendid ramparts.

The student of literature, if he or she is diligent and perseveres (and has excellent teachers), can apprehend the human dilemma with the same understanding of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In philosophy, the learner can follow with guidance, peripatetic Socrates and share his insights. In music, the serious student can come to a new understanding, a new meaning, when sharing the fine interpretations of a piano literature as performed by Dame Myra Hess or Glenn Gould. Liberal learning critically depends on mentors, formal or informal teachers who then are capable of addressing the many ills, ravaging not only our educational institutions but wider society. For learning is the very reason for their existence.

As teachers, our chief occupation should be teaching students how to learn. But teachers themselves need to be transformed and to have found for themselves the ecstasy in the intellectual life. And the whole process of discovering it is joyous.




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