August 10, 2010

Are You Still Learning?

Summertime is barely halfway through and already the stores are advertising sales for back to school supplies. When I was a kid we got the requisite new shoes in July, because that’s when the shoe store in our town put them on sale.

But pens and notebooks? Not until Labor Day weekend. Now it seems to take six weeks just to go from store to store comparing prices on folders. Yuck. What a way to spend the glorious days of summer.

Still, it does make me think. I’ve been wondering about the amount of time we spend as a culture consuming the education experience, as opposed to actually learning things. We seem to knock ourselves silly buying supplies and outfits, shopping for colleges, arranging loans, and decking out dorm rooms. But do we put as much effort into absorbing information as we do setting the stage?

More to the point, have we turned the learning experience into a consumable product, rather than a personal process of synthesizing knowledge? The answer matters on several levels. First, if we allocate learning to a formal (expensive) setting, we disallow a huge segment of the population from accessing it. Never mind about student loans for college or grants – not everyone has the time or the temperament for a classroom setting, even online.

Another reason the answer matters is a simple human tendency toward procrastination, and taking the easiest path. If learning is relegated to formal programs, most adults will find reasons to delay the process indefinitely. The concept of sifting through the course offerings, finding a way to pay, finding a way to fit the schedule, and actually showing up and doing the work can all be overwhelming.

What if we returned to an earlier era when people learned the things that mattered to them, with or without a classroom setting? Want to learn Spanish? You could take a class for that, but you could also find a tutor, volunteer in a Spanish nonprofit, buy some tapes or even just commit yourself to watching Spanish television. What about writing, or giving speeches, or building cabinets, or fixing bikes, or cooking Thai food? These are a few of the hundreds of skills you could learn on your own, with little or no cost or schedule hassles.

The ball’s in your court: Are you learning anything new these days? If not, why not? And when will you start?

Sign up for our newsletter!