What’s wrong with lifelong learning?

A tale of two grannies

We like to talk about lifelong learning, and a lot of what we say — aspirational though it may be — leaves out the important part, which also happens to be the hard part. My two grannies illustrate this tendency: They were both “lifelong learners,” but what their love of learning actually involved tells the story of the missing piece.

Let’s start with my German granny, a staunch proponent of education in a farming family that didn’t have much formal education beyond high school. My great-grandfather had left a career to become a Lutheran pastor, and a central part of that life-changing decision was going to seminary. The traces of his decision lived on in my (German) family as valuing and encouraging educational attainment. But in spite of this pro-education mindset, “an education” was largely equivalent to “a credential” — like my great grandfather’s ordination after seminary. In that mindset, then, “getting an education” was more a platform for a livelihood than the foundation of lifelong learning, which, in any case, should take the form of reading the Bible.

I’m speaking both concretely and metaphorically here. If you’re a pastor, then, odd as it may sound to say it this way, reading the Bible is your continuing education. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m a big believer in continuing education, especially when it comes to my own physicians, lawyers, tax accountants, and others whose expertise help me navigate life. As it happens, I’m also a fan of reading any great book again and again throughout one’s life. I myself have read Plato’s Republic countless times, and my friends all know that I read Aristotle’s corpus on a never-ending loop. But as beneficial as keeping abreast of the current practice of your profession, as enriching as repeated, intimate engagement with a great book can be, these are hardly what we promote as the goal of lifelong learning. Which prompts us to ask: What is the point of lifelong learning? Will any learning fit the bill — like the beneficial but ultimately utilitarian learning involved in continuing ed — or do we mean something more? And if we do mean something more than “utilitarian,” then what? Re-reading the same book on a loop?

Maybe I’ve stacked the deck a bit by inserting “great” in the term “great book.” If so, then I’m taking a negative cue from my other granny. My American granny had, at most a fifth grade-education in a country school in rural Texas, but through an odd confluence of events, she became a voracious reader. My most cherished memories of her involve images of surfaces in her house continuously littered with open books, magazines, periodicals, encyclopedias. She readily shared what she was currently discovering, and she was always discovering something.

This image sounds exactly like what we imagine when we preach lifelong learning, until you zoom in: While my German granny saw little point in reading any other source than one Authority for the rest of your natural life, my American granny read literally anything, and saw no reason to assign greater weight to one source than another. Her complete agnosticism about scholarship produced the unranked mix of encyclopedias, library books, and the latest, most “sensational” tabloids on her tables, chairs, and counters. She read National Enquirer with the same intellectual exhilaration as Popular Mechanics — and shared, with uncritical enthusiasm, a tossed salad of her discoveries to anyone willing to listen. As a bonus, you often got a homily about the salutary effect of “reading.”

And so my early intellectual development involved careening between re-reading one ultimately practical Authority and promiscuous embrace of anything in print — both of which involve devotion to a certain kind of learning.

Neither of these models, let’s call them, are what we mean by “life-long learning.” Or, to pull back the curtain, neither should be what we mean — and what we do mean by lifelong learning has profound implications for how we think about teaching. I propose that what we mean (should mean) is lifelong intellectually grounded but open-ended learning.

Aristotle held the view that a sign of an educated mind is the acquisition of enough knowledge across the range of disciplines to see connections and dependencies among fields of learning. That’s a good starting point for “open-ended.” Yes, we can debate whether a single mind can really master multiple disciplines, and we can debate the more subtle philosophical question of whether all the disciplines ultimately hang together — but such debate misses the point entirely: I don’t have to be an archaeologist to have a deep (intellectual) appreciation of what we have learned from actual archaeologists. It’s a matter of what we mean by learning. Do we mean acquiring expertise in the methods and materials of a discipline, or do we mean familiarity with the grounded conclusions and controversies that issue from a discipline?

The answer is yes: To the expert who trains would-be experts, learning is progress toward mastery of the discipline. But to the generously educated mind, learning is becoming familiar with what a discipline is and does. No one need be confused: We can almost always tell the expert from the appreciative amateur of a discipline. (And in the rare cases in which we can’t, it’s generally an indictment of the discipline.)

Nevertheless, what these modes of learning share is the deep connection between the conclusions and controversies of a discipline and that discipline’s methodology, and this insight is our clue about “intellectually grounded” learning. I argue that it’s very difficult and therefore unlikely for someone to have a sufficient appreciation for this connection between methodology and knowledge without a direct experience of method in the act of producing knowledge. In other words, an educated person’s appreciation of methodology comes from deep engagement not in every discipline or even a smattering, but in a specific discipline. A description of how a gasoline engine works is worlds away from a hundred hours spent training as a mechanic in an actual garage. And this is why in our actual classrooms we study actual materials from a discipline, rather than a series of Wikipedia articles. (Well, in intellectually responsible classrooms, anyway.)

We’re now in a position to see what’s missing in my grannies’ opposing notions of lifelong learning, admirable though aspects of their love of learning may be. My German granny’s commitment to depth (and perhaps utilitarian practicality) leaves little room for the rest of human experience to make an appearance. My American granny’s acceptance of literally anything in print is certainly open-ended, but lacks the critical insight that all knowledge is fundamentally methodological. I loved both of them dearly, and there’s a sense in which my childhood inability to reconcile their modes of lifelong learning made me the philosopher I am today. Whether that’s good or bad is another story, but for the discussion at hand, it remains for us to ask: How then should we teach?

Mastery of a method implies awareness that there’s a method at work in “doing” the discipline in the first place. In other words, mastery always involves reflexive awareness, and the skills and habits of mind that sustain this reflexivity are for that very reason our best chance at fostering lifelong, grounded, open-ended learning. This, incidentally, is why the the old ideal of ars liberalis is as much about cultivating intellectual character as about the knowledge of various disciplines: Intellectual character and disciplinarity are entangled, and the mysterious force that binds them together, no matter the distance between them, is method.

One of the best places in academia to learn this reflexive kind of awareness is the Humanities. Why? While every discipline, I would argue, involves reflexive awareness of method to some degree, the “meta-method” of the humanities is the acquisition of precisely this reflexive awareness itself. This is why so many community, government, and business leaders keep telling educational leaders that they like hiring humanities students. In the humanities, to an arguably greater degree than other disciplines, the activity and legitimacy of doing humanities becomes an object of critical inquiry, and this reflexive critique translates into all sorts of sensitivities — to culture, to languages, to identities, and to interpretive frameworks, to name a few.

This is also why I often repeat that, when it comes to equipping people to live engaged, fulfilled lives in a genuinely pluralistic society, a close reading of Melville is preferable to a PHP certification. It’s not that the certification has no value — though personally, I think the world would be a better place with more Python certifications. Rather, it’s that the value of a PHP certificate is operative at a different level than what we ought to mean by “lifelong learning.”

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