When was the last time someone asked you that? I’m betting that it was around the sixth grade, at the dinner table. While you were in school, you should have had a good answer to that question every day. Why is it that many adults give up on learning after they graduate?
Oh, we don’t give up entirely, of course. Some of us have to keep up with our professions: healthcare regulations, the new tax code, programming languages. But when was the last time you learned something brand new to you in a field that has nothing to do with your job?
Seth Godin has just published a 30,000 word manifesto on education. It’s a free e-book that you can access here. It should be required reading for everyone. In it, he writes, “We invest thousands of hours exposing millions of students to fiction and literature, but end up training most of them to never again read for fun (one study found that 58 percent of all Americans never read for pleasure after they graduate from school). As soon as we associate reading a book with taking a test, we’ve missed the point.” How can we teach children to read and learn for fun if we never model the behavior ourselves?
When did learning and getting smarter start to be a bad thing? Seth Godin again: “A kid in love with dinosaurs or baseball or earth science is going to learn it on her own. She’s going to push hard for ever more information, and better still, master the thinking behind it… If culture is sufficient to establish what we eat and how we speak and ten thousand other societal norms, why isn’t it able to teach us goal setting and passion and curiosity and the ability to persuade?” Godin thinks it can.
Here’s how we can start. We can start by reading more often, and reading more challenging material. There are millions of articles, books and blogs on the internet that address any topic you might want to tackle. You can choose to start with the things that really do interest you: how to grow an organic garden, how to repair your car, or learning the history of your city. There are two homework assignments: think seriously about the topic, and then share what you think with others. Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with saying, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” Why not elevate the discussion around your dinner table to discuss ideas?
My friend Bryan is always pushing me to read books he thinks are good for me. He thinks I read plenty, but I don’t choose topics that I’m naturally interested in. “For every book you want to read,” he says, “You should always choose a book you might never have picked on your own, but that covers an important topic.” Over the years, he’s loaned me books on theology, global warming, and the Plague. Yes, that one. With the rats. For my part, I’ve loaned him important 19th century literature that he’s never gotten around to reading. He’s been a good sport.
Seth Godin says that school has been a terrible blow to learning over the years. (Quoting an unnamed teacher) “’If we spend more time training inquisitive humans, we’ll have to give up on the basics, and that will mean nothing but uneducated dolts who don’t even know who Torquemada was.’ I’m worried too. But one thing is clear: the uneducated already don’t know who Torquemada was. The uneducated have already dumbed everything down to sound bites and YouTube clips.”
At the very least, I hope that you will work on learning how to write better and speak better. As a writer, I’m biased of course, but I agree with what Godin says about writing: “We’re all going down the drain. Too much profanity, no verb conjugation, incomplete thoughts, and poor analysis, everywhere you look, even among people running for President. Writing is organized, permanent talking, it is the brave way to express an idea. Talk comes with evasion and deniability and vagueness. Writing, though, leaves no room to wriggle.”
Godin challenges us to read 50 books a year. They don’t all have to be big and scholarly, but they should be well-written and teach you something new. Even 50 articles online about something new and challenging would be a great start. Let’s change the conversation at the dinner table, starting tonight.