What did you Learn Today?


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.

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3 thoughts on “What did you Learn Today?

  1. Which Torquemada is referenced?

    Juan de Torquemada (cardinal) (1388–1468), Spanish cardinal and ecclesiastical writer
    Tomás de Torquemada (1420–1498), prominent leader of the Spanish Inquisition
    Antonio de Torquemada (c.1507-1569), Spanish writer
    Fray Juan de Torquemada (c. 1562–1624), Spanish friar, missionary and historian of the New World
    Edward Powys Mathers (1892–1939), (pseudonym Torquemada), British crossword setter

    I assume Tomas de Torquemada is the Torquemada referenced. Yet the others have historical significance, if Wikipedia is correct. In the spirit that wisdom begins when one confesses his/her ignorance, I asked the question above.

    In my ignorance I have also learned about 4 other men, if the one referenced above is among them. Thank you and Mr. Godin for this improvement on my knowledge.

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  2. Why is it that many adults give up on learning after they graduate?

    I will suggest people are busy with their jobs, raising families, tending to life’s daily requirements (groceries, gas, laundry, etc.), and engage in a myriad of other things that may range from their children’s sports or social activities, their hobbies, or watching TV to relax or relieve personal stress.

    (People like myself may miss, there are ongoing learning experiences taking placw, within most of these. I am a reader; with the addiction that others should read and learn more. This may be a personal quirk or flaw, which I hope to address here.)

    But when was the last time you learned something brand new to you in a field that has nothing to do with your job?

    The average person is practical. The person asks, “How will learning something brand new outside my job and field benefit me?” “Will it earn me money?” “What is my reward for learning?” “Why should I waste my time on this?” The average person needs concrete justification for doing something, because they value their time, especially their free time. They may even rightly argue they learn a wide variety of new things from daily life requirements.

    How can we teach children to read and learn for fun if we never model the behavior ourselves?

    This question is partly false. Most people read what interests them. Children / students find required reading, for various valid reasons, though not student friendly. I recall in Junior High School I loved baseball biographies, only to find myself forced to finally read and do a book report on a non-biography, while the teacher has to almost force the rest of the class to read one required biography and book report that year. I was read to as a child and had lots of non-sports books to read through graduation. I can attest to modeling a behavior, but I can attest family and relatives, who by nature are non-readers or highly specialized readers. Modeling does not work for many people. Many, many people have non-literary learning skills / intelligence, which readers and employers choose to ignore. Not sure if this falls under non-verbal learning category or not; you will know.

    When did learning and getting smarter start to be a bad thing?

    Good, but tough question. Today’s world may be a more visual learning world than ever before; more interactive also. Kids don’t read, yet have Facebook pages, Instant Messages, Twitter, with more to come, I’m not sure. Music may even be more interactive today than we realize. So, it may be that learning and getting smarter is a bad thing, because of the lack of relevance with which it is presented; lack of interactivity. Just as kids in my youth had to be forced to read biographies and hated to do book reports, why shouldn’t kids and a new generation of adults reject the lack of visual and interactive nature of reading and learning of today? When my nephew rejects reading and says he would rather see the movie version, I can explain all the movie will leave out that is included in the book, but how will the book engage his visual and interactive life he is living? Am I not going against the nature of the world he and others are living in today. Have we not indoctrinated kids with video games and other devices that things should be fun, interactive, visual, and learnable in finite chunks.

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