Learning to Learn

Learning to Learn
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write,
but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Alvin Toffler

My father’s ambition when he was graduated from Perth Amboy High School was to be an attorney, but it was the time of the Great Depression and he entered the workplace instead, as a laborer.

He could:

  • Drive a truck
  • Hang wallpaper
  • Paint a house
  • Repair cars
  • Build furniture
  • Sew slipcovers for sofas and chairs, and curtains for windows
  • Build a doghouse
  • Put up a fence
  • Work as an ironworker in constructing whole buildings
  • Pass Civil Service exams to become a cop and then a sergeant
  • Tend bar

When he had his heart attack, he was at work as a taxi dispatcher. 

They used to call guys like him a “Jack of All Trades.” Today we call it lifelong learning.

The annual report on mortality rates by the National Center for Health Statistics, released this week, confirmed that in 2012 life expectancy for older Americans continued to climb. People who reach 65 have an average 19.3 more years ahead of them -- an all-time high.

What are we going to do with all this newfound time? If you’re a lifelong learner – plenty, because you understand that learning is not a place, but a process whose endpoint has been extended.

Learning as we used to understand it occurs in institutions designed to deliver education. The informal learning that is lifelong is most often pursued outside the walls of learning institutions.

A lot has been written about the benefits of lifelong learning: personal development, employment and earnings, economics, sense of wellbeing – even as a defense against dementia. Governments are promoting lifelong learning as a way to nurture competitiveness, innovation and growth. Some governments see lifelong learning as contributing to social cohesion.

But what about the value of a life? Does lifelong learning heighten the value of our lives?

In 2008, Time magazine reported that a human life was worth $189,000. In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency set the value of human life at $9.1 million. The same year, the Food and Drug Administration put it at $7.9 million. Each of these reports crunched various numbers to come up with their assessments.

My father was deft at adding value to his life by using his hands to shape the physical environment around him. Lacking his aptitude, I’ve brought value to my life through my writing. I’ve tried to add to its value through continued learning. In recent years, for example, I’ve learned to swim and to snorkel, to sail, to operate a well-regarded bed-and-breakfast. I’ve taught myself to cook well enough to serve paying guests. I’m wrestling with Rosetta Stone to learn Italian. And I’m in the process of publishing six books.

Mary Ann Evans – the acclaimed English novelist of the Victorian era who wrote under the pen name George Eliot – said it well: "It's never too late to be what you might have been."


In my next blog, “The Yuck Factor”


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  • published this page in Blog 2014-10-27 12:17:11 -0400