Vignettes on Learning

From our present day tribulations – pandemic, climate change and the populism that has made both worse, along with creating a more unstable world – an underling theme emerges. In a word – education. Lack of education or deliberate blocks to education have played a role in creating these problems.

By education, I don’t mean only formal education, but also informal, those things that are systematically self-taught. At its most basic education is about the practice of learning in order to acquire knowledge and develop critical thinking skills. As conspiracy theories and bizarre twists of logic accumulate, knowledge and critical thinking appear to be in short supply.

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A friend asked me, ‘How was it going as a councillor?’ Like a lot of people, she was surprised that I even ran for the District Council. People see me as more of a political activist than a politician, more literature and language than government. I answered, ‘It’s okay. I’m learning things and I enjoy that.’

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Tara Westover’s brilliant autobiography Educated shows the power of learning and education. Growing up in a survivalist Mormon family in Idaho, Westover was home schooled in a limited way, a casual use of old textbooks and outside reading restricted to the Bible and the Book of Mormon.  She discovered that she had some musical talent and enjoyed performing in the local amateur drama group but knew that she wouldn’t be able to do anything with this talent without going to a college or university. One of her older brothers, a traitor to the family, had taught himself using SAT preparatory books and eventually ended up with a score sufficient enough for university. Tara followed suit, informally educating herself to pass the exam and start her formal education at Brigham Young University.

While this speaks to the power of informal education, it was formal education that proved to be life-changing. It not only exposed Westover to different ways of thinking outside of her family’s strict conservativism, oppression of women and paranoia about all government institutions, it also made her think differently at an emotional level. She realised that her dominating father was probably bipolar and that the physical and verbal abuse she had suffered at the hands of family members was wrong and reflected their sicknesses.  Being aware of her own learning, she describes reaching these insights: ‘I had begun to understand that we [she and her siblings] had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize others—because nurturing that discourse was easier, because retaining power always feels like the way forward.’ 

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When I was in my twenties, I read Indries Shah’s Learning How to Learn. This primer of Sufism explores learning as a way of developing psychological well-being, an openness to the education of life.  He also flipped this idea on its head to show that there is a reciprocal relationship here – psychological well-being, to which I add emotional intelligence, enables us to learn.

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During the first Covid lockdown, I decided to enrol in a MOOC (massive open online course) in a field outside of the humanities disciplines that have shaped my professional life. The course was about bees and the environment. And if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, I did it in French. I soon discovered that the words I didn’t know in French were nearly the same in English, such as apidae and anemogame. My next MOOC was called Les Racines des Mots Scientifiques – in French, where I learned mostly Greek.