Lifelong Learning

by Sidney S. Stark

The phrase came into focus for me at my first college graduation. That matriculation was a two year foray to acquire an associate’s degree. In 1963 two years seemed like more than enough of a commitment as I was burned out from my academically competitive high school years. The reduced timeframe also fit in comfortably with my plans to get married at the end of it. Other degrees and educational experiences eventually followed, but it was on that first sunny June graduation day that I appreciated fully the challenge of lifelong learning.

Sitting with the sun on my face as I listened to our Dean of Students give his commencement speech, I realized I was in both a place to look back and forward at the same moment. That was a disconcerting thought for a nineteen year old. I drifted in and out of Dean Carter’s rhetoric like a swimmer simultaneously enjoying the water in a stream and the sun on its banks. Each time I left the flow I thought about the past two unexpected years in college. How could I have known they’d be such wonderful years when it all started? I’d never had a positive sustained educational experience in my life before. But there was no denying they’d ignited the spark of scholarship in me and fanned it into full flame. I’d felt the whole time just as I did that graduation day as if the warmth and light were fully on and in me, and I understood how exciting the acquisition of knowledge could be.

Slipping back into the stream of Dean Carter’s speech I remember holding onto my thoughts for one more important moment before I was willing to let go and devote myself to his thoughts again. Taking in all of the graduating class peripherally as we prepared to move on to other lives, I realized with a laser-like insight that this was only the beginning for me. This place had set me on my feet and steadied me to make the world outside my classroom forever. And I was fully prepared to take on the challenge. I understood that I wasn’t just talking about the learning that comes from daily living either; I was eager to continue acquiring new skills in a formal setting, wherever that might be, for the rest of my life. ‘How wonderful it is to understand this,’ I said to myself just at the same moment that I heard Dean Carter say,

“Our mission here was not to educate you in some specific and finite way for the two years you were here, but to teach you the importance of lifelong learning and set your appetite for it forever. If we’ve done that,” he continued like an uncle revealing his special birthday gift to a favorite niece, “then we’ve accomplished the ultimate success. Fanning the flames of lifelong learning is what every true educator aspires to.”  His face glowed with the thought of the impact of his wondrous gift.

I knew he’d done it. In me at least, he’d accomplished his goal and I’d guessed what his bequest was before he’d even revealed it. Almost five decades later, I still thank him and his faculty often as I plunge headlong into a new experiment in learning. And today is no exception. Almost half a century of living and learning since my first college experience, I have come to perhaps the most interesting place I’ve ever been. Over the past two years of returning to my love of writing, I’ve finally discovered that the writing was not the goal in and of itself as I originally thought when I began my grandmother’s memoir. I wrote in both the prologue and epilogue about the sense of adventure, passion and self-discovery the writing had brought up in me and my appreciation for both the risks and rewards inherent in the journey. The trip back in my memories and forward in the learning of a new skill had been an exciting ride.

Simultaneously, I’ve been reading and studying a lot about the period of life I find myself in at the moment. It’s been called everything from a 2nd adulthood to The Third Chapter. The latter is the title of Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s book on the ‘passion, risk, and adventure in the 25 years after 50’. The more I study about this unprecedented and fascinating period in our lives, the more I hear the phrase ‘new learning’.  There are so many important things to understand about this opportunity, but the fact that learning something new is at the corner stone of the foundation to a successful transition is undeniable.

I hope my brief suggestion of possible reading material will spur your interest in researching this new life period presented us by our increased longevity if you haven’t already started. I suggest you don’t wait. It should be vital to everyone since we’ll all get to this place if we’re lucky and take good care of ourselves. But with all the authors, researchers and mentors I’ve had the fortune to connect with over the years, I think my earliest exposure to my first college experience still deserves the top teaching prize. The exhilaration from the energy generated by the light from within when new learning happens is addictive. The search itself becomes habitual and the optimism and hope it provides trumps all the paradoxical fear and uncertainty that’s bound to be a part of adopting new directions.

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot tells us that “successful aging requires…the willingness to take risks, experience vulnerability and uncertainty, learn from experimentation and failure…and develop new relationships of support and intimacy.” In short, it requires a passion for lifelong learning. I have it and I hope you do too.

Question @ you: Do you think some things need to be unlearned before new learning can take place?  Please share your thoughts with us.

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