Lifelong Learning

My family is in the midst of many graduations. My #2 granddaughter just earned a BA in elementary education and is excited to be in the classroom. In May, my oldest daughter will receive her MBA and her daughter will graduate from College of Charleston. In June, my oldest granddaughter will finish certification as a pharmacy technician and her youngest sister will graduate from Aiken Scholars Academy and head off to college. It seems like a good time to reflect on learning.

About 30 years ago, the provost at Clemson University where I was an economics professor  asked me to be the speaker for August graduation.  Eight minutes was the allotted time.  Lifelong learning, he suggested, would be a good topic.  That invitation was like throwing the academic rabbit into the briar patch.  I could do this.  Lifelong learning lies the core of being an academic and most other professions and skilled trades as well.

I started my inspirational message with a story about my daughter Carla. When she was 15, she was keen to get a driver’s license. She passed the written test and practiced on the road, passing the road test on the first try. But, the test-giver warned her, consider this a license to learn. Many bumps, dents, and close calls later, she was a pretty good driver.

I told the semi-attentive graduates in waiting, consider your diploma a license to learn.  You have demonstrated an ability to learn under the increasingly relaxed supervision of others as you progressed from kindergarten to college senior.  Now you take charge of your continuing education.  It is both a privilege and a responsibility to continue to let your body, mind, and spirit unfold and change with new experiences, challenges, and opportunities.

Yes, bodies.  Bodies learn to ride bicycles, dance, play instruments, adapt to physical limitations,  recognize symptoms and treat them, and grasp and respect one’s biorhythms and food sensitivities. Last summer, I had both kinds of body learning experiences while vacationing at the beach.  It had been a while since I last kayaked, but the rhythm quickly came back.  Learning to ride a three wheeled adult bike was much harder, because it meant abandoning the balancing habits of decades riding a regular bike. My body was unwilling to unlearn the habits needed to switch from two wheels to three.

The spirit learns to be present, to be mindful, to connect and relate and care and be cared for, to be at home in the universe. Sometimes spiritual learning is experiential, while at other times it relies on the guidance of a mentor or other companion along the path.   Mind learning takes familiar forms—workshops, lectures, continuing education, short courses, reading.

Body, mind, and spirit all learn from both formal instruction and direct  experience. My exercise class has helped me identify what muscles I am using and how to care for them, but I also learn by my own regular practice. Direct experience of mystery and wonder is supplemented by being part of a faith community that attunes me to the care of the spirit. My mind is always open to the stimulus of stimulus of travel, good conversation, and a good book.

As the years pass, you may find yourself becoming a teacher of some sort. Teaching is a good way to grow, because it requires us to become aware of what we have learned. I never felt a fully mastered a skill or a concept unless I could successfully teach it to others. Like learning, teaching takes place in many formats, not just in classrooms. Parents, youth leaders, coaches, and extended family members offer plenty of informal teaching of skills, values, and ideas.

Some things get harder to learn as we age. Technology is one. Foreign languages are another. But age also brings a certain amount of wisdom learned from decades of making mistakes, listening, observing, and processing. Sometimes we can share wisdom to help someone navigate obstacles in the wisdom process. Other times, we must let our friends and loved ones acquire wisdom from their own painful but growing learning experiences and be there to offer caring and comfort when it happens. Whatever learning challenges and teaching opportunities may lie before you, Yoda would say, may the force be with you.  May the journey be challenging enough to help you grow in wisdom but not so challenging that you give up in despair.  May  you find be joy in your lifelong search for truth and meaning.


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