ARTS & CULTURE | The Lifelong Learner

Photo: ddluong @ flickr

By Ciel Patenaude —

Along with the turning leaves and cooler days, September is synonymous with schooling for millions of children in the northern hemisphere. With that feeling we can all likely remember – a confusing combination of anticipation, excitement and dread – kids will be back in the classrooms this month, getting ready for learning to take place over the next ten months.

The practice of ‘going to school’ has been part of our global culture in some form for millennia, though the specific act of attending a daily, regimented, and publicly administered program of learning is relatively new. Only since the Industrial Revolution a couple hundred years ago have all children been required to attend school. Prior to structured learning in classrooms, education took place within more common environments: within apprenticeships, in the home, or (sadly, in the common practice of child labour) in the workplace. Structured education was developed to provide a level of standard in learning, and, according to optimists of the time, to equalize the opportunities and life experience of the underprivileged.

And our school systems have done wonderful things. Literacy and comprehension in today’s society certainly far surpass that of 19th century England, and schools have become central hubs within our culture, especially for our children and young adults. However, more recent exploration into ‘learning styles’ – in that all people cannot and do not learn in the same manner – and the reality of our biology in terms of neurological development – we no longer believe, as society did way back when, that learning is only something that occurs in childhood – school systems and practices are being questioned and adapted worldwide. It is no longer considered adequate for education to occur in daily, regimented, tested, and time-bound practices for children, and is no longer considered adequate that adults, too, often see their education as being ‘completed’ upon graduation of high school or post-secondary. Our society is evolving based on greater understanding of what the human mind and body need throughout life, and our schools are doing the same.

Neuroplasticity suggests that you kinda’ don’t have to get ‘old’ in the brain or stuck in your self-definition if you don’t want to….”

One of the most humanity-altering scientific discoveries of the 21st century has been that of neuroplasticity, the awareness that the human brain changes shape and neuronal connectivity throughout life in response to changes in behaviour, thought, experience, environment, and emotions.

Contrary to the previously long-held belief that brains are relatively static organs that don’t change significantly after childhood, the discovery of neuroplasticity has shifted everything. We now view the personal and psychological development of a human being as an on-going process (or at least we’re starting to), thus effectively handing over far more of the reins to the owner of each unique brain throughout life, and shifting our ideas of aging, personality, and education away from determinism and pathology and into possibility.

Basically, neuroplasticity suggests that you kinda’ don’t have to get ‘old’ in the brain or stuck in your self-definition if you don’t want to: all you have to do is keep learning.

However, we still have some archaic ideas about learning and life lingering in our collective psyche. We still believe, in many ways, that the big learning that is going to happen in an individual’s lifetime happens in childhood, and that at some point that learning is completed (graduation!) and we take our accumulated wisdom out into the world and start making something of ourselves. We get a job, have a family, save for our pension… and basically stay the same person the whole time. This is the way our societies have worked for many generations, and is not likely something we’ll release quickly.

We still cling to early psychological models of personal development that say a person’s way of being is solidified at a particular age in life. The psychologist William James, for example, famously stated in 1890, “in most of us, by the age of 30, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.” This belief is supported by empirical data – most people do not change after 30, and can be assumed to be roughly the same person at 80 in terms of character and values – but not by biology. We are built for change and growth, but we’re often doing neither, because we’ve been conditioned from childhood to believe that ‘education’ is limited to the confines of school.

All the same, the idea of being ‘lifelong learners’ is here, and educational centers, employers, and societies are adjusting to accommodate the idea of adults being just as much in need of stimulation as children, and just as open to understanding new ideas.

Longitudinal studies on what happens to individuals when they engage in learning as adults have offered amazing results: higher employability, greater overall health, better relationships, and, according to author John Field, “a positive outlook on the future and a sense of one’s ability to take charge of one’s life” are the consistent outcomes when learning happens outside of conventional educational centers. This is learning through reading, coursework, Internet exploration, and personal reflection, and thus learning that is available to all of us so long as we summon the openness to say that who we are today isn’t necessarily who we are going to be tomorrow: that we are capable of growth and truly made to be learners for the whole time we’re here.

Learning keeps us young, open, more compassionate, and more aware of the world around us, not to mention more confident and increasingly fearless, and better able to navigate the chaos that is a given in this earthly life. We become resilient and paradoxically more solid in ourselves yet also more open with every moment we seek to explore and not know.

And so a challenge for you today, and for us all: be a learner. See what it does for your life experience. Read a book, investigate a seminar, explore something you’ve been curious about. Do something today (and everyday) that will keep both your brain and your heart young, and see how your life changes. Allow yourself to live the reality that is your neurological inheritance: that you can choose how your brain chooses to function by changing your behaviour, and that this continues so long as you continue to engage with it. You have so much more influence than you have been led to believe, and can choose a life of curiosity no matter what your history.

 

In closing, a beautiful excerpt from author T.H.White for all us learners:

 

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

 

Onwards…

 

Ciel Patenaude is an integrative health and shamanic practitioner based in Williams Lake, BC. A highly trained and naturally gifted intuitive healer, Ciel holds a BSc in Biology, an MA in Integrative Healing, and is a certified yoga teacher and wellness coach. 

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