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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Where Do We Go From Here?

Today, I had a very good discussion with my students about lifelong learning.  We tried to define it considering all of the variables present in our lives, all the way from the requirements of the college curriculum to modern life and how technology is changing the way we think and act.  Really, what is "lifelong learning?"  I suppose we could just categorize it as another educational catch phrase: "Critical Thinking," "Reading Across the Curriculum," "Writing Across the Curriculum," "21st Century Education," "Lifelong learning."  It seems to fit nicely with the others, no?  "What a pity," commented one of my students, "that we have strayed so far from the good life."  Now, imagine every one's surprise when this seemingly "invisible" student opened his mouth for the first time in the semester.  Most people in the class didn't even know who he was--painfully shy, I'd judged.  The Good Life.  He went on to explain what it meant, reciting in order the virtues needed to attain that state of being.  I agreed with the student wholeheartedly.  The most of the class, however, did not.  I didn't want to prod any further because I didn't want to put him on the spot, especially being the first time in over nine weeks that he has actually participated in class.  Yet, he wanted to tell us... he wanted everyone to hear.  His grandfather, he said, had taught him about what the good life really is.  His grandfather, he continued, was an uneducated man.  He came to the United States from Poland in the early 1970s, got a job at a Ford plant, and sat comfortably to appreciate and enjoy his good life.  So, is that it?  Is this idyllic idea of the American dream the good life?  Not so fast.  What this student's grandfather had done was read, and read and read.  He read just about every major idea in the Canon of Western Civilization.  At work he was an automaton, my student recalled, at home, however, he was a mind dynamo! 

A couple of years ago, the grandfather passed and bequeathed his library to his grandson.  My student explained how every single book, without exception, was underlined and noted in the margins.  He talked about the great care his grandfather took with his books.  As a child, my student recollected, he had stared at the floor to ceiling bookshelves and wondered what his grandfather's library meant.  Were those books about the car making industry?  Were they manuals as to operate machines at the plant?  No.  With the exception of Mark Twain's Collected Works there wasn't a single other book of fiction.  The rest of the library included "The Harvard Classics" collection, Will Durant's "The Story of Civilization," Herodotus, Plato, and Thucydides.  When my student received his inheritance, he didn't know where to begin.  Time passed, he explain, and he had no interest in the books which had remained in the boxes for years since.  Nevertheless, the day he decided to open the first box, he opened the first volume of the Harvard Classics, he discovered a letter from his grandfather.  It was a road map, his grandfather wrote in the letter, to a life of learning.  He begged his grandson to not take life for granted and to go and pursue the life of the mind.  I began to think of this story as a badly written moral story, and even felt an obligation to bring the class back to focus: What is the Good Life?

As my student finished his story, he defined living the Good Life as fulfilling the potential we all have to live rightly--that it was easy to live, but that it was difficult to live rightly.  No one reads those books nowadays, he continued.  While I agreed partly with him about today's reading preferences, I asked him to explain what living rightly was, at least, in his grandfather's opinion.  He explained that his grandfather had devised his own education--that somewhere along his seemingly simple life, his grandfather had determined that he wanted to live rightly.  No one knows how to live rightly from the air, his grandfather had written in the letter, knowledge must come from somewhere... and this is what these books are.  This is your road map.

Of course, the class continued its normal course of discussion and moving on, but I am absolutely at a loss on how to approach my "silent no more" student the next time class meets.  He had defined for the entire class the meaning of a fulfilling life, away from technology, away from second (or even third) rate philosophies--even beyond the religious.  Today, we all learned from grandpa: keep it simply and stick to the basics (in this case, the Classics); no discussion of the Good Life could be productive without them.

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