A recent post on my daughter's blog got me to thinking about our family's tendency to teach ourselves what we need or want to know.
We're a curious bunch. Our home has always been cluttered with books and magazines. My parents had a set of World Book encyclopedias when I was a kid, and Jim and I bought a set of Encyclopedia Britannica for our kids. The Internet has made such things unnecessary: a little Googling or a visit to Wikipedia yields quick answers to most questions. But I remember hours spent just browsing the encyclopedia, even the dictionary, for the sheer fun of learning something new and, sometimes, unusual. When our kids were growing up, the library was nearby and we paid regular visits. Questions were often met with the exhortation "Look it up."
Our daughter once returned from a friend's house and said, in a horrified tone, "They have only two books--a dictionary and a rhyming dictionary!" She couldn't get over this. I know how she felt--I once gave my students an assignment involving newspapers and/or magazines and was told by more than one student, "But we don't get any newspapers or magazines at our house!" I suspect that ignorance of what's going on in the world is pretty widespread in America, which would partially account for the sorry state of our (former) republic.
Curiosity is a normal human trait, but public schooling seems designed to all but erase it. Of course I'm aware that poverty and the need to put all energies into survival can equally drive away curiosity, but for most Americans, I think institutionalized education has to bear much of the blame for the death of curiosity. Analysis and critical thought, deep exploration of a topic, following a tangential but interesting by-way--all these things are sacrificed in Teaching to the Test. But even before the emphasis on standardized testing, the lockstep approach was firmly entrenched and individual pursuits discouraged.
In our family, though, self-teaching was, and is, a natural behavior. When school became too oppressive and ineffective for my son, it wasn't that much of a challenge to home-school him through his final year of school, because there was nothing odd about discovering things on his own anyway. When I was a grad student at the University of Michigan, I had to pass two language exams to continue in the PhD program, one a basic proficiency test and the other an advanced proficiency test. I'd taken German as an undergrad, but that was the only foreign language I'd learned. So over the summer I taught myself French, enough to pass the basic proficiency test. My son taught himself chemistry in order to take the college science classes he wanted. My daughter has been educating herself in economics and alternative medicine. As for my husband, his job is a daily educational experience: as a research scientist, he is constantly learning and applying what he learns in creative ways. Back in college, he taught himself trigonometry in order to take a physics class.
And me? Most of my learning these days is quite practical. I've taught myself a lot about the food supply in the US, about nutrition, baking bread, getting away from processed foods, growing vegetables, preserving what we harvest, and locating and buying locally grown organic beans and grains, grass-fed beef and free-range chickens. (The Internet is a great help in all of this, needless to say.) I've also learned about Peak Oil and climate change, and I continue to absorb more on these issues that will have a profound impact on all of us.
I expect to be curious and to keep learning until I die or suffer dementia. What I cannot understand is why all human beings able to live beyond the subsistence level don't share this drive to learn. Perhaps it's because learning something new can threaten one's world view, one's comfortable, automatic way of being in and seeing the world. Perhaps it's because some of what is learned is not pretty and causes us discomfort or downright pain. Or, learning some new thing might cause a whole edifice of previously held belief to collapse, or at least lead to questioning what was once unassailable. And maybe most people think of school when they think of learning, and school wasn't any fun at all.
But learning definitely is fun. And satisfying. We humans are born to learn. All little kids ask "Why?" to the point it can drive a parent crazy. They have boundless curiosity, and that's to be encouraged. It's worse than unfortunate that our current public school system is designed to exterminate that natural curiosity. The effects can be seen everywhere, from the mindless garbage on our television sets to the dim bulbs who sit in Congress. We human beings, with our big brains, settle for so little, feeling empty but not understanding why, not recognizing our relationship to the natural world, not exploiting our own inborn capacities, not challenging ourselves, not opening ourselves up to the great questions and uncertainties. We deserve better, and we should demand it. But we can't do that if we turn our backs on learning itself and ignore our own natural curiosity. We have to have some appreciation of our own inherent abilities and potential in order to recognize that we're given the most pitiful of scraps, fooled into believing that Things, more and more Things, will satisfy us. And most Americans don't seem to understand how they've been conned.