Many months back the Connections ran a questionnaire asking readers to comment on the following prompt: “What does lifelong learning mean to you?” At first I thought, “Oh, I can bang out something clever in a jiffy.” Well, that jiffy turned into a day, then a week, then a missed deadline. I dropped a fishing line into my brain and caught nothing. I stirred that soup upstairs and no steam came out. I became immobilized in that dry desert called “Over Analysis Wasteland”. After the issue was published I finally put my finger on some of the reasons why “lifelong learning” was such a barren land for me.
Part of being stumped with “lifelong learning” was because I was looking at the question with a desired and expected answer. I wanted to be able to say “I want to accumulate facts and knowledge in abundance over the years.” I wanted the answer to that question to be something solid, and fortress-like. However, deep down I knew I couldn’t say anything conclusive or unambiguous about “lifelong learning”. Our memories are wiggly things. Very few of us are able to hold onto facts solidly over a lifetime. Facts become mushy and malleable over the years – just go to a family reunion with your cousins, aunts and uncles, and try to come to a mutual conclusion of why Grandma Loretta always wore a specific bracelet. You’ll get ten different perspectives. “Her birthstone was on that bracelet.” Countered by, “No, she always wore it because it was a gift from Grandpa when he retired.” And in opposition, “I always thought that bracelet reminded her of their trip to Australia.” The voice of youth and reason will chime in, “She just thought it was pretty.” Lifelong learning is not determining WHY Grandma wore that coveted bracelet, but that there will always be a multitude of perspectives that ebb and flow into one another about the fact that she always wore the bracelet.
That ebb and flow that sullies the facts is illustrated in the brontosaurus, starfish and Pluto. Growing up I knew for a fact that the brontosaurus was that long-necked vegetable eating dinosaur; the starfish was that craggy and slimy creature stuck to rocks with lots of arms; and Pluto was the last in a string of nine planets in our solar system. If anyone has children in the Issaquah School District, you’ll be reminded frequently that what you learned growing up is NOT what is being taught today…and for good reasons. With a little investigation, it was determined that 130 years ago two paleontologists were engaged in…shall we say “unprofessional behavior” which included sabotage, smear campaigns and lies, in order to assert their authority on the paleontological ladder of hierarchy. End result? No brontosaurus. It was really an Apatosaurus whose head was missing because it got bashed by a devious scientist. So, what happened to the star fish? Did it too suffer the wrath of two feisty marine biologists duking it out for reign supreme over the watery kingdom? Not quite, but the distinction between the two resides in a long explanation about classification and etymology. When you go to Alki Beach with your elementary school student, it will become clear that you’re WRONG when you call it a “star fish”, and will be told in no uncertain terms by a pack of 9-year-olds that the “sea star” is not a FISH. That pack of know-it-all 9-year-olds will be quick to beat you over the head with the fact that Pluto is not a real planet – it’s just a dwarf planet, whose status got revoked in 2006 because it lacked the qualities for membership amongst the eight other planets. Now how am I going to sing the preschool planet song that ends in, “Don’t forget about little Pluto way out there in space, space, space…”?
With many of my objectives for fact-based “lifelong learning” now kicked to the curb like Pluto, I’ve begun to embrace new goals. Aside from the nebulous abstract topics like love, acceptance, tolerance, etc., I hope that in my lifetime I will learn to accept that there will be many answers to a question and many perspectives to consider, and that lifelong learning is a journey that shouldn’t take me into a desert. However, if I do get stuck in the desert, I’ll be sure to bring my “starfish”.
This isn’t yo mama’s education