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Forever Learning, Forever Young
In her book New Passages, Gail Sheehy describes the role that learning and education play in keeping a person from growing old: "If every day is an awakening, you will never grow old. You will just keep growing." Common attributes among sharp-as-tacks subjects in older age groups are an above-average education, enjoyment of a complex and stimulating lifestyle, and living with a smart spouse or partner. Learning for life. A life of learning. Both seem to be keys for a productive and satisfying life. And, in a world of constant and rapid change, the ability to learn and continuing to learn is important for personal and community survival.
Research on the role the mind plays in maintaining health has found biochemical evidence that the mind can influence the immune system and other body functions. Indeed, mental stimulation can be the difference between someone who begins to fall apart as they age and those who stay healthy and fit and seem to go on forever. (The other major factor is exercise.) Further, research has debunked the myth that brain cells begin to die in batches as we age. What had been thought to be cell death was actually brain cells shrinking and going dormant from lack of stimulation and challenge. Cells which could be revitalized with mental stimulation.
We must therefore discard the old educational paradigm based upon 12 to 20 years of formal schooling and then coasting on that education until death. That might have worked a century ago when change was much slower than it is today and people died young, but it does not hold in the Third Millennium. The new educational paradigm views learning as a lifelong quest with a different perspective on what formal education should encompass. Instead of teaching facts which may become obsolete even before the program is finished, formal education must focus on teaching basic skills communications skills such as reading, writing and speaking; basic science, mathematics and logic; thinking skills such as creativity, problem solving and analysis; and methods of expression such as visual art, music and literature -- and the art of learning. Both areas are equally important.
Without the basic skills, we cannot continue to learn effectively. If we do not actively pursue learning, we will learn life's continuing lessons by trial and error, a method that has some merits but which can also be painful and expensive. Therefore, let us take the proactive step rather than the reactive and set out to learn all we can. The following four steps can assist in that process.
1) Learn how to learn.
2) Open your mind and explore the world around you.
3) Use what you can now and save the rest for later.
4) Once started, don't stop.
Learning to learn is an area that even post-secondary education has failed to formally teach. We get fragmented lessons throughout formal education in some areas and none at all in others. One of the greatest lessons to learn is how to keep an open mind when faced with new ideas or new expressions of old ideas. A closed mind is not conducive to learning. I keep an open mind (most of the time) by following a simple four-step process.
1) Let the information in. Do not prejudge.
2) Play with it.
3) Let it settle or age.
4) Judge the information after it has been with you for a while and then accept/reject it according to your personal values.
When you let information in, you are not accepting it carte blanche. You are only accepting it temporarily, so do not prejudge it even if you consider it the greatest load of sewage ever assembled. Now play with it. Test it against previous knowledge and perhaps against your ethical values. Look at it from different perspectives. Be the devil's advocate on it. Turn it, stretch it, reverse it. Treat it as a young child explores a new toy. Then put it aside for a time, letting it settle or age in your mind. When you have given it time to mellow, pull it out again and judge it for its worth to you. If you accept it, continue to play with it to find how it can best serve you. Eventually it will be stored in your vast mental files and become part of your accumulated wisdom.
The desire and ability to learn is closely linked with play. Learning is, in its basic element, play. Therefore, we must give ourselves permission to play to be curious about the world around us, to try things out in different ways, to play what if games. Many professions use these aspects of play as part of their regular routine. Such play forms the basis for astronaut training, military manouevres, economic forecasting, engineering modeling and simulations, scientific research, and product design and marketing. All are play and all are learning activities.
The opportunities to continue a life-long quest for learning are all around us. We need not pay high tuition to Harvard to have the best education life can give us. Much of the material is free or available at modest cost to an open and inquisitive mind. Today the opportunities for continuing education abound. Libraries are expanding to become multimedia centres offering video and audio tapes, compact discs and computer software for use and even borrowing. Many libraries now have computer stations with Internet connection, thus expanding their reference capabilities. Libraries have also joined with local colleges and universities, school boards and recreational programs to offer courses in everything from growing azaleas to zoology, from Bach to Picasso to the philosophy of Star Trek. The diversity of books and multimedia computer software defies description. It is possible to purchase for under $40 a CD-ROM containing 3,500 pieces of the world's greatest literature. Similar disks are available for art and music.
Even that ever-maligned medium television has some highly stimulating programming from Wayne Dyer to any Bill Moyers or Ken Burns production. Many of the specialty cable channels offer educational programming from history to medicine including practical application shows on cooking and home renovation. Why do I highlight television (I could include radio in here as well) as a good learning source? In large part because, if properly used, it is a tool for opening horizons. I might never have heard of The Wealthy Barber or Wayne Dyer, or the music of Loreena McKennitt or Charlie Byrd, or the poetry of Rumi, or the 500 Nations of North America had I not been given a brief introduction to them on television. As a result of that exposure I have read related books and listened to the music. In some instances, such samplers have led me to delve deeper into a subject. How many reading this piece sought to know more on the oceans after watching Jacques Cousteau presentation or about Afro-American history and culture after watching Roots? Probably more than care to admit.
From broadcasts to specialty books and tapes and software to attending lectures and from seminars and continuing education courses to group discussions, we find our unique path to knowledge. When we have gained knowledge and made it a part of our lives, we must pass our wisdom on to others: our family, our friends, our communities, our world. The process is never ending. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before; we stand sturdily and with pride under those who follow us.
Learning brings joy and ecstasy to living. This joy comes from the playfulness of learning as well as a sense of accomplishment. Where there is joy, the quality of life increases
exponentially, the immune system is enhanced and the future looks brighter. Learn to make
learning a part of your everyday routine and you will stay forever young in mind and spirit.
Forever Learning, Forever Young by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD . ©1997, All Rights Reserved.
I have recently added many of my lifetime collection of photographs and art works to an on-line shop where you can purchase notecards, posters, and greeting cards, etc. of my best images.