On Learning


My epiphany, when it came, did not take place at an araby but in the more prosaic confines of a college townhouse. I was 21, a senior, and in my final semester when, one day at the dining room table I realized that, in a few short months, I could be free of classrooms for the first time in my conscious life. Since the age of four when I started kindergarten, and even before if Mrs. McGovern’s nursery school was thrown into the mix, my life had been molded and mandated, dominated and dictated by obligatory schooling. A hundred-and-eighty school days a year at six hours a day multipled by twelve years made for roughly 13,000 hours in my K-12 education alone; top that off with another 1,500 or so college hours and I was up to 14,500. Fourteen thousand, five hundred hours of my one-time-only youth. And that wasn’t even counting early band rehearsals, homework, detentions, and the mind-numbing quantity of extra-curricular activities American students submit ourselves to in order to pad out our college transcripts. Sitting at the table, I began running through what those 14,500 hours had provided me with in terms of an education. The conclusion was inescapable: not enough to justify the time and expense. Not by a long shot. This was neither the most efficient, nor the most empowering, nor the most emotionally-healthy way to go about the process of learning. By the end of the semester, I had turned my back on graduate school, gotten a job in a library and was at work on a first attempt at a novel. My life as a citizen-at-large had begun.

And I am happy to report that, although my formal education ended at the door of a mere BA, I have not only continued to be able to learn, I have done it better. An example: in six school years, from grades seven to twelve, plus a particularly useless college conversation course, I learned precisely one foreign language (and it is a sad statement on our educational affairs that I was about the only one that did even that). In the years since leaving school, I have learned four more, including the one that is now my literary language. I have done this, in the main, without classrooms of any kind. This is not intended to be a boast; apparently I am “gifted” at language learning. But isn’t that, or shouldn’t that be, the goal of education – to both discover and foster the talents of each learner with all the means at our disposal? And even with my “gift” (which I think is often a lazy way to describe a combination of interest and discipline), I have struggled and scraped over many years to get my Spanish to the point of being able to express myself fully in it in writing. What if I had been exposed to languages at an early age, when we are most open to them? What if I hadn’t been placed for a grand total of 14,500 hours in a series of institutions that devote themselves to wringing the joy of learning out of us? Instead of being taught by their parents and private teachers, one shudders at the thought of a Beethoven or a Brahms being sent to one of our school music classes where, in third or fourth grade, they might first get to blow into a plastic recorder. Thus do we fancy ourselves, in the twenty-first century, more educated than our unfortunate forbearers.

The American university has become the final stage of the most all encompassing initiation rite the world has ever known,” Ivan Illich once wrote in Deschooling Society. “No society in history has been able to survive without ritual or myth, but ours is the first which has needed such a dull, protracted, destructive, and expensive initiation into its myth.” To Illich, a proper educational system should do three things: “it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.

Hey, teacher: leave those kids alone.


On Solitude


By whatever tripartite cocktail of nature, nurture and culture, it has fallen upon me to be a person who spends a great deal of time alone. This is a necessary condition for a writer of course, our occupational hazard, and one that I have learned to approach with the requisite dosage of amor fati. In the best of times, my solitude spreads itself out before me, inviting me to loll on it like a blanket of infinite possibility, my time to be allotted and dispensed as I see fit. I awake without an alarm, roll from one side of my bed to the other without risk of jostling a grouchy sleeper, and, once fed, clothed and groomed to the liberatingly minimum solitude standard, set about to beckoning the muse by dint of sheer, inspired kinesthetics. I work and write, laugh and cry, putter and pace to the backdrop of the day’s chosen soundtrack, the ideal intermingling of autodidact and anarchist, a dynamo of learning and leavening and sublimated libido.

Then solitude decides to swipe the blanket away, leaving me suspended above the abyss like a Jonathan Edwards-style sinner (a simile I come by honestly, having come of age in post-puritan Connecticut). My two rooms morph into a warren of claustrophobia, my lack of grooming and nutrition into both a reflection of my paralyzed state and a pretext for its perpetuation. Loneliness pervades my body, leaving it a limp, rag doll. Learning and leavening, in a neat one-for-two, become exchanged for languishing. I yearn for company while impressing myself into the labor of keeping it out. I stare in diligent self-hypnosis at the intermittent lights of my computer screen, playing the same song over and over as if skipped records were back in style and cursing Sundays, when they cycle around, with all of the diminished powers at my disposal.

When it comes to sussing us out, solitude is extremely sharp. If we are capable of some feat, it will reveal it to us as if it were the bestower of our own boon. If we are stumbling towards a fall, it will stick out its leg. Solitude is protean, crafty, osmotic, a creator of weather fair and foul in which to clothe itself as friend and foe. Embracing us non-locally with its massless arms, it caresses while stifling, nourishes while depriving. It brooks no rival and gives no quarter.

But I hyperbolize. Wisened by the years, I have learned neither to deflect solitude’s presence by means of manic bouts of Calvanist-seal-of-approval industry (Connecticut again, alas), nor to lie prostrate like a dog before its alpha leader the moment solitude sees fit to bare its existential teeth. As in the proverbial encounter with the bear in the woods, I have trained myself, through years of despair-soaked tenacity and scorched-earth depressions, not to cut and run. The result of such training is he who blogs before you today – if not a paragon of equanimity, then someone who can move into and out of solitude as it is given me to do. Someone who can stare down the bear.

The sun sets at six o’clock on this second-shortest day of the year. Tonight, there will be reading and a movie, moments of contemplation, the joy of thought, another degree added to the arc of my lifespan. Alone.