Editorial: Why Do We Learn?

Tyler Jungbauer, Correspondent

Why do we learn?

This is a big question, one which countless great minds have considered, but few have answered—if at all.  Michelangelo (1475–1564) once said, at the age of 87, “I am still learning.” Ever the literary-minded, Dr. Seuss once composed a poem to answer this question: “The more that you read,/The more things you will know./The more that you will learn,/The more places you’ll go.” And yet, there really is no answer to this question, outside of the ones that we ourselves give it.

I most definitely agree with Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) when he said, “The sensibility of man to trifles, and his insensibility to great things, indicates a strange inversion.” What he meant, of course, was that we as human beings attribute way too much meaning to material things, and not enough to what really matters: the big, philosophical questions that we all must answer before we find any sort of happiness in anything.  So before we are willing to conform to the perimeters of public education, I think that we as individuals must answer this question: Why do we learn?

This question, though, has been suppressed within public education.  I feel that when I ask this question—and so few of you actually read this—you will throw it out the window, feeling that it’ll only take too much of your time to think about, and so instead you just don’t think about it.  You’ll accept that you’re here in public school just because you are.  And yet, I find this answer to other such big questions very superficial: I am only here on earth because I am here.  For me, that is not enough.  There is purpose behind public education, most definitely, but it is hidden—and those of us who try to dig it up into the light are suppressed just like ideas posed that require too much thought.

And why is it that those things which require too much thought are suppressed?  When a student in a class is asked to write an essay, they mope and cry about it because of how much work it takes to formulate their ideas and state them with logical defences backing them.  Furthermore, when we are asked to write an essay in a math class—we freak out and ask what the world has come to.  Why should subjects blend together at all?  We almost expect them to remain apart, as if one has nothing to do with the other.  And instead of considering such things as these, we try harder to get the big A—the one with the plus after the hypothetical letter—and don’t really care about what we think, so long as we can get into college and have a good, successful life.

But this is where public education is flawed and where we are being failed by those “above” us.  Education has become something that we all must do to find success, regardless of what we wish to do with our lives.  Sure, there are external, deterministic causes that effect in our imprisonment within public education—and yet, these same causes are none of our own.  I mean, when I ask you the reader what success means to you, you’ll probably, in all likelihood, reply that: (a) it’s getting into a good college, so that (b) you can make good money and have the (c) financial means to find happiness, in which (d) you can eventually retire and settle down before (e) you die.  But this is your answer only because it’s what society and culture pose is the right answer to what defines success.  And yet, if I say that I want to drop out of high school, go live on a monastery and bear no financial earnings at all, this is considered heretic and insane.  Why?

It’s this way because success has become a universal attitude, something that exists separate of our own ideas, which must trump those deeper, more meaningful truths within ourselves.  It’s become the ultimate directive to our lives, regardless of what we hold to be more meaningful than money, than career, than life itself.

Is this what you believe, though?  Do you believe that the meaning of life is to get into college and do b, c, and d before e, because this is what matters most to you?  Perhaps it is, and I can’t say that there’s anything wrong with thinking so.  But there’s also something within all of us, once we begin to think more analytically about what success is and how it is posited to us through social and cultural influences, which says that there is something deeply flawed in this view of success.  And I think that once we begin to think so, we also begin to recognize that our very beliefs of life are seriously flawed.

Why is public education failing the individual?  It is failing us as individuals because it is posing to us—which, on a grammatical scale, means that public education is the subject in this sentence and we the individuals are the object—what to them is success.  I do not believe that public education is the most essential way to learn; in fact, I think that there are many better ways to learn.  But when I mention such “radical” avenues of learning—homeschooling, autodidactism, unschooling, etc.—those of us who are brought up in socially constricted communities (i.e. all of us) that recognize public education as the only means to a living, think that I must be some kind of ideological terrorist, as it were.  But I am not, I assure you.  I just hope, I pray, that those of you who feel anger reading this or do not like about what I am talking, can recognize what you truly believe and hold to those beliefs.  All I can do is ask you to reconsider why you feel the way that you do.  Is it really you who feel such a way, or is it the social, cultural illusion of yourself that forcibly thinks such because of the external causes to your thought?  I do not know, but I think that you do, when you really think about it.

So what can we do to re-right this path that’s fastly going nowhere?  I suppose the only thing that we really can do is inform ourselves of what really matters to us: what matters the most to each and every one of us, and why does it?  Do these things really matter to us because we believe them, or are we coerced into believing them?  Again, I have no answer to these questions that can apply to anyone else, because these are questions that only the individual can answer.  Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise—including myself—do not bother trusting them without considering what you believe, first.

To answer the question, though, of what we should do to rewrite the constitution of education, as it were, is this: I think that we must consider what it means to us.  Why do we learn?  This question we must be answered first, before we decide to branch off and consider other things, and become side-tracked.  Once we have ascertained why we learn what we do, as regarding our own selves, we can begin to recognize why we are here in school, learning, stressing ourselves out over grades, and the rest of such cacophonous dribble.  Is it because of the grade?  I am deeply saddened by how many students rely upon their grades to find purpose and success within their lives.  If we are willing to degrade ourselves to a scribble of ink on a piece of colored piece in the form of the first few letters of the alphabet, then why should we even bother to think at all?  Let’s just pack up our personalities and idiosyncrasies, throw them into the incinerator, and step up on the bandwagon where everyone’s hair is the same color and the sky looks the same tint of blue to every last one of us.  I mean, this is essentially what we are doing to ourselves when we impose an A upon this bespectacled young woman, or a D on this stereotypically insolent young man, or a B on this freckle-faced boy, girl, individual.  Look to the C!  To society, the C is the average student.  But what is average?  Does this mean that I am the same as every other C-student because of my grades?  If my grade point average is below a 4.0, does this mean that I should go up into the attic and cry, and wish that I had a bigger brain?

Sure, on a social-cultural scale it does.  But on another, more important level, it never should.  School is just another institution, a brick-faced monster who feeds us dogma and doctrine no different than any religious organization, scooped out to us in tin pans by the people “above” us. Are they really above us, though?  Who can say?  And if they are, why are they?  Did we put them there by conforming to their idea that they are above us, just because they have more green dollar bills or because they are a scion of this or that family?  But these questions—according to these such people—they should not be addressed, because they are of the nature of revolutionists—and we all know what happens to them.  So instead, we should all pack up our ideals and sit, steel-faced, on the bandwagon with our lips forced upward into grim smiles.

Let me remain on this image for a moment, though.  It frighteningly reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode, “The Eye of the Beholder.”  During this episode, Janet Tyler (Maxine Stuart) finds herself in a society of hellish-faced people, who regard her as being ugly, disfigured, when she is of the nature of what we consider beauty.  But what I think is the most disturbing aspect of this episode is what the “Leader” says at the end.

“It is essential in this society that we not only have a norm, but that we conform to that norm,” he tells Ms. Tyler. “Differences weaken us.  Variations destroy us.  An incredible permissiveness to deviation from this norm is what has ended nations and brought them to their knees.  Conformity we must worship and hold sacred.  Conformity is the key to survival.”

Sound familiar?

Undoubtedly, I should say.

If nothing else, I can only hope that those of you—if any—who decide to read this consider what you believe to be important and true, and that, should you find yourself doubting as I have done, that you will consider these things in the light that those few of us have before.  By which I mean: run.  Run with your ideas and do not let anyone tackle you to the ground and force them out of your hands.  Keep them with you always, and do not ever let someone else tell you that they are wrong.  Freedom, as defined by A. S. Neill, is the ability to do as we wish until our freedom encroaches upon another’s.

Something else that Mr. Neill said that I hope you’ll consider is this:

“People are always saying to me, ‘But how will your free children ever adapt themselves to the drudgery of life?’ I hope that these free children will be pioneers in abolishing the drudgery of life.”

Will you be a pioneer?

Or will you jump on the bandwagon and sing off-tune harmonica songs?