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Talks by John Last Updated: Sep 8th, 2009 - 08:07:52

If Learning Never Ends, Does Living Ever Begin?

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If "Learning Never Ends," Does Living Ever Begin?

by John Ohliger

(The following is adapted from a talk I gave at the close of the Second Annual Conference of the Illinois Adult & Continuing Educators' Association (IACEA) in late March 1981. The theme of the conference was Choices '81. Among the questions Noreen Lopez, the Conference Coordinator, posed for us all to consider were these: "What are the alternatives to schooling for the learner who wants to choose a less traditional approach?" and "What are the roles and responsibilities of the adult educator in the larger society and in the improvement of education at all levels?")

Here is my positive and personal image of the future. Few people doubt that the future will be very different. Most thoughtful observers agree that we are in the midst of a profound social transformation leading to some kind of a post-industrial society. But these same observers differ greatly about what kind of a society it will be. My picture is of a future where we live more relaxed and more modest lives with an abundance of unmeasurable and infinitely available non-material (or better, trans-material) resources. All the travail and pressure we're going through right now may be paving the way for that future. This future could be one where we will have a choice of 'goodies;' not ones requiring scarce energy, minerals, or dollars; or ones permitting some people to get rich while others go hungry, but choices that we create out of our own hearts and heads and hands among people we care for. Many other people share this view of the future. One book which presents this image as a hopeful possibility is Kirkpatrick Sale's Human Scale (New York: Coward, McCann & Geohegan, 1980).

How do we get to this better future? Of course, there are many paths. Here is one way we as learners and adult educators can be part of a path.

Those of you who listened to Mike Vance, the former Dean of the University of Disneyland, lead off this conference earlier this week heard him say that we're still suffering from the load of guilt dropped on us by our Puritan ancestors. H.L. Mencken once defined a Puritan as one who has a haunting fear that someone, somewhere might just possibly be enjoying a single moment of happiness.

Vance said that our historic heritage from our Puritan forefathers and foremothers is an overload of "oughts" or "shoulds," but then Mike himself laid a "should" on us: we should be able to experience ecstasy (and agony) every day if we will drop many of those Puritan "oughts." Though I enjoyed Mike's speech very much, that was one of the few things I agreed with him about.

But even here we need to be a little cautious about the "shoulds." A life spent in ecstasy and agony would be like a life on a never ending roller-coaster ride, or on the Matterhorn at Disneyland that Mike kept plugging. We would soon get very tired of it. A moderate approach to the highs and lows of life is certainly worth considering. "Everything in Moderation, Including Moderation," reads the illustrated postcard that Ron Gross, the author of The Lifelong Learner, once sent me. Maybe he was trying to tell me something.

What I'm getting at for us as learners and as adult educators is that we might want to practice some of that moderation or balance when it comes to our oft-repeated slogans like LIFELONG LEARNING or LEARNING NEVER ENDS. One more thing that Mike Vance said that I agreed with was that there are often, in addition to the Teachable Moments, Non-Teachable Moments, Non-Learning Moments. A life spent in the never ending pursuit of learning would be very narrow and probably impossible. When would there be time for feeling and doing? If LEARNING NEVER ENDS, then living never begins! We really don't need to continually lay such Puritan guilt trips on others and on ourselves.

If all this sounds like sheer blasphemy at an adult educators' conference, I assure you that this cautionary view has a long tradition of support. To prepare for this talk, I looked up the word "learning" in about fifteen books of quotations at the library where I work part time as a clerk in Madison, Wisconsin. Here are just a few of the choice morsels of the hundreds I found:

"Learning is but an adjunct to ourself," wrote William Shakespeare in Love's Labour's Lost.

Benjamin Franklin, who some call the "Founding Father of American Adult Education," (I've always wondered who the "Founding Mother" was), said: "A learned blockhead is a greater blockhead than an ignorant one." Even more to the point was Franklin's saying: "He was so learned that he could name a horse in nine languages; so ignorant that he bought a cow to ride on."

This view of learning goes back many hundreds of years. In The New Testament of The Bible, Acts of the Apostles we find, "Much learning doth make thee mad," in the Satyricon of Petronius, "We know that you are mad with much learning." And later in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy: "Out of too much learning become mad."

In the sixteenth century the French essayist Montaigne declared, "We need but little learning to live happily." And Ron Gross says that Montaigne's only personal motto asked simply, "What do I know?"

We have all heard of Pope's "A little learning is a dangerous thing." But the modern American editor William Allen White countered with, " A little learning is not a dangerous thing to one who does not mistake it for a great deal."

And our own President Teddy Roosevelt said, "A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad." Margaret Ayer Barnes said it even more simply, "Character comes before scholarship." Or as this old English proverb notes, "Learning makes the wise wiser and the fool more foolish."

Of course, this quotations refer to only one type of learning -- the type that I believe is still overdominant in our industrial-scientistic-technofix society as we go through the narrow tunnel into the better future. Call it conscious skill-building, official knowledge, classification of information, structured knowledge, etc. This type of learning, while very valuable, often threatens to overtake our active lives. It needs to be balanced with another type of learning. Some would deny that this second type of learning is learning at all because the results of it can't be regurgitated on a test or measured objectively in some kind of performance evaluation as official knowledge can. Call this second type, after Ivan Illich in Tools for Conviviality (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), Personal Knowledge. It comes from "Yada," Hebrew verb for knowing. "We knew each other in the Biblical sense," we're talking about this kind of learning: direct, personal, spontaneous, unrepeatable, non-replicable, intercourse with reality itself. Learning as experience, not learning from experience. Not learning something, but learning PERIOD.

People getting together through Freirean groups, learning networks, free-universities, or in other self-directed learning projects like independent scholarship, are often engaged in this Personal Knowledge type of learning, as well as others.

People joining together as equals to keep foreign troops and weapons out of El Salvador, to help end dependence on nuclear power, get rid of nuclear weapons, and foster alternative sources of energy, find they are learning-in-action, not just by conscious study.

If we take a more modest view of LIFELONG LEARNING and work toward a better balance between Official and Personal Knowledge, we as adult educators and as just plain people will be going a long way toward meeting our individual and social responsibilities in the coming years. And we will be helping ourselves and others move toward a better future where, instead of today's mainly cosmetic choices, there will be real choices that we can cherish.

One last quotation that I found sums it up. The novelist Taylor Caldwell wrote, "Learning should be a joy and full of excitement. It is life's greatest adventure; it is an illustrated excursion into the mind's noble and learned humanity, not a conducted tour through a jail. So its surroundings should be as gracious as possible."

© Copyright 2004 John

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