Adult learning is more than alternative education, self-help, self-study, or training. Self-directed inquiry can free you from the cultural traps of today’s postmodern world. When you think for yourself, you take control of your life. Intellectual ability and critical thinking soon become substitutes for paper credentials. Simply stated aggressive learning is the most practical guide to a passionately rewarding life.
Imagine visitors from another planet landing on
the earth and drawing up a profile of human beings to send home. Surely one of
their main reporting points would be that this is an incredibly diverse species
with an immeasurable range of individuals, and yet, if the neural matter in
each oftheir heads doesn’t form similar
patterns, they are prone to set about killing one another. As a footnote the
visitors would likely observe that once certain brain patterns set up and
become deeply ingrained they are difficult or nearly impossible to change or
Unless they regarded such behavior as normal, I
suspect the aliens would leave earth trying to figure out how a species that
seems to defendindividual initiative so
strongly would strive so hard to emulate the regimented behavior of insects. It
would puzzle them that so many individuals could insist on bee-like or ant-like
behavior from their fellow man and would readily condemn those who are
reluctant to conform as being unpatriotic or subversive in some way. Returning
to their own planet, our visitors could easily speculate that if these human
beings were only secure enough in their own views to be able to tolerate
contrary views, the killing might stop.
My own inquiry suggests that once a person’s
fundamental beliefs are formed, they are very much like snapshots or still
photos, and extraordinary efforts will be required to justify a reshoot. On the
one hand, this propensity ensures our survival because it enables us to make
instantaneous decisions based on confirmation with our photographic
assumptions. But this propensity also threatens our existence for the very same
reason. We are too quick to make up our minds, since we require only a hint of
confirmation from our stored mental picture to confirm the views we already
hold. In too many instances we make no room for alternatives or exceptions, and
we ignore or reject contrary evidence.
All human beings, regardless of where we are on
this planet, are born into reality shelters that we commonly refer to as our
culture. The late cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that cultures
amount to codified hero systems in which members are aided in seeming to
transcend death through deeds and their reverence for icons and symbols. And
thus we grow up with a take on reality given to us in such nuanced and discreet
ways that we remain unaware that we are internalizing an off-the-shelf
worldview. If we aren’t careful, it can stultify and set up like software that
can't be overwritten or reprogrammed.
After more than 30 years of dedicated
self-education, and now at age 70, I’m confident that educator Neil Postman was
right when he said, “Education is a defense against culture.” It’s that and
more. We live in our heads. What we do with the knowledge that our respective
cultures insist we put there, and how we deal with it, set the tenor, tone, and
trajectory of our lives. What we learn and come to know is important, but it’s
what we strive hard to understand beyond our culture that determines the
essence of our character, what we do with our lives, how we relate to others,
and how and for what we are likely to be remembered.
That things are often not as they appear is one
of life’s most important lessons—so glaringly self-evident, in fact, that few
of us doubt it. Unfortunately, even fewer of us heed the lesson. From an early
age, we are taught that appearances are deceiving, and yet we do not hesitate
to take a firm position on matters we’ve never really looked into beyond a
superficial appraisal. We are quick to make baseless snap judgments that
diminish our potential for achieving a just democratic society, even as those
judgments add to our personal angst and inflame our contempt for matters we
haven’t yet investigated.
A willingness to learn can trump our
predisposition to act tribally and selfishly. It can dispel our mistrust of
those whose politics, religions, traditions, and lifestyles we’ve not
previously made an effort to understand. It adds quality to our lives, making
the term golden years something more
than a cliché. A willingness to learn and to continue learning is our best
chance to leave the world a better place.
Computers are not much help unless we have many
rewritable programs. In similar fashion, our lives are much less enjoyable if
the software in our heads has solidified and our minds can't be changed. It is
an unfortunate trait of our species that we are predisposed toward an ethos of thefewer
the facts, the stronger the opinion, and that we will argue vociferously
over subjects we know nothing, whatsoever, about.
All one has to do to verify this is read a
sufficient number of letters to the editors of magazines and newspapers.
Popular talking points serve as substitutes for in-depth knowledge, and
arrogance stands in for a willingness to do one's homework before commenting.
Limited worldviews lead to misunderstanding and to the warring conflict that
Extraterrestrial visitors could understandably have
a hard time getting their minds around our egotism and our unwillingness to
learn beyond our cultural indoctrination. I can imagine them scratching their
heads on the way home, wondering if there are any other species in the universe
who reach adulthood and think they already know everything they need to about
everything important without a purposeful intention to continue learning.