Inquisitiveness and Lifelong Learning – Values of the Wise


a person engaged in lifelong learning

I’m a big “lifelong learning” guy, meaning I believe that the education that, alas, only some Americans receive in high school and college, is merely the beginning of education. But in general, I am attempting to extol the virtue of having an interest in educating oneself, in being inquisitive, and in looking for the truth (vs. what feels good or fits with one’s ideology). This is a blog in favor of lifelong learning, curiosity, intellectualism, and education. It’s important for the mind; it’s helpful for the brain; it’s desperately needed for societal improvement!

I am a bit of a unique case when it comes to the fact that I can afford to engage in educational diversions and elective pursuits such as simply taking classes because I like to do so. This is because—due to fate or design—I am not that busy in my career (as a real estate and stocks investor). In fact, much of my task during much of the year is to try to be patient—while I am engaging in a “fix and flip” of a house, or as landlord, or as a minor investor in an apartment complex. This is actually difficult for me for sure.

But I also don’t have children (by design). I do get that a lot of folks are so occupied with children, career or job demands and ambitions, and so on that it is difficult for them to prioritize education and lifelong learning. As well, some people have ailing parents (which I do not), marital difficulties (which I do not), or physical health problems (which I do not). I do have mental health challenges, but they don’t really do much more than stymie me or cause me to have to work at it a little more than most people. Finally, I’m not into sports, religion, etc. Oh and at the moment I’m not doing volunteering (I set that aside a couple weeks ago).

All this is to say that for many reasons, I see how I am sort of a natural devotee or proponent of lifelong learning—and most people have a harder time of it. I really value education for education’s sake, and “self-startingness” when it comes to education and knowledge acquisition. I am a fan of wisdom and I am sort of “Stoical” in that I believe that if you have your knowledge, if you have attained some wisdom, and if you have your honor/integrity/character, then you’re really most of the way there. No surprise then that I have done much education beyond my 12th grade year (high school).

In fact, this semester I am taking a class in poetry, which is a bit of a challenge for me because I am much more disposed to like prose (i.e., regular writing). I have even been called verbose And poetry is about an economy of words, and great self-discipline when it comes to which words to choose. I am more of a fan of “throw it at the wall and see if it sticks”! Indeed, often I don’t proofread my blogs, which is virtually unheard of. I am just so familiar with sitting down and writing—polishing off a blog in an hour or two—that I think of it as a kind of art. It is also physically demanding for me, since I don’t have a great back, I have glaucoma, and typing typing typing for 90 minutes is exhausting. Therefore, I don’t want to try to engage in perfectionism of said piece of art; I want to send it out into the world (and then move on). Win, lose, or draw, it’s just one piece of art among nearly 600—so why should I sweat and stress about the minor details of the prose work? It would certainly be well within my personality to “go there,” but I try to abstain from that level of effort and brain damage! Poetry, though, does require a hell of a lot of polish. And I find it a bit opaque and at times, pretentious. So the class will be a challenge for me.

But one of the ways I self-educate is to read for pleasure. It is well known that reading is one of the best things one can do for one’s brain—and mind. It builds knowledge, vocabulary, good diction, critical thinking, tolerance, and intuition. Perhaps it takes 10,000 hours—like mastery of any skill or love does, such as music or car mechanics or painting—but I have achieved that level of commitment, so my ability to pick up a book and read 50 pages a day is quite realistic.

One thing that—for better or worse—slows me down is the compulsive desire to collect quotations (you can see why I want to avoid being compulsive with my own writing!). I have to highlight liberally when I read, and when I come across a quotation that is about values or virtues or something worthy like that, I mark it and then type it into The Wisdom Archive—the searchable quotations database right here on Values of the Wise.com. For me, it is true lifelong learning and commitment to trying to learn, capture, communicate, and make available to all the many wonderful and inspiring things wise people have written over the last 3,000 years.

So I really do find continual study, reading, and self-education to be a virtue. I would recommend it for all! It would go a long way to reduce the love of money that plagues our society if more people read books that they could get for free at libraries, online, or for a couple bucks at used bookstores—and not just because it is not a money-making activity, but because it occupies the mind with a universe of intrigue. Indeed, fiction is remarkable for its ability to exercise the imagination and encourage personal growth, and non-fiction reading is true lifelong learning. The humanities and the social sciences have libraries full of interesting, useful, elucidating information that can be converted to knowledge. All this, I believe, should also be in service of wisdom-fostering. That is: lifelong learning can lead to greater wisdom, and that is the ultimate prize.

Two bonuses of note: lifelong learning—mental exercise, basically—has been shown by medical research to be helpful to the brain in many ways, not the least of which being that it can delay the symptoms of dementia in the elderly. Furthermore, though, it is the royal road to an expansive, liberal, cultivated and  view of the world. In a word, it can and does increase one’s critical thinking to learn what others are thinking, to compare to one’s own, and to think things through. It is the aspect of American culture that is truly missing. I say this because a) some folks don’t think critically and exercise their intelligence and therefore miss out, and b) some folks have engaged in a kind of emotion-based, politically-driven “pseudo critical thinking” since the onset of Trumpism and the pandemic. Indeed, true education involves open-mindedness, thoughtfulness, perspective-taking, and wisdom.

 

Just to get a little deeper on my paragraph above that references “pseudo critical thinking,” here is a quote from Anya Kamenetz about the late, great American educator, Horace Mann. She refers to a movement that doesn’t much believe in the progressive view of education, or the view that envisions it as a social good that ought to be cultivated for the sake of the students (future citizens, basically) and supported by all. She writes:

“This movement rejects Mann’s vision that schools should be the common ground where a diverse society discovers how to live together. Instead it believes families should educate their children however they wish, or however they can. It sees no problem with Republican schools for Republican students, Black schools for Black students, Christian schools for Christian students, and so on, as long as those schools are freely chosen. Recent Supreme Court decisions open the door to both prayer in schools and public funding of religious education, breaking Mann’s nonsectarian ideal.”

And here is another thought on the progressive aspect to education: “Higher education is a basic social good. As such, it should be available to all, without cost, who meet admission standards. The federal government, as the guarantor of social rights, should bear primary responsibility for providing free college for all.” (Adolph L. Reed, Jr.). And the 14th Dalai Lama believes that, “humanity is becoming more mature. Still, if we make the effort, tirelessly, mainly through education, I think the next millennium could be more peaceful.”

Related to that is this critique of right-wing views on culture, from progressive firebrand and Nobel Prize winner, Paul Krugman:

“Accepting evidence and logic is a sort of universal value, and you can’t take it away in one area of inquiry without degrading it across the board. That is, you can’t declare that honesty about America’s racial history is unacceptable and expect to maintain intellectual standards everywhere else. In the modern right-wing universe of ideas, everything is political; there are no safe subjects.”

 

The Internet is highly problematic now, especially social media (link)(link2). People seem to think that Google is essentially God + wisdom + truth or something! This no doubt has to do with human nature and the unique/unfortunate aspects of the culture of America. To place libraries upon libraries of information, claims, conjecture, falsehoods, conspiracy theories, subversive elements, and downright disinformation at the hands of poorly educated American citizens is about as dangerous as giving free copies of “The Anarchist’s Cookbook” to would-be terrorists, or access to Pornhub.com to 10-year-olds. We’re talking very pernicious potential here!

Thus, while lifelong learning should of course have freedom and unlimitedness to it, it is only as good as the character of the individual exercising this freedom of information and expression. And let’s face it, in a country with over 300,000,000 people, a good 3,000,000 of us are sociopaths, n’er-do-wells, maleficent schmucks, and total assholes. More information, in this case, does not lead to true education–or to wisdom. Francis W. Parker rightly believes that, “the end and aim of all education is the development of character.” And Judith Barad advises: “A seeker is more likely to find knowledge and understanding than one who remains satisfied in his ignorance, for a seeker won’t be satisfied with superficial answers. A seeker will ask deep, probing questions before accepting any idea as worthy of belief.”

Alas, Enrique Dans writes on Medium.com that:

“The combination of factors such as the unlimited development of the attention economy, algorithms that reward sensationalism, along with anonymity and other characteristics of the internet, have created problems that should not be there. But in reality, the real problem is not the internet itself: it’s in human nature.”(link)

And I will also briefly wax philosophical about the purpose of education (and get into this further down below, when I share some Mortimer Adler quotations). Or as Aristotle referred to it, the ends of education. Below, thinker extraordinaire Gerald Stein, a psychologist who is highly educated in “the classics” (so-called great books of the Western world), says:

“We live in a time when, more than ever, students are encouraged to be practical and attend university to be trained in technique as a means to a material end. They try to imagine their entire employment future (an impossible task), take classes designed to match their vocational choice, and hope society will be willing to pay them if they guess right. Some people sneer at the idea of taking liberal arts courses, and universities are purging them. …With reasoning like this we will be left with a population of people who know how to make a living, but don’t know how to live.”

 

Note also that inquisitiveness is not always welcome. Socrates, for example, was put to death for his words and they way they irritated certain members of society. Nowadays, we suffer from the wrongheaded, politically-based ideas that books can be banned, that certain words are too politically incorrect to utter, and generally that certain concepts, ideas, and conjectures are verboten. I would place the controversy about intelligence from Charles Murray‘s book The Bell Curve (from decades ago, now) in this category (link). Further, Einstien has communicated the frightening way that powers that be mix in with, influence, and tarnish science, truth-seeking, and education. He said, “If my theories prove correct, Germans will consider me German; if they prove incorrect, they will consider me a Jew.”

And the inimitable scholar Cornel West says of the American ethos when it comes to education and wisdom, “There’s never been space in American civilization, in American empire, for serious intellectual presence. Never. That’s why our greatest novelists, like Melville—nobody cares. It is hard for any intellectual to gain a footing.” But liberal arts proponent and intellectual powerhouse Fareed Zakaria maintains:

“Benjamin Franklin likely wanted others to obtain a more general education then he himself had received, because he realized his own success was a result of an intense and broad-ranging curiosity. He was fascinated by everything he saw around him, from dolphins to lunar eclipses, and he experimented with ideas from electricity to refrigeration.” ~ Fareed Zakaria

I will honor this skeptical view of America’s prizing of education and lifelong learning, though, by citing the wonderful author Anna Quindlen: “According to the Department of Education, one in every five teachers leaves after the first year, and almost twice as many leave within three. If any business had that rate of turnover, someone would do something smart and strategic to fix it. This isn’t any business. It’s the most important business around – the gardeners of the landscape of the human race.” Always remember about America that in a Republican debate, anti-intellectual and former governor of Texas (but alas, I repeat myself) Rick Perry forgot the name of a key cabinet position–and then was appointed as a cabinet secretary, under Trump!(link).

I suppose a country that elects the likes of George W. Bush (twice) and Trump (1 or more times) and appoints a cabinet secretary who forgot about the Department of Energy is destined to drive itself into extinction with fossil fuel burning….. When it comes to education and wisdom, there are no free passes and no entitlements. You either commit yourself to the discipline of learning and knowledge-acquisition, or you remain ignorant or stupid.

One thing I appreciate about the University of Chicago–for what it’s worth–is the value of free inquiry. Associated with academic freedom, freedom of thought, and open inquiry, this is the idea that there is no subject which ought to be derided or banned simply because it is not popular. Even Hitler, totalitarianism, sociopathy, McCarthyism, the occult, cults, political scandal, organized religion’s evil deeds (e.g., child molestation, indulgences, etc.), and right-wing ideology in general should be studied, it is held. Wisdom seeker Jiddu Krishnamurti in fact believed that, “learning is the very essence of humility; learn from everything and from everybody. There is no hierarchy in learning.”

Someone once said something interesting, namely:  “Freedom is the right to be wrong, not the right to do wrong.” And Barack Obama wisely counsels, “Don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that—no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths.” Indeed, lifelong learning does not connote the confirmation of things previously learned–that is essentially the cognitive bias called confirmation bias. Somewhat surprisingly, it was football legend Knute Rockne who said, “Most men when they think they are thinking are simply rearranging their prejudices.”

One example along these lines is that of extrasensory perception (ESP). I learned in a series of lectures put out by the estimable scholar Mark A. Leary that ESP is not bunk like most psychologists believe it is. He maintained in his lecture on the subject that there is something to it, apparently, when investigated empirically. I inquired about this for the purposes of this blog–about 10 years after he put out the lecture–and in an email back, he indicated: “I haven’t kept up with the latest ESP research over the past 8 years, but at the time I wrote that lecture, there was certainly enough data to suggest that the phenomenon deserved more research attention rather than being dismissed outright (as most psychologists do). Before reading the research, I wouldn’t have bought into ESP or precognition at all, but the published research convinced me that the jury is still out. Given the strong opposition to the idea among psychologists (interestingly, physicists are much more open to the possibility), I even wrote a little piece asking why many scientists seem so afraid of the idea rather than just taking a wait-and-see approach.”

However, consider this interesting counter-point by Barbara Drescher: “We seem to continue to expect intelligence and knowledge to predict rational behavior, as if rationality was some kind of byproduct of intelligence. Even skeptics can often be caught suggesting that if we just give people the right facts, they’ll change their minds about vaccines, ESP., and global warming. But that is not how people work.”

As an encapsulation of the merits of lifelong learning, the great proponent of liberal education and adult education, Mortimer J. Adler, points out that ”

“What is to be learned falls under three categories: (1) kinds of knowledge to be acquired; (2) skills to be developed; and (3) understanding or insights to be achieved. We are also concerned with why it is to be learned, the reason in each case being the way it serves the three objectives of basic schooling—earning a living, being a good citizen, and living a full life.”

Adler also beautifully created this metaphor for education, the power of teaching, and the value of lifelong learning: “The teacher is like the farmer or the physician. The farmer doesn’t produce the grains of the field; he merely helps them grow. The physician does not produce the health of the body; he merely helps the body maintain its health or regain its health. And the teacher does not produce knowledge in the mind; he merely helps the mind discover it for itself.”

I will end with a snappy little thing written by one of the greatest men in history, Erasmus: “The main hope of a nation lies in the proper education of its youth.”

 

I will now append some intriguing, inspiring, and thought-provoking quotations about lifelong learning, self-education, and wisdom:

 

“[It is an] error of thinking that the process of education takes place and reaches completion in our educational institutions during the years of basic schooling and in advanced schooling after that. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one has ever been and no one can ever become educated in the early years of life. The reason is simply that youth itself, immaturity, is the insuperable obstacle to becoming educated. Education happens only with continued learning in adult life, after all formal schooling is over.” —Mortimer J. Adler

“There’s two kinds of people that don’t ask a lot of questions. One is too dumb to and the other don’t need to.” —Cormac McCarthy

“Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.” —Albert Einstein

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” —Plutarch

“It is hard to find a better example of a lifelong learner than Margaret Mead. Her grandmother’s [home-schooling] approach obviously worked. It stimulated attentiveness, curiosity, and imagination— an orientation to life which helped her become one of this century’s great anthropologists. Whether the young people in our lives attend school or are homeschooled, we parents and grandparents can help them get into the curious, excited, self-directed learning mode.” —Copthorne Macdonald

“I don’t decry or condemn new forms of entertainment and technology. They open up new vistas of knowledge in ways of thinking. Our children will be smarter and quicker than us in many ways. But a good education system must confront the realities of the world we live in and educate in a way that addresses them, rather than pretend that these challenges don’t exist.” —Fareed Zakaria

“If we would have new knowledge, we must get a whole world of new questions.” —Susanne K. Langer

“If education cannot help separate truth from falsehood, beauty from vulgarity, right from wrong, then what can it teach us?” —Dinesh D’Souza

“The words skeptic and skepticism come from an ancient Greek verb meaning “to inquire.” Etymologically, then, a skeptic is an inquirer. Skepticism at its best is not a matter of denial, but of inquiring, seeking, questioning doubt.” —Tom Morris

“The future of the liberal arts lies in addressing the fundamental questions of human existence head on, without embarrassment or fear, taking them from the top down in easily understood language, and progressively rearranging them into domains of inquiry that unite the best of science and the humanities at each level of organization in turn. That of course is a very difficult task. But so are cardiac surgery and building space vehicles. Competent people get on with them, because they need to be done. Why should less be expected from the professionals responsible for education?” —Edward O. Wilson

“…neuroscience has already shown that one of the most powerful factors that protects against degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s is higher levels of education. You probably cannot change your years of education at this point, but mental exercise and self-education are the best possible proxies for it.” —Nancy C. Andreasen

“A little learning, indeed, may be a dangerous thing, but the want of learning is a calamity to any people.” —Frederick Douglass

“Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.” —Chinese proverb

“Creativity, as has been said, consists largely of rearranging what we know in order to find out what we do not know. Hence, to think creatively, we must be able to look afresh at what we normally take for granted.” —George Kneller

“My parents struggled to give us a college education…. Father always talked to us about having a choice in life, and he said an education would give us that choice.” —Sara Martínez Tucker

“I think that when the lies are all told and forgot, the truth will be there yet. It don’t move about from place to place and it don’t change from time to time. You can’t corrupt it any more than you can salt salt. You can’t corrupt it because that’s what it is. It’s the thing you’re talking about. I’ve heard it compared to the rock—maybe in the Bible—and I wouldn’t disagree with that. But it’ll be here even when the rock is gone.” —Cormac McCarthy

 

LINK TO ORIGINAL ARTICLE

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