Archive for September 3rd, 2008

The Joy of Learning

This is my favorite time of the year.  Not only is summer shifting to fall, but the school year is about to begin.  I am starting my 14th year teaching at the University of Maine – Farmington, and every fall I feel the same excitement, exhilaration, and anticipation to meet new students, start new classes, and get back into the school year.   I feel extremely lucky to have a job I love.

The reason I love this job was clear to me as I listened to Elizabeth Cooke give the convocation talk to welcome new students.  She talked about learning as something we pursue our whole life, and often find insight in unusual experiences and places. I know that for me the most fulfilling aspect of life, besides my children, is to learn.  To read new ideas, to challenge my beliefs, to explore everything from the history of music to quantum mechanics to philosophy, different religions, and human psychology.

The key to learning, I believe, is to internalize one truth, and hold it as the only truth of which you can be certain: on virtually every issue involving the meaning of life, the way the world operates, and the values and principles one holds dear, it’s always possible to be wrong.  That key belief, the recognition of human fallibility and the acceptance that our perspective is simply that, a particular perspective, shaped by culture, history, friends and family, is essential if one is to continue to learn.  Without it, one can still collect more facts, but they get interpreted into a closed belief system, rigid and over time stagnant.   One stops seeking out really new and challenging knowledge, one stops being self-critical, and risks falling into a trap of seeing those who think differently as enemies, challenging the ‘true values’ that one holds dear.  That is a pitiful existence, but all to common, and all to human.

For me teaching is a profession I love because it allows me to keep learning, and to both help others learn how to learn, and then grow and learn with them.  For me it’s not a love for my discipline, political science.  If I had a real love for political science I’d have gone heavily into research, looked for jobs at research oriented schools, and focused on teaching specifically the subject of my research, and the state of knowledge in the field of political science.  In fact, my current research and teaching reflects a lack of love of political science, in that I’m critical of the discipline and its methods, and believe that there are some real problems in academia in general.

It’s not that I don’t really enjoy describing differences between European and American polities, comparing diverse analyses of foreign policy, or studying war, conflict, and cooperation.  I am especially interested in political economy and globalization, and as my blog title indicates, I feel extremely lucky to live in a time that is so interesting, full of change and uncertainty.  To live in this era is exciting enough; to be able to study, learn and teach about what this world is going through is fascinating.  I love living in this place and time, even in thinking of depressing issues.  I admit I choke up and my eyes tear very easily, I connect with the emotion of other people in talking about things like war, sex trade, and other issues.  But I would also feel like I was not truly trying to understand life if I didn’t, if I somehow put a barrier up between me and them to make it seem like people who suffer such things are mere objects.  I think sentiment and even emotion are powerful ethical motivators.

The most important part in teaching is not about content, but concerns how to think. I try help students (and myself) free our minds from constraining ideas that we might have learned in the past, especially the idea that we should simply trust authority figures — like college professors.  We need to learn when to trust the experts, and when to ask critical questions.  We need to recognize that life can be viewed from a variety of perspectives, and that the knee jerk response of some — to consider their perspective right and others either wrong or strange — is the biggest hindrance to learning and mental liberation imaginable.  One can’t do that if one doesn’t admit the possibility that ones’ own perspective may be wrong, and if one doesn’t try to understand and learn from other perspectives as well.

Despite all the horrors in this world, all the war, fighting, poverty and disease, this is truly a wonderful existence.  There is a beauty in experiencing life, learning about the world, connecting with others, and breaking out of a daily routine drilled into us by cultural expectations, the television, and our busy hectic lives.  In teaching, I find myself drawn to courses that push me — co-teaching with professors from other disciplines, delving into first year seminars and honors courses that force me to learn new concepts and methods, and thinking about what it means to be human, what life is all about.   It also leads me to believe that our academic disciplines are overly fragmented, often causing us to miss out on the connections that generate insight as we focus on one small subset of knowledge.

So the new year starts.  I can only hope that I can help awaken the curiosity and desire to learn in others the way my teachers awoke it in me.  Because to go through life on auto-pilot, locked into rigid views and unable to truly expand ones’ vision and mindset is sad.  That doesn’t mean one has to go to college; some of the most intelligent and clear thinking people I know never went to college.  They learned from life, from others, and by avoiding judging and blaming — instead they perceive and understand.  In Elizabeth Cooke’s talk she described as her teacher a man who understood nature and the artifacts he found on a Maine lake.  There are teachers and learners everywhere, not just in schools and universities.  But if we teachers do our jobs right, we’ll find that we keep learning and growing, and our students will teach and learn throughout their lives, whatever their ultimate professions.  So let the classes begin!

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