Far Shore Essays
Alexander M Zoltai
Nine Tempestuous Moons
LEARNING IN AN EDUCATIONAL UNIVERSE
Alexander M Zoltai
Escaping again. I was with a friend who had just done a bad drug deal for our traveling money. We were on a bus, from Cleveland, Ohio to Portland, Oregon, nursing two roaring hangovers earned during a fevered night of anxious "decision-making"—feeding our grandiosity with as much intoxicant as possible. If I'd been twenty years old, it could have been said I was sowing my wild oats; but, I was forty and escaping my responsibilities. Consciously, I imagined I was going to seek my Fortune. Subconsciously, my goals were to continue my learning of how-to-get-by-on-next-to-nothing and my education in street-wisdom.
While in Portland, telemarketing for cash and drugging for relief, I ran into one of my cousins. I hadn't seen her for twenty years, so, rather naturally, we went out to eat then fell into reminiscing. Because of that reunion lunch I experienced my first major shift in educational viewpoint and gained a dramatically different perspective on my constant thirst for learning.
The shift happened while she was recalling her earliest images of our families getting together. She saw my sisters in the kitchen with our mothers, her brothers outside with our fathers, and me sitting alone in the library reading a book. My sisters' friendly taunt came back to me—"Alex, the walking encyclopedia."
Suddenly, what had seemed a normal part of my personality took on the dimensions of an obsession; a warm, smothering, anti-social obsession. I saw with burning clarity that all my devotion to study and the acquiring of knowledge had backfired. The only work I was willing to perform for society was getting on the telephone and using my verbal street-smarts to con homeowners out of their money. Massive pride for what I knew and bitter shame for my social position began to conspire in a desperate heat of soul-birth. I was like a caveman who knew all the names of all the rocks but, for some perverse reason, wouldn't pick one up and knock down some supper. I would take the time to study whatever suited my personal opinion of The Important, but I had, in my pursuit of learning, rushed past important structures of education. In my hyper-awareness of rocks, I could barely see the mountains. Being slammed into this particular mountain woke me up to where all those rocks came from. But, it would be years before I scaled even the lowest of the foothills. The walking encyclopedia, so full of learning, had just begun his Higher Education.
My confusion about the relationship of learning and education was dangerously widened by the disease of addiction and woefully deepened by the social dis-eases of twentieth-century Western culture (shot-through with addictions, obsessions, compulsions…). I was immersed in a complicated and self-esteem-shattering campaign of using my learning ability to know more than the average citizen; then, using that knowledge to justify my rebellion against being an integrated member of society. In high school my counselor said, "You have so much potential. It's such a shame you're not using it." Far from feeling guilty, I was proud I was doing so well resisting the System. Countless times I've told the story of my high school girlfriend coming to me for help with her homework. She was the one who finished second in our graduating class of 450; I finished 135th. And, just to put one more nail in the crucified form of the System, I'd go on to say that she would have finished first if she hadn't been female—attacking the injustice committed against her while I added justification to my crusade. Now, in my 50s, I still see our social and educational systems as deeply flawed. I also see that my battle with them was noble but misguided.
As I sit here, for the fourth time in my life, engaging in what society calls higher education, writing this essay for my English class, surveying the territories my learning and education have each secured, I see the utter dependence of education on the quality of the learning that fills it; and, more importantly, the need for clearly-defined, comprehensive goals of education to insure proper learning. I'm also aware of many other people called "bright", "exceptional" or "natural learners" who are as chaotically confused as I was.
To aid this explication of the vitally interrelated meanings of learning and education, I glanced into the Oxford English Dictionary. Under "learning" was "…receiving instruction or acquiring knowledge…." and "Knowledge…acquired by systematic study…." Under "education" was "The process of nourishing or rearing….", "The process of 'bringing up'…with reference to social station, kind of manners and habits acquired….", "…systematic instruction, schooling or training given…in preparation for the work of life….", and "Culture or development of powers, formation of character, as contrasted with the imparting of mere knowledge or skill." It appears the meaning-experts see a larger role in society for education than for learning; and, they see learning as a tool of education. I agree. This is an educational universe in which learning is a tool that acts to expand the potential for humanity's education. Did that seem like a circuitous definition? Well… It was meant to be.
Look at our history. We began as scattered groups of families learning the rudiments of physical existence on the planet. We evolved into tribes that wove a primarily emotional learning into mythic educational systems. We moved on to city-states that promoted a more rational learning; planting the seeds of current educational processes. Now we have nations that are refusing to take the next step in the process—promoting spiritual learning in order to actualize the ages-long dream of peace on earth and good will to all.
Everything evolves: the universe; galaxies, stars and planets; plants, animals and humans; families, tribes and nations. Human evolution proceeds through cycles of learning and education. And, all cycles conclude with an important transitional phase of tearing down or transforming the antiquated to prepare for the next cycle in an ever-expanding process.
We are in one of those transitional phases—between national organization and global order—and we are ridding ourselves (or, the process of carrying "…forward an ever-advancing civilization." 1 is forcing us to rid ourselves) of what doesn't work to make way for what will. Our social dis-eases and ailing educational systems, our problem learners and addicted teachers, even our brightest and best citizens are involved in humanity's late adolescence, struggling our way toward a larger allegiance, a more mature manner of living on our planet.
All schemes to fix educational systems or improve the learning skills of students must focus on the plight of human consciousness during this phase of the world's evolution—changing gears so fast the transmission isn't working—needing more than a repair job; crying for a new design. Even with all the best attempts at paying attention to different styles of learning and different cultural modes of education, there will remain the need to set a higher goal for all learning and education. No longer will it suffice to learn the names of the rocks with precision the proceed to lay waste to every piece of supper in sight. Educators must ask the questions: For what human purpose are we proceeding? How will our methods impact all of humanity?
Two gargantuan questions! But then, it's not every day that the whole human race is involved in the most prodigious reorganization project imaginable. We won't, educators or learners, be fulfilling our role in this marvelous process unless we ask questions that big. It's been known for ages that the part affects the whole. Now that the whole involved in the equation is, very realistically, all of humanity, each part, each person, is being more insistently pulled into the solution.
Detailed answers to such questions involve issues beyond the purpose of this essay. And, the process of answering them demands a multidimensional, cross-discipline approach befitting the necessary change in thinking—from a person-centered view (whether in village, town, city, state or nation) to a human-centered global orientation. I can only give a hint of the flavor of the answers by quoting Lucy Smith, Rector of the University of Oslo, as she quoted the constitution of UNESCO to support her idea that education has the competence, possibility and duty to promote the "intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind." 2
Now that I ask myself my own little versions of those questions—For what human purpose am I proceeding in my learning, my education, my life? How will my methods impact humanity?—my personal struggle with addiction is easier to bear; my war with society's systems has gone to truce; and, my potential for real education has stepped ahead of my ability to learn.
The man who was the proudly walking encyclopedia is working hard to become more like a humble library.
1 Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, (Wilmette, IL, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976) 215
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2 Lucy Smith, IAU Fourth Mid-Term Conference, Bangkok, Topic II: Universities and The International Knowledge Enterprise, Workshop II.4: Universities, Social Transformation and Access to Knowledge, (Sep. 28, 1998)
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Nine Tempestuous Moons
Alexander M Zoltai, Far Shore Publications, 1998-1999