Lifelong Learning

St. Jerome in his study (Jan van Eyck, 1390-1441)

“Lifelong learning” has become something of a buzz-phrase lately, and I find myself a wary adherent. Certainly I am in favor of learning throughout life — my own, especially, since it’s the only one I have any control over. My unease with the phrase is partly born of the fact that it is so ill-defined that two people can talk about it without really referring to the same thing at all — and, what’s worse, not even realize that that’s what they’re doing.

Some of my skepticism, to be fair, may come down to imagery. The middle-class take on “lifelong learning” conjures a comfortable vision of “viewers like you”, politely committed to PBS, politically engagé book clubs, civic institutions of avant-garde culture — museums, theater, concerts, ballet, and poetry readings. Don’t get me wrong: I’m quite fond of museums, theaters, and concerts. I like poetry too, though most of the poetry readings I’ve ever been to have bored me silly. But the persistent theme is that of the sophisticated onlooker — a critic, rather than a participant; someone affluent enough to pay top dollar for a veneer of urbanity, without paying the real cost of winning a truth — a licensed dilettante and primarily a consumer, not an artist or a musician or a scientist or a writer or a creator of any other worthwhile human good. It remains, for all its virtuous posturing, passive and committed to nothing real. On this view, “lifelong learning” is an endless buffet of appetizers, to be tasted without purpose and without result. Such a stance allows its adherents to remain fashionably late but safely on the sidelines, never risking an honest confrontation with the truth, maintaining a delicately ironic view of everything, and squandering none of their stingy stock of love on anything but themselves.

Is the imagery valid? Certainly not everywhere, but it might challenge all of us. This kind of “lifelong learning” is principally an adornment — something superadded to the real business of life, which, in Wordsworth’s pithy reduction, is chiefly “getting and spending”. It’s like attending to the paint job on the car, while neglecting the engine that actually propels it. It is vacant, self-regarding, and exhibitionist, existing not so much to see as to be seen. One need only watch people move like herds of sheep through a great museum like the Louvre or the Metropolitan, collecting a selfie each with each celebrated work of art, but wasting no time on actually seeing, understanding, or engaging with any of it. Learning that can penetrate so shallowly and leave so little residue behind is specious. Real learning is invasive, transforming, and impossible to contain or control. It is, however, life’s main business — not just for me, but for everyone, whether they know it or not. Some getting and spending may be necessary along the way, but as a means, not as an end.

The opposite image-set is equally unsatisfactory — the mad scientist or occultist pursuing hidden mysteries, Don Quixote mistaking windmills for giants, or the adventurer hoping to touch the flammantia moenia mundi, feet never quite touching the ground, and head in the clouds — intemperate, volatile, and maybe a little out of control, like Victor Frankenstein, probing What he Should Not — but typically lacking the staying power to see the search through to any real end. This kind of lifetime learner is chiefly seeking the esoteric, some proprietary truth to be his or her own private domain, driven by a gnawing compulsion to be special and especially known to be in the know — in short, a conspiracy theorist, a wing-nut, a lunatic — or perhaps a prophet. With the exception of the genuine prophet, though, this type too seems more concerned to seem wise than to be so.

Leaving the role of the prophet to the side as a special case (and one to which I have never felt specifically called), neither of those apparent opposites seems worthwhile. Both, in one way or another, are vacant window-dressing, whether one’s audience is the social in-crowd or the adherents of a fringe cabal. Neither is where I want to see myself. The former seems dishonest, and more than a little narcissistic; but I would just as soon not regard myself as a wing-nut either (whatever the evidence may suggest). I don’t feel called to be a prophet, either, though I would feel obliged, if called, to serve to the extent of my poor powers. So far, the red phone has remained quiet.

And yet I remain convinced that there is a course through this conundrum that is neither of those things, and that a real engagement with lifelong learning is not only worthwhile but essential to fulfilling our personhood. So is there a real pattern of genuine learning that isn’t just for the sake of appearance. What does real lifelong learning look like when no one else is looking?

I would say that the chief identifying characteristic is probably humility, a posture of respect for and submission to the truth. Genuine lifelong learning prioritizes the truth above anything having to do with oneself; it requires modesty about one’s own achievements, coupled with a fierce unwillingness to settle for a cheap simulacrum of learning for the sake of appearances.

I’m not so naive as to enjoin on everyone the life of a poor scholar. Sure, some getting and spending is necessary to keep body and soul together — but is chiefly in service to the higher pursuit of what is true. The trick (as so often) is keeping the means and the ends distinct from one another.

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