In August 2017, Prof Paul Bloom, Prof Maria E. Garlock and other scholars from Princeton, Harvard, and Yale penned a short open letter to students. They suggested that any advice they can offer be ‘distilled’ into three words – ‘Think for yourself’. They highlighted that such thinking is difficult but essential for students to progress. They stated, ‘the love of truth and the desire to attain it should motivate you to think for yourself. The central point of a college education is to seek truth and to learn the skills and acquire the virtues necessary to be a lifelong truth-seeker. Open-mindedness, critical thinking, and debate are essential to discovering the truth.’ Although the audience for their letter were students, these scholars really highlight that we all should seek to be ‘lifelong truth-seekers’. Such seeking is a call fo us to be open to learning and growth throughout our lives. Specifically, that we shouldn’t simply accept what we are told but explore and examine it in a reflective rather than dismissive manner. The danger for all of us is that over time our curiosity about the world begins to falter. There may be many reasons for this – the demands of work may revolve around crisis resolution rather than growth; we can get sucked into the accumulation of materiality rather than of wisdom; or we can get so hurt by the world around us we withdraw from everything in a meaningful way. These situations, and more, can rob us of our curiosity and stifle the pursuit of lifelong truth.
Learning then is not just something that happens in formal settings, but is part of ‘becoming a person’ as psychologist Carl Rogers suggested. In essence, a large part of formal education of any kind, whether through universities, apprenticeships etc., is developing our process on how to learn, not simply the content of learning in terms of particular skills, techniques and the like. Rogers identified this process as ‘learning how to learn’ – an everyday striving to embrace personal growth for its own sake rather than simply some external outcome. Prof Peter Jarvis, who dedicated his career to adult and lifelong learning, suggested, ‘we are constructing our own biography whenever we learn – whilst we live, our biography is an unfinished product constantly undergoing change and development – either through experiences that we self-initiate or else through experiences which are initiated by others.’ Importantly, our lifelong truth seeking does not simply relate to learning about ‘things’ (facts, techniques etc) but also seeking out the truth about ourselves. Truth seeking therefore is a process of looking inwards as well as outwards. Rogers and Jarvis are trying to tell us that learning is inherent to living good, healthy, lives. Actualising our lives begin with embracing learning as a personal project that we will never complete.
For all the importance of learning in becoming a person as well as a professional, we spend little time reflecting on it overtly in our lives. Personally, I have to fight very hard to include ‘formal’ types of learning in my week – there always seems to be more pressing demands to reading that book, chatting openly with a colleague, looking up some information and the like. Perhaps what I sometimes miss though is that life itself is ‘grist for the reflective mill’ – essentially our day to day experiences are a rich source of learning. The problem however is often in mining them. I find Dr. Gillie Bolton’s work really helpful here, as she is someone who has explored how we might use writing to help aid our learning. She suggests that we write to learn as much as we learn to write – essentially, writing about our experiences helps us learn about ourselves and the world around us. She calls this approach ‘through the mirror writing’, like that of Lewis Carroll’s story of Alice ‘Through the Looking-Glass’. For me, this process involves ‘trying to make the familiar strange’ by writing about everyday, sometimes mundane, events in an inquisitive manner. Often this process surprises me as I begin to dig further – how I reacted to someone’s throwaway comment; how certain biases influenced my actions; or how misconstruing events completely formed a barrier to communication. Truth seeking is therefore an active, engaged, process, if not necessarily a formal one. It also involves a healthy dollop of humility in acknowledging, as lifelong learners, that we will always be unfinished masterpieces.
Worth a read:
Bolton, G. (2010). Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development. London, Sage.
Jarvis, P. (2009). Learning to be a Person in Society. London, Routledge.
Rogers, C. (1961). On Becoming a Person: A therapists view of psychotherapy. London, Constable.