Lifelong learning is the “ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated” pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons.”
For the first few years of our lives, everything is new. We know nothing. We are a blank, tactile canvas, learning to interact with a brand new world around us. And as Neil DeGrasse Tyson famously said in a keynote speech, children are the original scientists.
“Kids are born scientists. They’re always turning over rocks, they’re plucking petals off of flowers, they’re always doing things that by and large are destructive. And that’s what exploration kind-of is; if you take stuff apart, whether or not you know how to put it back together. This is what kids do. An adult scientist is a kid who never grew up.”
Neil DeGrasse Tyson
They learn by using their five senses in combination with their young, fledgeling brains to interact with their environment and get feedback in a constant game of give-and-take. They are testing the boundaries, discovering the rules and the operating systems of their new world. This can be seen in the plasticity of kids less than five years old. They can learn anything.
As we grow, we are then steered into the formal education system. To begin with, it is often considered playtime, and younger kids in primary education spend much of their time the same way as they did in their first years. Playing, colouring and exploring, just in a classroom setting. This is the transition stage.
Then comes the long, hard slog of formal education. In the United Kingdom, this goes on until you are at least 16 years old – I believe in the past few years it has been made compulsory for children to stay in education until they are 18, undertaking either college or sixth-form studies. It can become grinding on many kids, and the love of learning can often be lost (or at least buried) in the demands of learning a number of subjects, many of which may not interest every child.
It requires targeting. I believe there are a number of subjects that should be taught in schools, but aren’t; one example of this is personal finance, or the ability to manage your money, a skill so many people have difficulty with in the modern day with the trappings of credit cards. (My go-to reference for this is www.mrmoneymustache.com!) Another subject grossly underrated by formal education is that of selling. Sure, not every child will get a job in sales, but each of them will have to sell themselves when it comes to job interviews, negotiating for pay rises or varying working arrangements. Skills of communication and copywriting are equally as relevant. Knowing how to touch-type, write a decent letter or e-mail, put my thoughts into a digestible format and communicate with my peers has been a vital life skill.
I am also fairly convinced that not every kid wants to do languages or science, or study literature or geography, to as deep a level as they are made to, though the basics of all of these subjects will benefit them by providing a wide educational grounding. But the current system demands this and contains kids in classrooms when they are at their most energetic. It neglects the fact that the classroom is not the only learning environment. Life is a lesson. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson explains above with his egg analogy, it’s a chemistry and physics experiment. Let them drop it!
When they leave school, they either go to university or to the world of work. University is becoming more and more common, from 10% of young adults in the 1970’s and 80’s to nearer 50% in 2017. It is almost being seen as essential, something that we are “expected” and “required” to do, though this couldn’t really be further from the truth. University was beneficial in the 1980’s because such a small proportion of school leavers went – it meant that those who did go had skill differentiation from their peers, and graduate salaries were more substantial to match. Also, at this time university was free. If you increase the supply of graduates, you devalue the demand – graduate salaries are less distinct than they have ever been at a time when university costs are rising exponentially. We are getting beyond equilibrium.
In my personal case, university education put me off my love of learning for some years. As part of the mad rush to secure university places, I decided on an institution (Loughborough University, the sports Mecca in Leicestershire) long before I had convinced myself that the course I was pursuing was the right one. I went to university at 17 immediately after I left school; how much can an individual truly know themselves, and the direction they want to go, at that age? Very few people do.
So I went to study a BSc in Physics, on the grounds that it was the subject I was best at and I found it semi-interesting. In retrospect, that is not sufficient drive to study a subject for three years, and the required diligence took a toll on my desire to grow – it sapped a lot of my motivation, through no fault of the course itself but rather my inability to take the time to be truly selective. It was a great experience, and I have no regrets about it, but it was the wrong course for me.
It took me a few years, including the majority of my time in the Navy, to re-discover the love of self-educating. True happiness is ineradicably intertwined with struggle. Many people have the ideal image of retirement as lying on a beach, sipping margaritas/mojitos/their cocktail of choice. But for how many consecutive days could you do that before you felt fat, lazy, hungover and miserable? Eventually, it would get old.
Being in an environment of growth, we are happy. It is commonly said that “you learn something new every day”. That’s a pretty damn good thing. For as long as that continues, you are on an upward trajectory. You know a little bit more than you did the day before. You are growing. True happiness can only be found in an environment of growth. Else you are stagnating. And nobody wants to be stagnant.
Every time you pick up a book, every time you interact with a friend or a stranger, every time you undertake a new activity, go to a new place or see a new sight, you have an opportunity to expand your world-view, to draw down new information into the recesses of your cognitive space and store it. It is the biological equivalent of an investment account. Tuck away your money, you have a bit more tomorrow. Store new information, seek new challenges and overcome them, you have a little more mental capital to applly to tomorrow’s tasks. That will forever be valuable.