The devils of learning

Turn to any book and article on the science of learning, and you would be sure to find the phrase “lifelong learning” embedded somewhere in it. The fundamental message of lifelong learning is that learning can no longer be seen as limited to the schooling years, and one needs to keep the candle of learning burning bright till the last breath. Several reasons can be advanced for this emphasis on an activity that is really an investment for the future. After all, any learning acquired today can only benefit you, materially at least, tomorrow. Let us look at both the reasons why lifelong learning needs to be inculcated by all and what devils plague its widespread adoption.

The sheer explosion of knowledge, across all disciplines, is one of the main reasons why learning cannot be limited to the first couple of decades of our life. There is just too much to know and absorb, and too little time to do it in. The second reason is the interdependence on knowledge across disciplines. You touch a subject of your liking and start tracing some of its branches, and you soon see yourself exploring a totally different subject. From the mechanics of robots, you could soon find yourself studying the science of cognition among humans, and in a few sidesteps needed to understand that, you would be delving into history of civilizations. Learning French cooking may lead you to explore the laws of thermodynamics and plant biology. A yoga class can set you thinking about bio-mechanics and leverage. The human mind is not stopping at any boundaries made by experts of a given field. The third reason is easy access – thanks to the Internet and its ubiquity. Can you credibly explain to a teacher why you could not find a certain book or article on the library shelf? Not any more. From Wikipedia to WikiLeaks, information is being made so easily and affordably accessible that lifelong learning can be one free joyride for all.

The fourth reason for urging people to be lifelong learners is the way careers have evolved over the past few decades. Thanks to the proliferation of careers in a wide range of industries, one no longer has to be wedded to one profession for life. It is not uncommon to find someone changing professions 3 or 4 times on one’s productive life. With every change comes the need to re-equip you with new knowledge. I have a friend who has taught himself sericulture, database management, chemical dyes manufacturing, and legal process outsourcing and education management in the course of 25 years of working. You will find such examples proliferating in this modern world. Your grandfather might have been a steel plant supervisor or an Army officer all his life, but your child is probably going to be in five different professions by the time he/she is ready to hang up his/her boots for good. Finally, the one main reason for choosing to be a lifelong learner is the fact that it keeps you young and wealthy! Yes, people who learn more, earn more. Not only that, they remain fresh and enthusiastic about life much longer, and are able to enjoy the fruits of their success. Pity the soul who stops learning after college is done. Such a person has already written his/her epitaph, and it will not have the word “Happy” or “Wise” on it!

Now let us turn our attention to the Devils of Learning. Why does lifelong learning not come easy, even though its benefits are well recognized now? I would put this down to just three devils – Fear, Arrogance and Lethargy.

Fear is at the root of the desire to limit oneself to a time-boxed period of learning, or in such cases, schooling. We are often afraid of the unknown, and this fear pervades into the field of education very easily. Even within the schooling years, we tend to cut ourselves off from the body of knowledge that appears distant, incomprehensible and incongruous. Once we step out of college, and formal learning comes to an end, this fear multiplies, as we are thrown in a sea of turbulence, with few islands of safety. I have seen many senior professionals closet themselves in their comfort zone, limiting contact with “foreign” bodies of knowledge since they do not know what ignorance such contact might expose. This further leads to their isolation from changing trends and developing fields, which in turn amplifies the latent fears. They avoid going to seminars or conferences. They try and adapt their old and ossified knowledge to the modern world, with usually poor results. Some years ago, till the laptop arrived and made it impossible to escape computer literacy at office or home, CXOs of many organizations looked at the personal computer with unabashed fear. I saw this first hand when I took up an assignment some 20 years ago to train senior management of a large and well established public sector undertaking. The topic, as you might have guessed, was “Making life easy with computers”!

The second devil of Arrogance often comes riding on the first. For those in positions of power, arrogance becomes an easy sin. They can order people around to acquire knowledge for them, they can survive in the corridors of corporate power by abusing their authority and they can hide their ignorance behind their easy arrogance. Some even unhesitatingly provide patently wrong facts and data with such bluff confidence that others around them desist from checking things out for themselves. Often, the feudal nature of organizations helps perpetrate this arrogant Circle of Ignorance. The boss mouths an erroneous statement with supreme confidence and chutzpah, his subordinates lap it up as gospel truth and run their errands based on it, and by the time some flunky low down the pecking order finds out the real facts, his voice is conveniently lost in the hubbub of the daily routine. Arrogant managers can very easily neutralize such truth seekers, and continue to build fortresses on their islands of ignorance. Lifelong learning remains a distant and detested enemy to such arrogant people.

Finally we turn to the third devil – Lethargy. Often cloaked under the veil of extreme preoccupation and easy procrastination, this devil is the most common reason for staying away from lifelong learning. Each one of us has done this many times in our lives – postponed acquiring new knowledge citing being extremely busy handling our daily chores. I have wanted to become more proficient in Spanish and French, two languages I picked up during my sojourns in Mexico and France, but despite enough opportunities, I have let this dream remain one. In fact, if there ever was a Nobel for Procrastination, Yours Truly would very much be in the reckoning. Lethargy is not necessary laziness. In our own current fields, we are running around and winning battles, and rejoicing our victories. Yet, when it comes to investing in the future, we find all the right excuses why something cannot be done now. Tomorrow, certainly! Today, not even a Maybe!

Well, such is life, and we have to deal with it. However, lest I start showing my ignorance on the subject (Fear), let me decide to end this post right here (Arrogance) and promise to write another article on “How to deal with the three Devils” in the very near future (Lethargy). How’s that for a really devilish me? Thank God I am not a certified Lifelong Learner!

Pramod Joshi – 29 September 2011

One thought on “The devils of learning

  1. good thoughts ! i think in today’s times of information overload , what to ignore becomes even more important than what to read .. this has lead to more confusion

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