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Life-Long Learning

Every so often, usually around graduation time, one can see news stories about older people who finally complete their high school or college studies. The older they are, the better their stories seem.

As the typical story line goes, the person dropped out of school (whether high school or college) early for a variety of reasons: to enter the military during wartime, to support the family financially during the Depression or following the death of a parent, or some other trying circumstance. And then “life happened,” he or she got busy with the normal demands of life and just never had a chance to finish what he or she had started. But then the person retired and one day decided to “finish the job,” going back to school for that GED or college degree. And the news media cover the story, complete with film of the person walking across the platform to receive the diploma.

During the accompanying interview, the reporter inevitably asks the person what motivated him or her to go back to school when there was almost no opportunity to use any of the education. Quite often, the response is that the person simply wanted to finish because of a life-long dream that one day he or she would do so. And many of them simply wanted to continue learning. They discovered somewhere along the way that they loved to learn.

One year, I substitute taught two terms at Knoxville Business College (now South College) for an instructor who was on sabbatical while working on her dissertation. I had morning classes and evening classes. The former were made up almost exclusively by recent high school graduates who were still in “party mode.” They either were not working at all or worked part-time jobs flipping burgers or mopping floors. They had little motivation beyond the immediate moment. The evening classes, however, were made up primarily of two groups of students, all older, middle-aged or beyond: those who were in dead-end jobs and wanted to prepare themselves to get better jobs and those who were retired and just wanted to learn for the sake of learning. Guess which students–morning or evening–did better. It wasn’t even close; the older students won that hands-down.

Learning is a life-long process. The sooner one realizes that fact and develops a plan for directing that learning, the more positive will be the result. People who do soon realize that most of their learning actually occurs after they have completed their formal education in high school or college. In fact, the real reason for a college education is to learn how to learn. After that, one learns primarily either in the School of Hard Knocks or his own self-directed educational program.

The professions recognize this fact, and most professions include programs for continued learning for those in them. In my own life, for example, after I had completed my bachelor’s and master’s degree programs and began teaching, I attended various annual teachers conventions where the organizers offered numerous seminars and workshops on various topics designed to help us improve our knowledge and teaching. When I was an editor, I attended several conferences and seminars for that profession. And there were also numerous conferences for historians and writers.

But beyond those formal, professional educational opportunities, I found that the most effective and fulfilling opportunities came from following my own self-developed plan of learning. I have taken several classes from the Great Courses program ( http://www.offergreatcourses ), including courses in the American Civil War and the Third Reich. Both courses were taught by eminent scholars, experts in their topics: Gary Gallagher and Thomas Childers. I was so impressed with those courses that I’m going to take two more (on aspects of the writing craft) if the USPS will ever deliver them. The courses are a steal with the current 80 percent discount being offered by The Great Courses.

I’m currently enrolled in the first of what I hope will be many courses offered online by Hillsdale College. It’s an examination of Winston Churchill and statesmanship.  I can view the lectures any time I want–or can fit into my schedule. I can watch them multiple times if necessary. But the real incentive is that the courses are FREE!

But the greatest learning is what one does on his or her own. For example, with the Churchill course, I’m locating online and reading practically every speech, essay, or book mentioned in the video lectures about that great man and what he believed. They reinforce what the instructor has been emphasizing, further solidifying the information and ideas in my mind. That’s a lesson I learned from Dr. Carl Abrams. He encouraged me to read the books that were listed in the bibliographies of the books he required me to read for his class on the History of the South. From that habit came my first book, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, which I was led to write because of all I was learning by following Abrams’s advice.

The key to continued learning, however, is to have a plan. Don’t do it willy-nilly. Find a subject you want to learn about, and then develop your plan, listing books you want to read or courses you want to take. Then, do something with what you’re learning. Share your knowledge with others. Write an article or essay. Prepare a speech or presentation about the topic. Inspire others to follow your lead and develop their own life-long journey of learning.

Ronald Reagan said, “You can never be lonely if you have a good book.” But that is just the beginning. There are always more books out there that others can recommend on your topic. Try some of them, and then share your wealth of knowledge. When you stop learning, you begin to stagnate, and stagnant water stinks!

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