If growth means anything, it means learning. When you learn something, you grow. In life you are either growing or dying, and given the option, most of us would rather be growing. So that means we have to keep learning.
In order to learn anything, people first have to admit that they don’t know everything. This is a very healthy form of humility. You put yourself in a position of learning from others. You acknowledge the authority of others to teach you something. You not only benefit by absorbing information others have to offer, but others benefit from the respect you give them by acknowledging their authority.
The opportunities for lifelong learning are numerous in early 21st Century U.S. culture. Colleges and universities have all kinds of continuing education programs, in addition to their more traditional degree programs. I live in a metro area where every municipality seems to offer its own community education programs. Many quality educational programs are offered through the Internet, so you can study anytime, day or night. Courses are offered by correspondence, video and audiotape. Perhaps the greatest educational opportunity that many of us have is the library. We live in a country where almost anyone can borrow virtually any book that’s ever been printed.
Reading is so important because it gives you the opportunity to benefit from the research and work of someone else –- the author. And it could be work that was done centuries ago. And all authors want their work to be read, so when you read you are not only doing yourself a favor, but you are honoring the author. I once heard an expert on leadership say that not every reader becomes a great leader, but every great leader is a reader. If you read the biographies of the business and political leaders of our time, most will tell you they read a lot, perhaps a couple of books per month.
I think most healthy people must have a yearning for knowledge, to some degree. Knowledge gives a person confidence, and it builds esteem in the eyes of others. Certainly the value of knowledge in the work world is obvious. Employees with PhDs usually make more than those of us with only a bachelors’ degree. Knowing more usually puts you in a better position to solve problems and add value to virtually any organizational effort. That’s one of the reasons so many professions have continuing education requirements. That’s why so many companies are willing to pay for their employees to go to college or undertake additional training.
One of the greatest ways to build meaningful relationships with others is to show an interest in them. Learning is a way to show interest in others, either by learning about them or by learning from them. If you study to learn to speak French, you all of a sudden gain the potential to establish relationships the millions of people living in French speaking places. If you learn something about jazz, you put yourself in position to bond with people who flock to jazz clubs all of the country. Or if you study 19th Century American history, you can connect with thousands of people who are fascinated with our Civil War.
I am a big fan of learning by doing, or of learning through first-hand experience. I do not have an MBA, but I feel like I do, based on 10-plus years of small business experience. For me, it has been very effective to learn by doing; I get a lot more out of making my own mistakes than I do by reading about someone else’s mistakes.
Of course, not everything can be learned directly by doing; most to the time, we have to accept the authority of some expert, that is, someone who knows more about a particular subject than I do. I am very comfortable with this if I know the person has devoted serious study and time to the topic about which they are teaching. That is why I was so comfortable learning in college. My professors had all devoted their lives to the study of literature or language; it was a real privilege for me to absorb the things they said in class.
My fear is that most of us rely on popular media as their main fashion of learning. This is an enormous mistake. Media has its place, but it is not as an authoritative teacher. I personally find television news to be almost worthless for contributing to intellectual health; newspapers aren’t much better. I think the reason typical news outlets fail to contribute to intellectual development is because the stories are presented in such a way that they are not meant to appeal to the intellect, but to emotion. Here’s what I mean.
Almost all news stories depict some kind of conflict –- a union against its employer, consumers against a utility company, voters of one philosophical persuasion against voters with a different philosophical persuasion. The greater the conflict, the greater the story. The greater the distance between the competing interests, the more dramatic the story. So reporters are always looking for the greatest conflicts. They are looking to pair up the parties that are farthest apart. This, by no means, is the best way to represent our world.
For example, when the President of the United States introduces a new idea -- let’s say health care for your pet -- any reporter worth his salt is going to go out and find a group of people who hate dogs and cats to comment on the idea. Now do most people in the country hate dogs and cats? No. Most people really don’t care about dog or cats one way or the other, but it wouldn’t be interesting to interview those people for a story like this. Interviews with these people would not produce a pronounced conflict.
News reporters typically report the extremes, and when they package them in the same half-hour broadcast or put them in the same newspaper article, it makes it look like everyone hates each other, and that simply is not the case. There is plenty of disagreement in this world, but most people get along with their neighbors far better than any of us would be led to believe by reading our local newspapers.
The important thing to remember about anything we learn from television or newspapers is that it is only a start; it is not the final word. And oftentimes, it is only a start of baby steps, leaving the vast majority of the truth about something untouched. Remember when O.J. Simpson was on trial? Everyone was shocked that this man could be a murderer. People were shocked because the only thing most American’s knew about him was that he was a great football player, that he was an energetic sports commentator on television and that he was running through airports for Hertz car rental commercials. Of course, this glimpse doesn’t tell us anything about who O.J. really is, but so many people thought it did. They accepted these media images as the last word on who O.J. is, and so when it turns out that he is something vastly different from all this, the world is shocked. But should it have been? No. There was no way to know from those media snippets who this man was or what was really in his heart.
And, real knowledge is knowing what’s in someone’s heart, not what’s in the newspaper. I know all kinds of people who are up on the news and don’t have a clue about who their neighbor is. Too many people are happy to read the newspaper or plop down in front of the television set to watch the news, but lack the initiative to engage their neighbor or really get to know them. I think that is really too bad –- for both the learner and the neighbor. Intellectual stimulation results from interactivity. Most media doesn’t offer much in terms of interactivity. It is all one-way, and what you are getting really isn’t designed to be useful instruction in the first place.
Media certainly has its place. Oftentimes, a story in the news can spur you into greater study. A newspaper story can be the start of an intellectual journey. I find it can be useful to consider the stories I get from media in the context of other stories, either from other media sources or my own personal experience. Knowledge comes about through intellectual pursuit, which is more akin to getting in shape through diet and exercise than it is to fueling up with a self-service stop at the gas station. People are the source of news, so the best way to learn is to actually visit with the people. Actually talking to someone is better than reading something from someone who talked to someone.
Of course, it is highly unlikely that we will ever get the chance to talk to someone face to face from the other side of the globe, or even from a different part of the country, so we are forced to rely on secondary sources for so much information. The value of that secondary information, however, is proportional to our first-hand information. If I spend my entire day in my house, never interacting with anyone, then the news I get on TV and in the newspaper or over the radio is far less meaningful because I have no self-determined context for the information. All I have is someone else’s context, and the context of that editor or reporter or producer may not in any way reflect my own life and circumstances. However, if I am out in the world most of the day, interacting with people, observing first-hand how people behave on the bus and in the department store and in the restaurant or in church, then I have some context for absorbing stories I get from broadcast and print media.
For many years at one point in my life I did not have a television set, so I hardly ever saw television news. When I mentioned this to someone, they asked “how do you know what’s going on?” “I live my life,” I answered. To this day, I continue to think that is the best way to learn. Live your life. Intellectual health is more about interacting with others than it is about absorbing knowledge. It is easy to learn what is in the newspaper, but it takes a little more effort to learn what is in someone’s heart, even your own. God is the source of all knowledge and He lives in our hearts. We all yearn for God, and that is why we yearn for knowledge. We get to know God by loving our neighbor, and that is the same way we grow in knowledge.
True intellectual health is dependent upon us understanding the relationship between God and knowledge. It is interesting to me that many atheists are very smart people. Knowledge can be very seductive; it can make us believe that we are god ourselves, or that if you have enough knowledge, you don’t need God. Adam and Eve were attracted to the Tree of Knowledge; the temptations that were around in the beginning remain with us today.
Knowledge can have a way of making us arrogant. As some people learn, they fall into the trap of pushing out faith and mystery. As more things are explained to them, and as they figure more things out, they come to believe that they can know everything, that there is no need for faith. These are people who may have a great intellect, but they do not have intellectual health.
Intellectual health begins with humility; this means recognizing the source of knowledge -– God -- and giving thanks to Him. It means recognizing that there is always more to learn, and it means treating others as if you have something to learn from them. That means treating them with respect and reverence, and being willing to spend time with them, listening. It means taking an interest in them, and asking them about areas where they have expertise. For older folks, that may be life in earlier decades, for neighbors that might mean work experiences or growing-up years in others places, for work colleagues that might mean different college experiences or family situations. Everyone has experiences you don’t have. That is all fodder for knowledge that can contribute to your intellectual health. But it requires you to be interested in those people, to make time for them, to really listen to them and to attempt to really see who they are.
They say that if you keep your mind active, you will be healthier, and I am sure there are scientific studies to prove that. But I am convinced that intellectual health is really about keeping your heart active. It’s really about connecting with the people around you. On one level, you can connect with people through broadcast and print media, on another level you can do that through books, and on another level you can do that through formal study, but I think on the most fulfilling level you do that through direct personal interaction with those around you.
tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.
Monday, January 02, 2006
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