Learning To Learn

by Jay Jamison

Most area commencement ceremonies are now over, and a new set of people will be sent out to face a difficult world. The hope is that all the years of schooling will equip them with enough knowledge so they have a good chance of becoming productive citizens. Most high school graduates finish their secondary education around their seventeenth or eighteenth year. The average life expectancy (2020 data) is about 77.28 years in the United States. That means roughly 20% of our newly-minted graduate’s lives were spent being raised from infants and then attending elementary and high school, before we expect them to go out and be productive citizens.

Our world is a very complicated place, requiring knowledge of many things, including the ability to communicate with others on an indefinite number of topics, which partly explains why there are so many subjects covered in schooling. The manner by which we communicate also requires some training, including speaking, writing and clicking buttons on a keyboard in the right sequence — a skill I still haven’t mastered to my satisfaction. Productive citizens may also be expected to be able to make simple calculations, since part of being productive citizens will involve a very large number of exchanges, measurements, calculations of probabilities and other problems involving quantities.

During the course of the human story, we have made some extraordinary achievements, but we have also made many tragic blunders. That’s why a knowledge of history is important. In his little article, “How to Write History,” Dixon Wecter points out that, “A chimpanzee with a stack of empty boxes and a banana hanging out of reach soon learns by his own experience.” We humans, he explains, learn from the experience of others. Knowing history makes that possible.

A basic understanding of science is also a plus for the productive citizen. Adopting the scientific method for gaining knowledge of our world, through observation, forming hypotheses and then testing those hypotheses, has led to some of the greatest advances in human civilization. Literature, music, social sciences, art … the list goes on. All of these and more are available in most school systems leading up to graduation.

One skill I hope our new graduates have acquired in their long years of schooling, is the ability to learn how to learn. It would be folly to assume that when high school is over, every graduate leaves with a complete set of knowledge and skills.

When I graduated from Jacksonville High School 49 years ago, the telephone system was almost entirely landlines. The phone was a device attached to a wire, and you talked into a thing called the receiver, which was attached to the body of the telephone by a coiled wire. Pictures were taken by cameras that required film, which had to be processed to make prints. There were no personal computers, smartphones or GPS devices. Forty-nine years ago, there were basically three television networks. I balanced my checkbook, when my bank statement came in the mail, using a pencil and ledger paper. There were no scanners at the checkout in stores. I had to learn and adapt to many unforeseen changes in the last half century, and so will the new graduates.

Schooling provides the bare minimum of mental tools needed to face the unknown changes that are sure to greet this year’s graduates in the future. Our world is ever-changing, and to meet that challenge, graduates should assume that commencement is not the end of learning, it is just the beginning.

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