The Summer of Informal Education

Explorations yield learning and if not, we would not know the things we do today. Because men and women from our history undertook the endeavor to discover, we thrive today on the knowledge of their experiments, thoughts, and ideas. We hear many great stories about Aristotle who was a scholar among scholars. In his life time, he studied physics, math, language, and theater. He acted as both a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. He sought knowledge and enlightenment throughout his life, but had no formal education.

Aristotle believed that education should evolve from a form of habit, a general curiosity to learn more about the universe and humanity. He laid the foundation for the essential liberal arts education.

To truly enjoy life and learn about ourselves, we must explore beyond ourselves, our comfort zones, and even our fancies. Should a physicist be able to write poetry? He should not have to, but to do so would make his life richer. Can a musician also talk about the aesthetics of logic, about metaphysics? Why not? We’re pigeon-holed into believing we must study only what can flourish an occupation. While it is extremely important to learn a trade, we misuse education as a means to entering a higher strata of income.

What education should really be, rather than a means to getting a degree to start a job, is an exploration of humanity. Aristotle learned from Plato this way, not simply focusing on one subject but spanning all subjects. Wait, you may say, but then people will waste their time and money at college. They will take courses they do not need like sailing, basket weaving, or medieval literature when really, they only wanted to become doctors. I agree fully that pursuing a degree in something you may not want a job in is worthless, pointless, but that does not mean we cannot study these things.

Over the summer, students tend to dull, the sharp wit and sword-edged intelligence becoming rubbery and useless. Why do so many high school and college students cease to learn over the summer, stop challenging their minds? Simply, we base our education around not learning but a structured way of doing something. We toil at projects not designed to teach us, but to keep us busy. We spend our high school careers completing tasks, checking off all the boxes so we can receive a degree at the end of four years. But how many of us truly learn mitosis or cognitive psychology or function integration? If we do not retain this knowledge, what is the purpose of high school? A time when we simply prove we can temporarily gain knowledge and regurgitate it? We do not prove anything else, that we have truly figured out something or that we can do something useful.

We should not show up to class simply to show up. We need to learn something, and the lack of learning is the fault of the system, the teachers, and the students combined. Somewhere, everyone is doing something wrong and that became the huge gap of true education we now face.

Sadly, a degree does not signify that you have learned anything, only that you’re willing to put your mind to tasks (which is a mightily useful skill, true). But how about those things we must learn about philosophy, humanity, music, arts, communication, bar tending, swimming, sky diving, Batman, and photography? Surely we cannot get degrees for all these things, and we don’t have to. We only need to follow Aristotle’s example. If public schooling fails us, we can at least take it upon ourselves to continue learning things that interest us to better flesh out who we are.

I encourage you, especially if you’ve just graduated high school but even if you haven’t been to school in fifty years, to continuously educate yourself. There are books written on everything possible, and with the advent of the internet, we cannot be excused to not know something. No, you don’t need to go to college to learn something. Professors offer insight and structure, but you can create your own structure and form your own insights.

When studying like this, we can use our own ethical, moral, and cultural views to examine the views of others’. We can learn almost anything as long as someone else has learned it already, and through introspection, experiment, and thought, we can discover new ideas no one has ever considered before. I will certainly be devoting a lot of my free time to independent study. Not oppressive, like school, where we are forced to work on things we will soon forget. Instead, I will explore things that interest me, things I won’t be able to study in college.

For example, I’ve taken a hobby-like interest in higher physics. Now, I’m terrible at math, so to actually pursue physics at school would be suicidal. But my interest can afford me the time during this buffer summer to explore the ideas. If I took a class, I would fail. My curiosity would be punished. But here, I can safely learn about something without the repercussions of failing out of college. Do you realize the significance now of pursuing an informal as well as formal education?

I will also be studying comic books, not just reading them, but trying to understand how they have affected society and how superheroes can reflect each generation’s ideals. Again, not something I’d suggest taking in college, but very interesting none-the-less. Therefore, when I enroll in school as a Freshman next year, I won’t be totally clueless. I won’t have let my brain rot into a gelatinous mound during that summery hot weather time.

I will also of course continue writing. With much free time comes much responsibility to do something useful. I’ll blog more about the project I’m working on as I draw closer to finishing. Needless to say, I have been rethinking how to approach my writing career and have been whittling away at something big. Watch out for that announcement.

I’m going to relax, of course. Sleep in, yes. But I won’t stop learning just because summer has come. I hope I never will.

Want to learn something but don’t have a lot of extra time. Check out TED talks on a myriad of subjects. It will take maybe 10 minutes to learn something incredible.

Billy Collins Teaching



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