Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Why Lifelong Learning, and How?

Written by johnleemk on 4:22:32 pm Sep 4, 2007.

There are generally two schools of thought concerning the purpose of education. One is that education exists to prepare a person for their professional life; the other is that it exists to prepare them to contribute to society as a citizen.

While both schools have their merits, it is first important to distinguish between education and schooling. (As one luminary is supposed to have said, "I never let my schooling get in the way of my education.")

Schooling is something you are legally mandated to perform in most countries for the first five to twelve years of your life.

Education is (as the cliche goes) a lifelong process. You learn by observing the world around you; as they say, we all attend the school of hard knocks.

But, of course, there are always other educational opportunities. Some people go back to university for another degree; others maintain a lifelong habit of reading. There are many ways to continue your own education.

The interesting thing is, contrary to what you may think, both schools of thought about education would endorse lifelong learning.

Naturally, the "well-rounded", holistic school would endorse it because to be a good citizen, one must always be aware of the challenges faced by their country, maintaining one's civic-consciousness, so to speak.

But professionals must keep learning too. There are some tricks of the trade that can only be learnt on the job; new technologies and discoveries can make old things obsolete. In many countries, doctors can be stripped of their medical licence if they do not demonstrate they have kept up with the latest medical developments.

Thus, as one proverb goes, education is not the filling of a vessel, but the lighting of a flame. Regardless of the purpose you learn, you must want and love to learn.

That should be the ultimate end of schooling — to equip people to learn, and to make them yearn to use this ability they have been endowed with.

After all, what are literacy and arithmetic good for? Reading and calculating of course — but despite the obvious direct usage of these tools, they provide a stepping stone to greater discoveries. A whole world is closed to those who cannot perform basic mathematical operations, to those who cannot read or write. That world of learning is what primary schools should be opening to our young.

Once you have tackled the elementary basics required to learn, why should we force any further schooling on our young? The rest should be simply focused on getting them to love learning.

Of course, people will be afraid that once they are done with schooling, people will not be equipped to handle the real world. "What if they don't appreciate the lessons encapsulated in Plato's Republic?" one school screeches. "What if they can't understand how compound interest works?" gasps another.

But that is exactly why we spent years enabling students to learn — so they can learn for themselves what they want to learn, what they need to learn. Some people may opt to live in a cave; others may be wealthy heiresses who devote themselves to a life of studying astrophysics (hey, it could happen).

If these people need to learn something, they will pick it up; if it is of no use to them, why force it on them? What is wrong with letting people learn what they need to learn, what they want to learn?

It is certainly arguable that attaining such an enlightened populace is not feasible. But even if not everyone can love learning, surely there is a spark of curiosity that can be turned into a flame for most?

After all, curiosity is one trait virtually all of us are born with — it is part of what makes us human. As babies, we stick things in our mouth just to know what they are!

If we can do that much to learn as a toddler, why can't we do the same as adults? Is there an innate reason humans can't be given the tools to quench their own curiosity, an innate reason they can't maintain the curiosity they are born with?

I may be persuaded otherwise with evidence to the contrary, but for the moment I am inclined to think so. The spark of curiosity can either be inflamed or doused. It is all a matter of the schooling one receives.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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