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How Do We Foster a Culture of Lifelong Learning?

For American Baby Boomers (like me), nothing in 2013 has been as inspiring as the sight of Diana Nyad swimming the 110-miles from Cuba to Florida. It wasn’t just that she was the first person to accomplish this feat and that she had failed on four previous attempts. Most remarkable was that she was 64 years old when she made the journey.

We Boomers, that generation born in the aftermath of World War II and shaped by the Civil Rights struggle and the Vietnam War, reinvented the youth culture and adopted this mantra: “Never trust anyone over 30.” Now we are twice that age and reinventing what it means to be old.

When she emerged from the waters of the Caribbean on to beach at Key West, Fla., Nyad said something worth examining. “I have three messages. One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you are never too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team.”

Nyad didn’t come out of nowhere. She swims on the shoulders of scientists and educators (mostly of her generation) who said that lifelong learning and lifelong achievement was possible. Over the last 50 years the thinking about human achievement has been revolutionized. It all begins with the brain.

For centuries, scientists believed that the human brain developed in childhood and was fixed for life. Brain cells that failed to develop properly or were injured, they said, could not be replaced. Scientists believed that parts of the brain were fixed in their function and could not be used to do anything else. The brain was a marvelous machine, they said, but, like all machines, it wasn’t capable of changing or growing.

Since the healthy brain was set in childhood, education was front-ended. The time to learn was when a child was young. Fill the child with knowledge, teach her a trade and she would be prepared for life, a life where the same tasks that were mastered would be done day after day after day.

And there were productive years, we were told. Finish school, get a job – and retire at 65. As Diana Nyad so dramatically demonstrated, our 60’s are not the end, but a time for new beginnings.

Several trends developed in the later years of the twentieth century brought us to this new place. Most important is the science of “neuroplasticity,” the notion that the brain is a malleable organ that changes and develops throughout life. As Norman Doidge chronicles in his excellent book “The Brain That Changes Itself,” scientists who first advanced this idea were belittled and ridiculed as dreamers. But through advances in science and experimentation, they have demonstrated that the brain can be “rewired” to restore function to stroke and accident victims and to those born with disabilities. They’ve also proved that the mental functions and IQs of both the gifted and the challenged can be significantly boosted at all stages of life.

This new understanding of the brain came as Americans were living longer. Over the course of the 20th Century, life expectancy in America made a huge jump, from an average of 49.2 years to 77.5.

With longer, healthier lives, we are expecting more of ourselves. The idea that we could learn well into adulthood is relatively new. The notion of “lifelong learning” was enshrined into policy in 1972 at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which declared that people, especially those living in developing countries, should be given the opportunity to develop new knowledge and skills. In some places this meant literacy programs and job training and, in others, it meant that colleges and universities rethought their mandate and expanded “continuing education” opportunities for adults.

All this beautifully dovetailed with the advent of the age of information that was quickly to follow.  With the advent of the World Wide Web, we became, perhaps more than ever before, a culture that fosters lifelong learning. Suddenly, learning is at our fingertips. We often take it for granted, but what we are able to retrieve with a few strokes on a keyboard is truly remarkable.

On the Internet, the lessons we can learn are endless: how to fix a bike, decorate a cake, juggle, do yo-yo tricks, change a tire, put bait on a hook, hang drapes, skateboard, take a fish off a hook, darn socks and, of course, learn a computer program.

But sometimes I worry that it all comes too easy. Are we truly becoming lifelong learners or are we only mastering tasks? Is there a body of knowledge that we are building? Are we simply a society of dilettantes who rush from one task to the next or are we truly expanding our minds and mental abilities? We know that we can do more. Are we taking full advantage of the mental and physical gifts we have?

Some tasks, scientists say, are not just learned but acquired in such a way that they change the very way our minds work. One of these is learning an instrument. Another is acquiring a new language. Another is taking on a punishing physical challenge, whether in local gym or in the shark-infested waters of the Caribbean.

My personal marathon swim has been to learn how to play the cello in my adulthood.

The conventional wisdom is that a string instrument like the cello must be learned in one’s youth. “A string player should begin at 5,” the great violinist Alexander Schneider said, “Later is too late.”

Perhaps a virtuoso must begin at 5, but one who is willing to settle for something less can begin at any age. And there is increasing evidence that this is possible. I have taken encouragement from a branch of the lifelong learning trend called “the late starters.” It is a movement that started in England with the East London Late Starters Orchestra where parents of a school district in London who watched their children taking music enrichment in the 1980’s asked for some lessons of their own. As a way of appeasing them and hoping that they would get their children to practice, the school district agreed to give lessons to the parents as well. Today more than 200 amateur adults meet in London each Saturday to play classical music together.

In 2007, the movement spread to America with the opening of the New York Late Starters Orchestra. There have long been amateur orchestras in the U.S., but the philosophy of the late staters is somewhat different. There are no auditions and no performances. “If you think you can play, you can play,” the co-founder Elena Rahona told me when I asked if I could join. The orchestra rehearses every Sunday and periodically holds “open rehearsals” where friends and relatives can come cheer us on. But they are not performances. The conductor will stop, correct, demonstrate, reprimand – as if there was no audience present – and then continue.

The late starter philosophy is very Diana Nyad. Her first principle of “never, ever give up,” applies to music as much as it does to water sports. When we want something badly enough, we have to persevere. That means making time for the things we are passionate about and not being discouraged. It also means learning from our failures. Nyad refined her approach with each attempt, devising new ways to cope with obstacles like jellyfish by using topical creams and a face mask. Nyad said in an interview that she probably swam slower than she did on previous attempts but that what she had going in her favor was experience and the maturity to learn from it.

Again and again, I have seen the power of persistence. I have learned that practice makes the impossible suddenly possible.

Her second principle of “you are never too old to chase your dreams” is a reminder that the human mind can meet new challenges. The brain can be rewired and retooled to enable the mind and body to do new things. Scientists now know that new pathways can be created in the brain when a new task is mastered. We can, in fact, change our brains.

Finally, Nyad’s mantra of “it takes a team” is an affirmation of community. She was talking about “team Diana,” her trainers and physicians and coaches and spotters. For me, the team is the other members of the orchestra. We are there both to support each other and to make music together. You may not want to hear us play individually (at least not me), but as a team we make some beautiful music together and reach for something that none of us could do as individuals. In fact, as late starters we are doing something that most of us never dreamed we could do.

Discussion Questions:

1. Is the desire to learn as we grow older something inherent or something that has to be inspired?

2. Are there things that you believe cannot be learned in adulthood?

3. Does the very concept of neuroplasticity encourage people to seek more knowledge?

4. Is Diana Nyad a freak of nature or is there some of her in all of us?

5. What have you learned in adulthood that you never imagined that you could master?

Discussion Summary

“Is it all just self indulgence?”

The question hit me to the core. It came in response to my essay, “How Do We Foster a Culture of Lifelong Learning?” The questioner asked if the pursuits that I was championing – such as taking on a physical challenge, learning an instrument or mastering a new language – were just about bettering oneself. “Are [we] simply being narcissistic?”

My immediate response was to be somewhat defensive. “I’m writing about Lifelong Learning,” I wrote, “you are suggesting Lifelong Giving, a noble impulse to be sure” but one beyond the ken of my essay.

On further reflection, however, I realize that Lifelong Learning is not a selfish act at all. If I learn a new language, for example, it is not for me alone, but a tool for me to communicate with others. If I learn to play an instrument, I can play with others and (hopefully) bring joy to others through music. Even accepting a physical challenge is ultimately about making myself a more appealing person for others. Lifelong Learning is not selfish. It is Lifelong Giving.

This became crystal clear to me after the writer Mark Oppenheimer caused a firestorm with a piece in the New Republic called “Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument.” In the essay he claims, quite astoundingly, that most people gain nothing from childhood music lessons and wonders out loud why he and his wife are putting their daughter through the paces of violin lessons. The benefits of learning classical music and dance, he writes, “are, I think, unfounded and overblown.” The public reaction was so visceral that Oppenheimer wrote what amounted to an apology a day later. “The past day has actually been a rather difficult one for me, as that piece upset a lot of people,” Oppenheimer wrote a day later in the New Republic. Among the responses was one by a New Republic senior editor, Paul Berman, called “Parents Absolutely Should Force Their Kids to Take Music Lessons.”

In case we needed any more proof of this fact, the New York Times ran an article a few days later (apparently unrelated to the New Republic debate) with this headline: “Is Music the Key to Success?” It was music to my ears. The article, by Joanne Lipman, talks about how learning music might just, in fact, make you a better person. Aside from the pleasure and personal achievement that music affords, she writes, it enhances collaboration, fosters creativity, sharpens the ability to listen and helps people move across cultures. Lipman goes on to list a number of successful people, from Condoleezza Rice to Woody Allen to Alan Greenspan to Paula Zahn, who play musical instruments avidly if not professionally. (They play piano, clarinet, saxophone and cello, respectively.) Among the people that Lipman interviews is James D. Wolfensohn, a former president of the World Bank. Wolfenshohn, in fact, is a Lifelong Learner, having taken the cello up as an adult.

A host of Letters to the Editors in the Times continued support for the notion of musical training as building better citizens. “Music students always strive to conquer something just out of reach,” writes Frank S. David of Milton, Mass. “Playing an instrument makes children better listeners in school and other settings,” write Beth Luey and Stella Saperstein of Fairhaven, Mass. “Music foremost provides our children with access to an abstract mode of expression of human emotions that cannot be emulated by words, making their lives richer,” writes Yuval Sheer of New York. Finally, Susan Poser of Lincoln, Neb., writes: “playing music is humbling because it can always be better, more beautiful, more perfect.”

So Lifelong Learning is certainly not self-indulgence. The more challenges that we take on at all stages of life can enhance not only our lives but the lives of those around us. It can make this a more collaborative and more harmonious world.

New Big Questions

1. Which beliefs or qualities are necessary to pursue lifelong learning?
2. How might our culture encourage learning in adults beyond the age of traditional schools?