Monday, October 8, 2012

Lifelong Learning?

Most of life’s learning serves adaptation in the sense that its subject is the world. In a real way even such arcane studies as astronomy help us in a practical way; they provide an important grounding for our stance and action: orientation. The knowledge of history belongs in this bin too; we can no more meaningfully shape history by individual action that we can steer the stars, but knowing great patterns of collective behavior and their cyclings makes us more sober and therefore detached observers of that which unfolds about us on quite another time scale than our own brief life.

The adaptive urge has been a great teacher for me. Amusingly the very subjects I dismissed in youth because they didn’t draw me became central to my work-life: mathematics and chemistry. These were among “required” courses, but C- was good enough for me. Then, under the prod of necessity I later learned them on my own; the difference both in the feel of these subjects and the experience of learning was enormous. What matters is the inner self wanting to learn something. Without that we get, ah, what goes by the name of education. There is also a lucky part to this, at least for me. I can’t abide understanding something “just enough” to get some job accomplished. Once I’m into a subject, I can’t rest until I’ve grasped its entire inner pattern. This does not mean academic level command of the subject—but it means penetrating to its essence, at least so far as this is possible. And since that essence is elusive, it leads to a lifelong interest.

There are two kinds of forced learning: the first is delivered by collective social pressure; the second is delivered by the will of the individual. The first is easily resisted, finessed, satisfied. The second is horribly demanding, irresistible; it arises from desire. In my case the image of the junk yard dog always arises. I’ll be damned if you resist me! Let’s call that the response if the subject appears as an obdurate enemy. But the mystery of the subject may appear in feminine guise as well, in which case what drives one on is total love.

So where in all this, one might wonder, is the quest for truth? Curious business that. The Truth seems at first to be wrapped in the garments of the world. Slowly, slowly, as these are examined, understood, and removed, more and more of the real Truth emerges to view. Then, in advanced years, the world itself becomes more and more transparent, manner of speaking. The discovery of the Higgs boson brings more merriment than awe. That is because something has begun to shine beyond such petty matters and the Real is finally emergent.

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