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" …all the way down and back again."

Few people learn how to play a musical instrument as adults, perhaps because once musical taste develops beyond a certain (rather uncertain) point, those initial squawky sounds stop sounding like progress but more like failure to the budding virtuoso's ear. When I first picked up that old Washburn guitar when I was in the fourth grade, every sound that emanated from that instrument sounded like sweet music to me, not like the cacophony the rest of the family heard. I "played" until the ends of my fingers blistered, then continued playing until they bled. Then I'd patch them with Band-Aids® and continue playing some more. This story perfectly encapsulates learning for me. For me, it requires a certain (rather uncertain) amount of delusion which fuels an appearance of dedication. I couldn't stop trying to play that old guitar. I remember having little choice in the matter.

Some learning requires real dedication, though.
Sitting through the interminable squawky period while fully experiencing that squawkiness feels simply excruciating. Little reassurance emerges from initial study. It suspends the world sideways, misleading personal judgement. With progress anything but evident, engagement easily undermines intentions. I think it remarkable that anyone puts up with learning anything new. I distrust people who proclaim that they love to learn new things. I think that they mean that they love having learned new things, but the learning itself seems too excruciating for anyone to really love.

I might be a life-long learner, but not by choice. I think learning to be the natural state of man and woman, impossible to shut down no matter how many certifications or degrees one might manage to accumulate. Matriculation seems to merely introduce a next level of learning. For many, their next level of learning involves discovering that their training poorly prepared them for the real world challenges their professed profession presents to them. Another, more subtle sort of learning ensues, squawkier than the more formal training they recently survived. To paraphrase Ghandi, it's learning all the way down.

We speak of learned individuals, learners emeriti, revered for having survived a career of dedicated learning. What did they manage to accumulate by the end? Did they hold a bag full of learned stuff? Some sort of internal Encyclopedia Britannica with their personal knowledge cross-indexed and readily accessible? Had they somehow liberated themselves from the learning struggle to rest on their hard-won laurels while lesser scholars continued their squawky struggle? I doubt it.

A huge difference divides those who like to eat cake from those who really enjoy baking cake from scratch, though we all seem to, by necessity, need to learn how to make the cakes we most appreciate. Those who bake understand that each new creation is a new creation, informed, perhaps, by prior learned experience, but never entirely informed by it. Each bake makes for some new learning, not merely the knowledgable deployment of prior learning. This process never fully resolves into any replicable process. It's learning all the way down.

Learning seems a great burden, an endless challenge for people like me, we who taught ourselves how to passably play the guitar but fail to demonstrate adequate patience with our learning selves to learn Calculus or any foreign language, though once learned, I suspect that even those 'bodies of knowledge' amount to 'fields of learning', too, like English and even simple arithmetic still does to me. I declare that I'm Still Learning, disclosing the bitter taste in the back of my mouth that expected more sweetness than this.

Frustrated near the end of my University studies, I visited with my academic advisor to ask him what he thought I was supposed to be learning from my interactions with the Business School. It seemed to me that the information I'd been frantically absorbing would necessarily manifest a remarkably short shelf life, given the rate of change within the field. He agreed with me, suggesting that the point of all that learning could not possibly be the absorption of great volumes of information, though the exit exams would most certainly try to assess how much information I'd managed to retain. He said that perhaps, just perhaps, the purpose of my university education would turn out to be a deeper understanding of how it is that I manage to learn, and not what I learn at all.

I'm still learning how I learn. Sometimes, I learn through grand obsession. My fingers blister, then bleed, and I persist with the assistance of Band-aids® and some strange delusion that prevents me from acknowledging just how bloody awful I sound. Other times, I grit my teeth, still deceiving myself through the worst of it, hoping to make the best of it one day, clearly not savoring the experience. Still other times, I stumble upon something, as if by accident, and sort of instantly absorb a new gist from the experience. However I might learn, the purpose continues to seem as though it could not possibly be about the volume of information I'm managing to absorb, but rather more probably about appreciating that the dance might be about learning how I'm learning, because it might just be about acknowledging that I'm StillLearningAgain all the way down and back again.

©2018 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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