In my second semester, senior year of high school, I had it all figured out. And this isn’t some sarcastic quip like at the start of some teen rom-com or Disney channel show. I was living the life. I had known where I was going to college since December (which alleviated a lot of the stress my peers were experiencing, plus I was going to beautiful Claradise), I had seen out my water polo career with a 4-peat CIF championship win, I barely did any school work as all my teachers realized us seniors had no desire (or willpower) to do any more “busy work” or serious learning, and I had a great summer job lined up working as a lifeguard at the beach. My days consisted of school work during the day, a nice swim practice after school to stay in shape, and hanging out with friends.
Once summer began, I became a full-time beach bum. I’d wake up anywhere from 9-10:30, go to “work”, enjoy my hour long paid break that consisted of surfing, running on the beach, or, if I was feeling particularly lazy that morning, getting some grub from the local burger joint or sandwich shop. Through my lifeguard department, I got scuba certified for free, I got to enjoy the famous Del Mar Horse Races for free on their opening day, and got free tickets to the San Diego summer fair. Essentially, being a city lifeguard in a beach town with a lot of fun stuff has its perks. After I got off work at 6 or 8 in the evening, I’d get to enjoy a nice home-cooked dinner prepared by my mom and dad, or spend time with my girlfriend, or go hang out with my friends.
I’d say I was on cruise control for this part of my life, but perhaps even that would be a lie. Setting cruise control in a car requires some sort of effort, as you still have to watch the road. I imagine a more accurate feeling is like having a personal chauffeur that knew exactly where I wanted to go. And trust me, I enjoyed it. Life was good, but like all good things, it came to an end, and college began. When college rolled around, I said goodbye to my friends and family, my coworkers, and perhaps biggest of all, my days of getting paid to watch the sunset. A new time of my life was about to begin.
As school started, I had to try and get back into the routine of school, and it was tough. Every day felt like a grind to get through school work I so I could spend time with friends. At times throughout my year, “learning” felt like some abstract idea invented by the professors and teachers of society. Like it was invented in order to secure their jobs and place in the world. School was not about learning but was just something we have to do. It’s like a geometry student complaining about having to memorize the Pythagorean theorem because “When will I ever use this in real life?” But like the geometry student, I tried to learn it anyway, as tests and grades are definitely a part of real life.
Now this line of thinking works for many people; it worked for me during my time as a total beach bum with not a care in the world. Unfortunately for me, I found it did not work so well for me in college. In addition to the classes I’ve enjoyed in my freshman year, I’ve taken some classes which I haven’t enjoyed as much. For example, Spanish remains a complete mystery to me, even though I have completed the university requirement for “learning” a foreign language. Calculus can be quite tricky, as remembering when to take the derivative or when to integrate can be confusing to me. All this learning seemed to slowly pile up in my mind, like my hamper in the days leading up to doing laundry. Recently though, I’ve slowly begun to realize that learning is not about memorizing information, but about understanding ways to better yourself and improve the world around you.
This year, I got to take a business ethics course, taught by a man who wrote one of the most widely used business ethics textbooks in the world. I could even buy a super cheap copy online which came with a warning “Circulation of this edition outside of the Indian Subcontinent is UNAUTHORIZED.”
And if you’re wondering, the answer is yes, the irony of illegally buying an ethics textbook was lost on me at the time. In this class, I was exposed to things I had literally never thought about before. Who would have thought there were different lines of thinking about what makes certain actions moral? I got to read (albeit I was forced to read) the thoughts of famous philosophers who explored what drives humans to be human and how we can be the best human. I’ve never been a religious person, so I always just thought morality could be summed up as “being a good to people,” however, the words of philosophers like John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and even Karl Marx have stuck with me and seem to influence my daily life; I’ve constantly been trying to view different situations I find myself in as ethical decisions which contain a moral argument.
My critical thinking and writing course (the course for which I am writing this) exposed me to different arguments against eating meat, but also how to view these arguments in a critical manner and express my own critical opinions. I’ve always felt I am a stronger orator than writer, as growing up with a quick-witted older brother seemed to force that hand. Because of this, I’ve had a tendency to prefer reading material heavy with facts and solid data that I could rely upon in a verbal argument. In the past, I’ve read material about why hyenas were never domesticated by ancient African societies, just for fun.
You’d be surprised how many times I have been able to call upon my knowledge of hyenas’ uncontrollable anal glands which release a pungent scent that follows them everywhere they go. In my writing class, I again was forced to read different material than what I had been previously exposed to. My readings in previous English classes were works of Shakespeare or Mark Twain, but this class contained writings from more contemporary authors and a style I was unfamiliar with, like “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace. These essays resonated with me in a way much different than facts and data or Romeo and Juliet, as they contain critical arguments which can be very applicable to the real world. For probably the first time in my life, I’ve gone back to read things that were originally assigned to me in a class purely because I found them interesting.
For these classes, I’ve had the opportunity to analyze things in our world in a way that was previously foreign to me. Writing about different decisions individuals have made in their lives and applying an ethical lens to their actions can open us up to unique viewpoints. In ethics class, for example, I learned one of the biggest impediments to moral decisions is a lack of framing, meaning people do not frame decisions as moral ones, but perhaps as a purely business decision (Velasquez 49). This matches up with something I read in my writing class, which argues people will lie and cheat less if you subtly remind them they have some sort of moral code (Airely). This information has stuck with me in a completely different manner than Spanish grammar (or English grammar really), as it challenges me to use this knowledge in my daily life.
I feel confident these classes have redefined the meaning of “learning” in my head. Learning is much more than memorizing things teachers assign or knowing how to do calculus. The greatest mathematician in the world cannot utilize his great mind if he has no desire to sit behind a desk for hours working on new theorems and formulas. Even though he can understand everything he has been taught and apply these things in new ways others have never thought of before, he will do nothing with it. This mathematician needs to learn something other than math (After typing that out I realize it reads a lot like the plot of Good Will Hunting, and I’m cool with that because it’s such a great movie).
So, back to my idea of learning being used as a crafty tool for certain members of society to make a living. I’m sure I haven’t experienced my last moment of “Ugh! Why do I have to know this?”, but I realize now why there is more to learning than just that. Learning is about bettering your understanding of the world around you. I believe if you have a strong understanding of the world, and your fellow humans, you will be better equipped to influence the world around you. To me, learning is a tool that can be used to deepen your connections with others. I think many great members of the human race have had a very deep understanding of the world in which they lived. Mahatma Gandhi knew the members of his society wanted freedom, and his unique understanding of the peoples’ need for peace helped him change the world. Even if you try and learn something new, but you fail, I now think you still have learned something. If you simply cannot understand calculus after countless hours poring over a textbook, at least you have a newfound appreciation for those who find it easy. You will have a better understanding of how they are able to think and how they are different from you. This will never hurt you, but can only be seen as an improvement to the version of you that had not yet tried to learn calculus.
A couple weeks ago, I picked up a book for fun (I actually downloaded it to my computer but you get the point). The last time I remember being excited to read was in eighth or ninth grade, when Inheritance, the final part of the Eragon book series, was finally released. I don’t remember the last book I read that was not assigned school work, but honestly, it was probably that book. I was surprised I actually made it through Ender’s Game, the book I recently read. Now, I did choose a science fiction book with aliens and war, but nonetheless I still read a book outside of school. More than just reading it, I enjoyed the book and the meaning I was able to extract from it, which coincidentally was the importance of learning to understand those who are different from us, and using it to better the world. Unlike Ender (spoiler alert), I did not have to destroy an entire alien civilization to come to this realization but was able to extract it from some of my courses and his fictional story.
This summer, I will make my return to the beach and lifeguard again (How could I pass that opportunity up?). This time around, however, I will be armed with a new understanding of what learning is, and how it can help me. Next time I think “When will I ever need to know this?”, I’ll remind myself of a geometry student asking the same thing. At the time, the student cannot conceive any time in his life when the Pythagorean theorem will be needed. Give the kid a couple years, and he might use the Pythagorean theorem as he designs and builds a chair, or is sketching an image for an art class. He may never remember he once questioned the practicality of what he was memorizing, but he still had the information to rely on. I have a feeling some of my lunch breaks this summer will deviate from my previous norms of surfing and eating to include laying in the sand with a nice book.
P.S. If by some bizarre chain of events, my ethics professor ends up reading this, I’d like him to know I did end up buying a full priced version of his textbook. Thanks for the guidance.
Ariely, Dan. The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves. New York: Harper Perennial, 2013. Print.
Velasquez, Manuel. Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River: Pearson, 2012. Print.