Why Learn?

In a recent email chain with the ever-thoughtful Harry Fletcher-Wood he asked me to write something short, building on a comment I’d made on Twitter, about why I believed in education. First I pointed him to David Foster Wallace’s speech about education, as it is similar to my own feeling. But Harry wanted something to share with his Year 7s, and Wallace’s speech is not really made for 12 year olds. So I wrote this shorter version of my sentiments with a personal example included. Possibly it’s a bit trite, but it is entirely what I believe about the importance of, and reasons for, learning.

***

When you live somewhere boring – and we all live somewhere boring -then we have a choice about the way we will see that place. We can spend our days thinking like everyone else, seeing the same things over and over, and never once wondering about how they got that way, or why they stayed that way, or how they could be better. Or, we can learn. And if we make the choice to learn, and to be curious about the things around us, then we are essentially making the choice never to be bored again.

As an example: While I was at college and university I worked at McDonalds. During the daily breakfast shift I might break and cook 400-plus eggs, one after the other. Smash, crack, sizzle, remove. Repeat! Smash, crack, sizzle, remove. Doing that every day is soul destroying. But when you learn that eggs cook because of coagulation; a remarkable process that involves protein becoming so excited with heat that it changes its soluble nature as it lays down in defeat and says “it’s too hot, I’m staying here”; then suddenly we are looking at something quite different. Suddenly, I saw those eggs as mini-battlefields where proteins fought heat warriors. I began observing which soldiers lay down first (do you know which part of an egg cooks first, the outer part or the middle?), and I began thinking about better ways of getting the proteins to become solid more evenly, or how they could hold off the heat for the longest time. On other egg-cracking days I would think about different lessons about eggs. I’d think about history class where I learned that due to hyper-inflation in Germany between the world wars the cost of an egg rose from a quarter of a Reichsmark (think 25p), to 4 billion Reichsmarks in just 5 years. Imagine: that would be like having to pay 4 billion pounds to buy an egg by the time you left school. Sounds stupid, but it happened. And whenever I remembered that story I would treat the eggs as if they were precious jewels aware that at any moment their price tag might start rising.

On other days still I would I look at the eggs and think about morality, and what people had taught me of right and wrong. If I was feeling particularly miserable, I would become angry: Why are we stealing another creatures by-products and eating it? What if this egg had been fertilised, and had become a baby chicken? Would it have been happy to have survived, or did making it available for eating now simply save it from becoming a chicken nugget later down the line? And like many philosophers before and since I wondered: am I happier than a chicken? How could I even know?!

But worse than the fate of the nugget-bound chicken were the fates of people around me who never asked these questions. The fate of the people who saw how terrible our town was – with its power station, and shoddy buildings, and terrible unemployment – but they didn’t ask why, or how, or imagine what could be. Instead, day-by-day as we worked in that dingy kitchen for hours at a time, and as my mind danced with protein soldiers, hyperinflated eggs, and sad chickens, instead they looked down and simply saw each egg as…. an egg. A simple, boring – really boring – egg.

And that’s when I decided I had a choice. I could spend my life learning or I could spend it being bored. If I chose learning I would get to think, do, see, go wherever I wanted – hopefully in all of life, but even if I failed at that, at least I could go anywhere in my own head. But if instead I chose not learning, if like so many other people I chose boredom, then an egg …would only ever be …an egg, and that seemed like a truly terrible waste of a really quite amazing world.



Categories: Philosophy of Education, Teaching

3 replies

  1. This made me think of Raymond Williams’ ‘Culture is Ordinary’ –

    ‘Culture is ordinary. An interest in learning or the arts is simple, pleasant and natural. A desire to know what is best, and to do what is good, is the whole positive nature of man’

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