To me there is a keen the role that learning and education play in keeping a person from growing old: “If every day is an awakening, you will never grow old. You will just keep growing.” Common attributes among sharp-as-tacks subjects in older age groups are an above-average education, enjoyment of a complex and stimulating lifestyle, and living with a smart spouse or partner. Learning for life. A life of learning. Both seem to be keys for a productive and satisfying life. And, in a world of constant and rapid change, the ability to learn and continuing to learn is important for personal and community survival.
Research on the role the mind plays in maintaining health has found biochemical evidence that the mind can influence the immune system and other body functions. Indeed, mental stimulation can be the difference between someone who begins to fall apart as they age and those who stay healthy and fit and seem to go on forever. (The other major factor is exercise.) Further, research has debunked the myth that brain cells begin to die in batches as we age. What had been thought to be cell death was actually brain cells shrinking and going dormant from lack of stimulation and challenge. Cells which could be revitalized with mental stimulation.
We must therefore discard the old educational paradigm based upon 12 to 20 years of formal schooling and then coasting on that education until death. That might have worked a century ago when change was much slower than it is today and people died young, but it does not hold in the Third Millennium. The new educational paradigm views learning as a lifelong quest with a different perspective on what formal education should encompass. Instead of teaching facts which may become obsolete even before the program is finished, formal education must focus on teaching basic skills — communications skills such as reading, writing and speaking; basic science, mathematics and logic; thinking skills such as creativity, problem solving and analysis; and methods of expression such as visual art, music and literature — and the art of learning. Both areas are equally important.
Without the basic skills, we cannot continue to learn effectively. If we do not actively pursue learning, we will learn life’s continuing lessons by trial and error, a method that has some merits but which can also be painful and expensive. Therefore, let us take the proactive step rather than the reactive and set out to learn all we can.
When you let information in, you are not accepting it carte blanche. You are only accepting it temporarily, so do not prejudge it even if you consider it the greatest load of sewage ever assembled. Now play with it. Test it against previous knowledge and perhaps against your ethical values. Look at it from different perspectives. Be the devil’s advocate on it. Turn it, stretch it, reverse it. Treat it as a young child explores a new toy. Then put it aside for a time, letting it settle or age in your mind. When you have given it time to mellow, pull it out again and judge it for its worth to you. If you accept it, continue to play with it to find how it can best serve you. Eventually it will be stored in your vast mental files and become part of your accumulated wisdom.
The desire and ability to learn is closely linked with play. Learning is, in its basic element, play. Therefore, we must give ourselves permission to play — to be curious about the world around us, to try things out in different ways, to play what if games. Many professions use these aspects of play as part of their regular routine. Such play forms the basis for astronaut training, military manouevres, economic forecasting, engineering modeling and simulations, scientific research, and product design and marketing. All are play and all are learning activities.
Learning to learn is an area that even post-secondary education has failed to formally teach. We get fragmented lessons throughout formal education in some areas and none at all in others. One of the greatest lessons to learn is how to keep an open mind when faced with new ideas or new expressions of old ideas. A closed mind is not conducive to learning. I keep an open mind (most of the time) by following a simple four-step process.
Learning brings joy and ecstasy to living. This joy comes from the playfulness of learning as well as a sense of accomplishment. Where there is joy, the quality of life increases exponentially, the immune system is enhanced and the future looks brighter. Learn to make learning a part of your everyday routine and you will stay forever young in mind and spirit.