I’m visiting my college for a reunion – the first formal one I’ve attended, though I made my way back there once before at a critical turning point, which I’ll detail in a bit. And it’s got me thinking about learning.
Okay, I felt a lot of clicking away right there.
But that’s cool — I’ll try to make this quick. Because it may not be as melodramatic, absurd, sexy or hate-fuelled as the rest of the web this morning… but what I have to write to you here just might save you, or someone you know, from wasting precious seconds of your life.
Fun fact: when we left college, we knew everything. Decades later, it’s our kids who know everything, and we’ve grown wise enough to know that the day that we stop learning, we’re dead.
Because that’s what literacy means on the twenty-first century clock.
Not what you’ve learned about words. Not what you’ve memorized about numbers. Not what you’ve mastered in media, culture and technology. No, not even what you know you know about people, places or things.
Literacy, simply put, means the ability to learn… and recreate yourself.
Some call it information literacy, adaptive literacy, learning literacy. (Lotta trees perished so that volumes of scholarly work on the subject might see bookshelves. Lotta trees.) I just call it literacy.
Because that’s where literacy lives right now, and will live for some time – not what you’ve learned, but your ability to learn, to teach yourself. Including, at times, your agility when learning requires unlearning – dumping what doesn’t cut it anymore – and mastering a dance that’s new.
I once stood up during a freshman psychology exam, said loudly, “Everything you know is wrong,” and sat back down to continue writing.
Yeah, I was that kind of smart ass.
But the laughter that followed, and the surprise, helped us all clear our thoughts, relax and get to work. And more than that, I think I had the right instinct.
Because we create the future by rendering the past obsolete… or at the very least, incomplete. We dump… and dance on.
I mentioned at the top that I returned to my old school before. That story should illuminate my point: five years past my undergraduate degree, I was asked by a mentor, my former writing professor, to come talk to students about “a life in the arts.” I was seriously conflicted, I told my friend.
I was crashing.
My band was traveling to promote our first album, negotiating terms to record a second. But we were the indie act, the warm-up act, the grungy punks in the little bus – in the music business, indie wouldn’t have cachet and clout til a couple of years later. Worse, it was a frustrating strain dragging the band together to develop new songs through financial pressure and some ugly substance abuse issues.
And that wasn’t all. My other creative outlet was theater – chiefly, writing and performing off-off-broadway. But, I told my friend, I had hit a wall there, too. Twenty years ago, Off-Off-Broadway was vital, the place to create – but what was once revolutionary was now just the smaller, poorer cousin of dead corporate theater.
(Okay, I would learn later that vital regional theaters existed all over the country. They were rare, but very alive. But I was living and working in NYC, non-negotiable, so I missed out, there.)
In short, I told my friend I wasn’t his dream speaker. I was a rock star in one neighborhood, a produced downtown playwright, okay, but broken and dirty and moving on. Looking for what was next. If anything, I was going to send his students shrieking to pre-med and pre-business disciplines.
“I should come back when I’m done recreating myself, you know, the whole phoenix from the ashes plot always works.”
“Talk to them about that,” he said.
There’s a reason I call him a mentor. Still do.
And so I told my story. I was blunt. Students later told me I was pretty brutal. But they got that I wasn’t going to waste any more precious seconds of my life feeling stuck. I had the ability – and agility – to remake myself, and with a little luck, I was doing it.
I hadn’t yet worked out my little theory, the new literacy, but I was putting it into action instinctively. What I had learned as a writer, a performer and a creator of dramas for the rock show and the live theater, I knew I could make that the foundation and energy source for two new kinds of writing: comic books and related media and storytelling within business.
I would unlearn what I had to, teach myself what I needed, and take the next creative trip with the same energy I had once given punk rock – take my writing as far as I could.
Hopefully, reaching more people. Hopefully, getting paid.
It began with Faust: Love of the Damned and a business writing consulting gig for an international bank. I lost a lot of sleep working on both… and learned. At times, the only way to get through it was to think of it as a performance… I played a person who knew how to write all that I had to write.
That wasn’t the last time I hit a wall creatively. And I know I will be in crisis again someday. But with practice, you perfect that literacy we all need today – the literacy of learning in order to recreate yourself.
*Terras Irradient is NOT Latin for “Cover Your Ass” or “Fake It Till You Make It.”
It’s “Let them bring light to the world.” Kind of an ancient way of saying, ”With great power comes great responsibility.” That’s the motto and mandate of my old school, and on my good days, I try to live that. Have a nice Memorial Day Weekend – I’ll be back in two weeks.
3 thoughts on “Terras Irradient*”
As a follow-up: from her May 20 Commencement Address at Amherst College, President Biddy Martin:
In his 2005 Commencement speech at Kenyon College, Amherst graduate and the brilliant author David Foster Wallace [’85] defined the value of the liberal arts in the following terms: “The real, no-bull value of your liberal arts education is how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable lives dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default settings.” For all the tragic irony of Foster Wallace’s point, given his own premature death, his admonition is a good one. A spate of recent books have enjoined us all to distinguish between our natural default settings and our ability to reason on the basis of evidence—between what Daniel Kahneman calls, for example, our “fast” and “slow” thinking, or the automaticity housed in one part of our brain and the ability to reflect in another. A rewarding life, and a useful life, requires that you become familiar with both.
I’m currently part of a national commission charged by Congress with making recommendations about the humanities and social sciences back to Congress, and that commission includes political leaders, artists, scholars, university presidents, entertainers [and] business leaders. At our last meeting, we heard from members of the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives, the National Governors Association. But the most compelling talk I heard was given by Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, former ambassador to Afghanistan.
And what we heard from him, we heard from all the others outside of higher ed: We want employees, colleagues, military officers, political leaders and citizens who are broadly and deeply educated; people who can think, who can express themselves, who can work with others, who know other languages and cultures and appreciate them, who can be taught and who have the qualities it takes to lead. All the gnashing of teeth about the fate of higher education notwithstanding, an education of the kind you have is what is needed and wanted.
Eikenberry cited David Petraeus, and I’ll paraphrase Petraeus. You probably know the quote: “The difference between training and education is that training teaches you to solve existing problems. Education puts you in a position to solve the problems to come.”