On education, learning, and dialogue

by Christopher Havel

Siler City, NC – I come from a very literary family. My mother occasionally reminds me of how, when either she or her two sisters got sick, they would all pile up into her parents’ car and go to the local library before heading off to the doctor’s, so that they knew, once they got to the doctor, what to tell him and what he was telling them.

Photo by Rabie Madaci

One finds such a tale perhaps a bit ill-advised, nowadays, particularly with the pandemic going full-tilt (and, depending on one’s point of view and all, perhaps not being managed nearly as well as it could be — but that’s not at all what this is about)… but this was 1960s New Jersey, for the most part, and the study of medicine was not nearly what it is today, so perhaps we can excuse a bit of folly in the pursuit of greater understanding of the human body.

Knowledge — the accumulation of information in such a manner as to be relatively useful — is often said to be power. I’m not sure I agree, because without Wisdom — the understanding of how to apply knowledge to a given pursuit — you can only really kind of just sit there and intellectually flail about. You need both knowledge and wisdom. One without the other is useless. All too often, however, those of us who have a very nice formal education forget that there are other, “informal” forms of the same that can confer equivalent, if not greater understandings of various aspects of one’s lives.

I once knew a man who ran a pizza parlor in Chapel Hill. I haven’t seen him in a very long time, because of circumstances that changed in my own life, but I’m sure he and his pizza parlor are still there. The man is an immigrant, who came here from Italy with his parents when he was young. His English is not very good (but, it must be said, my Italian is far worse than his English!) but if what he told me once is correct, he has but a second-grade education, or possibly the Italian equivalent thereof — he didn’t tell me where he got it, just how much. It’s enough, at least, that he can work a 90s-era cash register and run his restaurant.

Meanwhile, I have a four-year college degree from a local liberal-arts school that has a reputation (or, at least, it did when I was there) of trying to compete with the Ivy League schools up North and holding its own surprisingly well in comparison. Doesn’t matter here — I will never in my life be able to make a pizza the way my old friend does. There’s a reason that his little hole-in-the-wall shop in the back corner of a small mall reliably has a line during popular lunch hours, that terminates several stores away…

Of course we all know the common story, in its nearly infinite variations… someone who’s enough of a “city person” that farmland all kind of looks the same, gets lost out on a country road and then the car breaks down. Along comes a fellow to help, and although he clearly has spent his life on top of a tractor, he figures he can help, and he’d like to give it a try. Invariably the fellow is able to get something rigged up so that the city fellow can get on his or her way — and they do, all the more grateful (and astonished) for the job the farm boy did. Probably the fix isn’t sophisticated enough to last terribly long, but it gets the car moving, and it’ll last till a proper mechanic can take a look at it.

The part of that we don’t see, though, is the fact that an awful lot of the time that Our Hayseed Hero wasn’t on his tractor, he was standing beside it with a simple set of tools and a whole stack of swear words, because something had gotten mucked up somewhere and the dang thing wouldn’t start that morning — and crops do not wait in any way for a tractor that doesn’t want to go! There are plenty of people like that, people who have done extraordinary things because they’ve grown up tinkering with tractors and tube radios and the like — and of course, such a phenomenon is hardly restricted to the more rural portions of society. History is replete with examples of people who have done amazing things across a wide variety of seemingly-unfortunate backgrounds, where they were able to use determination to get past their apparent lack of resources and really do some amazing things. Of course, history only notices the very top level of that — and the rest of us have plenty of stories to tell 😉 the only real reason I’m singling out the “country boy” story is because it’s familiar to me — while I may be the “city type” (and I readily admit it), my own upbringing has not involved much time in such places, despite what one might otherwise imagine.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of people with a hundred letters after their names who readily espouse an opinion on anything and everything, even topics well outside their fields of study, and cannot tolerate the concept that someone else might understand something better. They’ve been in a college or university since they turned 18 (and maybe earlier!) and having spent so much time in such a rich learning environment, they cannot conceive of the possibility that someone might know something they don’t. These also tend to be people who don’t understand that learning is a two-way process. Any particularly good teacher with at least a bit of experience will tell you that they’ve learned quite a bit, themselves, from their own students.

I actually kind of feel sad for the sort that think themselves a walking, constantly-up-to-date Encyclopedia Britannica and then some — there’s so much that they inevitably miss out on, because they think they already know it. These are the people that will tell you “it can’t be done” and then when you show them that you already did it, they’ll stare, wide-eyed, for a hot minute — and promptly proclaim that you’re mistaken and your whatever-you-did works because of this other thing that you didn’t know about but coincidentally included and they’ll spend the entire afternoon regaling you about your apparent mistake. There’s a fellow on here like that — I don’t feel inclined, right now, to name names — but let’s just say I’m continually quite surprised, given how they comport themselves, that their multiple fancy-pants academic degrees aren’t all in the remedy of repetitive deep trans-proctological cranial insertions — given the rather considerable expertise and experience on nearly-constant display from this person, I’d say they’d have sufficient material to write multiple well-informed textbooks on the subject.

Seems to me that, if we all spent more time tinkering with tractors and tube radios — or with the people we meet, now and then, who already have — we might just learn how very little in life really is impossible, and how much can be accomplished with a bit of determination and the sort of learning that will never, ever result in a diploma or even a certificate — and the otherwise-inexpressible value of having such experiences in one’s life. We all have something to gain from doing that, whether by way of conversation or experience, because invariably we end up trading knowledge back and forth — that way, we all end up better for having done so. Besides, there are a lot of worthwhile pursuits that, no matter how good the teacher or professor, simply aren’t well-suited to the sort of learning one can receive in a classroom or lecture hall. Some things you just have to go and do for yourself if you want to really, genuinely understand them.

Of course, there are many who will never engage in such learning activities, because they think they don’t need it — but the folks on the other end of that equation have an expression for people like that. They will shake their head in sad frustration and say, “some folks you just can’t help.”

I couldn’t agree more.