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What Have You Learned So Far?

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In the middle of a bedtime meltdown a few months ago, my six-year old was crying on his bed. "I'm so upset," he sniffed. "I want to go back to school! I want to go back to school!"

Thinking that maybe he had forgotten something there, I gently asked, "It's 8 at night. Micah, why do you want to go back to school?"

To which he replied, loudly, "To learn!"

Now, I'd like to think that my son has absorbed the values of his parents and his teachers. And that's probably true. But I also think most young children instinctively share his love of learning. To paraphrase Robert Fulghum, most of us learn what we need to learn in kindergarten -- because most of us simply love to learn.

But for many of us, somewhere along the way, learning becomes more limited. We learn skills. We learn information. We master bodies of knowledge to pass tests to enter professions, in which we take continuing education courses so that we can learn new techniques and the latest approaches.

This is a pretty narrow idea of learning. Important, but narrow. My family's dinner table conversation at home usually begins with us asking Micah (the younger of our children), "What was the question of the day?" Every morning when he walks into his classroom, his teacher posts a question, and each child posts his or her response. The question could be anything from "Do you like carrots?" to "Have you ever been on an airplane?" And the most amazing part is that Micah can tell us the answers of all the other kids in his class. This can lead into conversation ("Oh, when have you gone on an airplane?" or "If you don't like carrots, what vegetables do you like?"), which can lead to more questions.

Now, this isn't a continuing medical education class or a recertification course in real estate licensing. It's actually far more important. It's learning how to be a person: how to ask questions, how to answer them, how to listen, how to have a conversation. And as MIT professor Sherry Turkle artfully reminded us in a recent New York Times op-ed, these are habits and ways of being that we need to learn, practice, and maintain, for our own health and the health of our communities and society.

One of the remarkable features of modern university life is how infrequently the university gathers, as a community, to reflect on itself. For many students, graduation is the first and only time they will participate in a large communal gathering devoted to the question, "What have we learned? And why do we learn?"

Of course, many schools have freshman convocations. And good professors and faculty advisors engage students in questions about the direction and meaning of their learning on a regular basis. And of course many students will, more than once, have a late-night conversation with peers about whether college matters, whether their major is the right one, and what the point of all of it is.

Nevertheless, for many if not most students, the first time their school brings them into a communal conversation about what it means to learn, and why learning is valuable, is on the last day of their undergraduate lives. And what they often get on that day is a speech from a celebrity about the importance of being yourself, following your passion, and sucking the marrow out of life. Good messages (perhaps), but not a deep engagement with the questions at the heart of a learning community: What have we learned? What should we learn? Who do we learn with? How do we learn?

Beyond technique or subject matter, there is learning wisdom. We learn not only with our heads, but our hands and hearts. Plato maintained that education, real learning, is "turning the soul," by which he meant that learning is a process of uncovering what we already know to be true. There is a long history of philosophical debate about this idea. But the greater point is that the stakes of learning are not simply about mastering information for the sake of economic competition; they're far deeper and richer. Learning is one of the behaviors that makes us human. It is at our essence.

So in this season of reflecting on learning, have a conversation -- with a parent, a child, friends, coworkers -- about one of life's great Big Questions: What have you learned so far? Who have you learned with, and from? What have they taught you?

These are conversations we need to have regularly, to frame our intellectual and professional learning, to remind us of how our learning comes together, to reconnect with that six-year old inside us, who delights in learning.