I have met many people who think of studying, particularly reading, as an indulgent luxury – time spent resting and relaxing with a cup of hot cocoa and extra thick socks – “me time.” When described this way, making a regular practice of reading sounds selfish.
Shouldn’t you be spending more time with your children or volunteering somewhere in the community instead of sitting on your couch with yet another book?
Even if your learning requires you to go somewhere or do something physical, it’s all about you, right? The only thing you’re improving is your own mind, and you’re doing it because you like it.
But unless you spend your life sitting alone in a cave, improving your mind helps everyone.
One example of learning that helps others is found in Liping Ma’s book Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics: Teachers’ Understanding of Fundamental Mathematics in China and the United States. In this book, Liping Ma describes some of the practices of the math teachers in China. They study the textbooks they’ll use in their classes, and they meet weekly with other math teachers to discuss math and the best ways to teach it.
They spend time learning. They improve their understanding of math, and how it can be explained. This benefits not only them, but their students.
Though elementary school teachers engaging in this type of scholarly behavior is not often seen in the United States, this example seems a little too obvious, right? Their occupation requires them to pass on knowledge, and so for them to spend time increasing their understanding of this particular subject only makes sense.
Not everyone is a teacher – you might say. Well, not everyone gets paid to teach, but aren’t we all teachers in some less formal way?
For example, in conversation a friend mentioned the word “quixotic” and its derivation from Don Quixote. It could be I’m the last person on the planet Earth to get this connection. But the point is that if we’re interacting with people in normal ways, we’ll end up teaching them something - and learning something from them.
And when interacting with other people, it helps everyone if you are empathetic – a trait you develop when you read literary fiction.
But let’s not forget that learning need not mean acquiring information from books. Recently, I helped prune the apple tree at a Zen center. I learned how to prune an apple tree, and I served the members of the Zen center.
My son volunteered to help at the city’s greenhouse. He learned a little about taking care of plants, and he served the city.
If you want to learn, you can seek out ways to combine service with your education. And in doing so, you’ll likely be creating relationships that help not only you as the learner, but the person who teaches you, too – whether that person is teaching you to prune an apple tree, re-pot plants, tend the kennels at the animal shelter or re-shelve library books.
And if you’re a parent or mentor of some sort, you serve the children in your life by modeling lifelong learning. When you read and study for enjoyment, you show children that learning doesn’t have to take place within the walls of certain buildings, during certain years of our lives or because we were told to do it.
We learn because we’re interested, curious and intelligent beings. Then we pass our knowledge on to each other through words and actions creating a giant web of teaching, learning and helpful acts.