In Praise of Lifelong Learning
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
This week I'm experiencing heaven on earth. My family and I are spending a week at the Chautauqua Institution.
Founded in 1874, the Institution is a non-profit, 783-acre educational center on Chautauqua Lake in Southwestern New York State. Approximately 7,500 people are in residence here during the nine-week season from June to August. (Roughly 150,000 more will attend scheduled public events.)
The institution is not only a forum for open discussions on international relations, politics, religion, and science, it also promotes the arts with its own special studies programs, symphony orchestra, chamber group, and theater, ballet, and opera companies.
The institution sponsors daily lectures from prominent writers, artists, historians, diplomats and scientists - either at the 5,000-seat open-air Amphitheater or at the Hall of Philosophy next door. And there are beautiful grounds that offer endless opportunities to run, bike, swim, fish, or boat.
Historian David McCullough, a frequent visitor to Chautuaqua, said, "There is no place like it. No resort. No spa. Not anywhere else in the country, or anywhere else in the world. It is at once a summer encampment and a small town, a college campus, an arts colony, a music festival, a religious retreat and the village square - and there's no place - no place - with anything like its history."
Susan B. Anthony argued for women's suffrage here in 1892. FDR gave his "I Hate War" speech here in 1936. Over the years, Chautuaqua has hosted thousands of prominent speakers, from Amelia Earhart and Thurgood Marshall to Kurt Vonnegut and Bill Cosby.
Why do they come? To celebrate Chautauqua's ideal of lifelong learning.
Many of us apply ourselves in school and later strive to learn as much as we can about our business. But beyond that, learning is often considered frivolous.
That's unfortunate. The more knowledge you possess, the more aware you are of our history and what is happening in the world today, the richer your life becomes.
Lifelong learning broadens your horizons and expands your viewpoint. It enables you to make better decisions in both your business and personal life. And it's fun.
On a panel with publisher Steve Forbes, author Jeremy Siegel and former Columbia University professor John Whitney at FreedomFest in Las Vegas two weeks ago, we got into a discussion of the value of education beyond formal schooling.
I made the offhand remark that I don't care if my daughter Hannah - now 10 - decides she wants to spin a pottery wheel for a living, as long as she is an educated pottery spinner.
The audience assumed I was kidding. I wasn't.
Like most parents, I want two primary things for my kids: health and happiness. If spinning pottery makes my daughter truly happy, that's what I hope she does.
Like the rest of us, however, she'll still need critical thinking skills and a decent level of cultural literacy to make good choices in her life and maximize her opportunities.
As John Adams said just before the American Revolution, "I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, navigation and commerce... in order to give their children a right to study paintings, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain."
This was the upward climb the Founders envisioned for the good society. And you don't need 19 years of school or a visit to the Chautauqua Institution to experience it.
Like-minded people from New York to Los Angeles, for example, are signing up for "One Day University," where award-winning professors from Harvard, Yale, Brown, Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia, Cornell and other top-tier schools come together for a single day to create a live classroom experience. One Day University bills itself as "The Best Professors from the Finest Schools, teaching their Greatest Courses." (To learn more, click here.)
If your schedule won't allow you to attend lectures, visit The Teaching Company. It offers over 200 courses on history, philosophy, science, mathematics, economics and literature in both CD and DVD formats. I've bought several of these courses and found them uniformly excellent.
If you go for a walk or run with your iPod, instead of listening to Jimmy Buffett for the umpteenth time, you can learn about the history of numbers, ancient Greek civilization, great American Broadway musicals, or the natural history of the earth.
There are also thousands of courses you can now take online, whether you want to earn a degree or just take a continuing education class.
However, you don't have to go online, attend a class or spend a dime to make a commitment to lifelong learning. You can always take full advantage of a fabulous 2,000-year-old technology - the book - at your local library.
Not a bad idea, either. After all, how can we make sound judgments or live our lives fully if our minds have not been opened and enlarged by reading, listening, and experiencing life broadly?
As Albert Einstein pointed out, "Learning is not a product of schooling but the lifelong attempt to acquire it."
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Alexander Green is the Investment Director of The Oxford Club and Chairman of Investment U, a free, internet-based research service with over 300,000 readers. (The Oxford Club's Communique, whose portfolio he directs, is ranked third in the nation for risk-adjusted returns over the past five years by the independent Hulbert Financial Digest.) Alex has been featured on "The O'Reilly Factor," and has been profiled by Forbes, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, CNBC, and Marketwatch.com, among others. He lives in central Florida with his wife Karen and their children Hannah and David.
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