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In the absence of education, focus instead on learning

| Monday, April 20, 2020

With the recent cancellation of in-person classes, we are all experiencing a reduction in the educational value of our time at Notre Dame. But despite the many other downsides of the COVID-19 outbreak, the extended period of isolation gives us an unexpected freedom with our time and energy. We now have a unique opportunity to critically evaluate the often-problematic mindsets that any top-down education system engenders.

Beside relationship-building and employment opportunities, the commonly understood purpose of our education is learning. Underlying both this understanding and the problematic elevation of tuition costs over recent decades is the assumption that formal education is required for effective learning. This has barely ever been true, and is less true now than it ever has been. Will Hunting told us this in the form of a knockdown blow to some loser from Harvard in 1997: “You dropped $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late charges at the public library.” In 2020, we have growing access through the Internet to inexpensive or free learning materials in the form of books, websites and videos that can teach us nearly anything that piques our curiosity.

I’m not saying that learning is just the collection of information, and of course a motivated and curious student can learn more effectively in a formal educational environment well-suited to them than in an informal, entirely independent one. Nevertheless, those of us that have spent enough time as students know that this natural curiosity is a fragile resource. Unfortunately, this critical component of a successful education often depletes over long periods of intense formal education. The perpetual slog of pre-packaged readings, lectures and assignments slowly strips us of our own agency in the learning process, leaving many of us exhausted and lacking a curiosity to push our learning beyond what our coursework requires. Later in our college careers, we stomach the scholarship while cutting all possible corners, focusing our sights on careers and accolades that serve our only substantial source of momentum: ambition. We achieve a form of success, but are no longer active and independent readers and learners.

So perhaps it is a mistake to limit the intellectual purpose of higher education to “learning” during the four years we spend at college. We have all the resources necessary for deep and broad learning outside of university-provided resources, and more importantly, the strict pursuit of learning erodes the drive necessary to do it in the first place. For this reason, I’d like to propose a new idea for the purpose of education: growing the capacity and drive to be life-long learners. Universities can serve us well in working towards this goal, but to fully achieve it, we are in desperate need of unstructured time to cultivate our natural curiosity and develop healthy independent learning habits.

For clarification, I do not believe that the Notre Dame faculty and administrators are making mistakes with how the University and its courses are conducted. To be honest, I don’t quite know how universities should fix the problem I see, or if it even can be fixed within the confines of normalcy for modern American universities. This article is for my fellow students, that we might make changes in our own habits to confront disinterest in our own education.

During this “coronacation,” set aside time every day to read that book you’ve always wanted to get into, watch that documentary that you’ve read about online, or practice that instrument you haven’t played in a couple years. If you want to learn how to code, or better understand that area of chemistry or physics that you never got a chance to take a class in, you have everything in the world that you need to do a deep dive.

I don’t hope that we fall further into our addiction to productivity: In fact, I hope for just the opposite. We must include in our efforts a careful focus on our mental and emotional health. Our newfound freedom also affords us time for reflection, rest, exercise and relaxation. If we fail to care for our own mental health, as we so often do, we have no chance of recapturing our natural intellectual drives.

I sincerely wish that our generation can overcome our tendency to let ambition and exhaustion drive all of our decisions, and that we allow our curiosity to make great use of our world’s wealth of learning resources. Now is the time to independently rebuild the curiosity that will give us the opportunity to use our education to satisfy more than our ambitions when courses resume. But more importantly, now is the time for each of us to become the curious and independent learner that we hope to be for the rest of our lives.

Matthew Schoenbauer


April 5

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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