Wednesday, May 25, 2022

What Is The Purpose Of Learning?

What if we consider that learning has no purpose?

Of course, from an evolutionary standpoint, our ability to learn makes survival, to some degree, more likely. So in that sense, the "purpose" of learning could be said to be survival, but as any scientist will tell you, that's not how evolution works. The animal doesn't develop a trait, like the capacity to learn, in order to survive long enough to pass its genes along to a future generation. It only appears that way to us because, among the traits that have survived so far, is an urge to identify purpose, cause-and-effect, reason. When we tell ourselves the story of humanity, however, it is us, not evolution, that constructs the notion of some sort of plan at work. The purpose we perceive is of our own invention, and/or, it is at best is a glimpse of a glimpse of the unknowable purpose of a creator.

Either way, it's hard to argue that mere survival is the purpose of learning. The ability to learn, the drive to learn, which is to say curiosity, is among the traits that make us human and if it has a purpose, it is, like all earthly purposes, one of our own creation.

Our schools, being human institutions, can't help but ascribe purpose to learning, be it vocational, devotional, or political. We say that children must learn this or that in order to someday do this or that. We tell the story that without our imposed and completely fabricated purpose, our children will not learn or that they will be left behind. We tell ourselves the story that the purpose of adults is to impose our purpose upon our children, for their own good or for the betterment of society. In effect, we colonize our children's learning, as if it is a manifest destiny. 

Don't get me wrong, finding purpose in life is important. In his book The Path to Purpose, William Damon writes, "Study after study has found a person's sense of life purpose to be closely connected to virtually all dimensions of wellbeing." The problem comes when we presume to impose our own ideas of purpose on others, which is what we tend to do in schools. Purpose, according to Damon and just about everyone else who thinks about these things, must come from within. It must, to truly enhance all dimensions of wellbeing, be constructed from the material of life by each of us. It cannot be handed to us like a lesson unit. It is only through curiosity, the urge to learn, that any of us can ever find purpose.

So, can we say that the purpose of learning is to discover purpose? 

I don't think that's quite it either. 

From where I sit, when children are free to engage their world through their own curiosity, which is to say to learn what they choose, how they choose, and according to a schedule of their own device, they do it for one reason and one reason only: because doing so brings them joy. Learning, approached in the artificial way we do in schools, is, in effect, stripped of joy as we adults, in our hubris, seek to impose our pre-packaged purposes on children. 

If learning is to have purpose, it must be constructed or discovered or invented, joyfully, by those who are doing the learning. Indeed, one might even say that learning is joy. How much better our lives, and learning, would be if we could just leave it at that.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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