Let Learning Live

It is an axiom of today’s world that “knowledge is power.”  Yet across the world, knowledge is woefully unequally distributed, contributing powerfully to the great material inequalities people see.  Knowledge need not be so unequally distributed, but conventional calls for more and better schooling are not enough.  We need to think outside the school box.

Through much of human history political elites usually drew on birth, religion, land or sheer force to assert their power.  Today’s elites – politicians, business leaders, experts and cultural icons – rely more on knowledge, whether of public opinion, policy, industry trends, the latest science, cultural movements, social networks, or else.  But knowledge – understood as interrelated concepts, theories and facts in government, business, science, culture and other domains – is also central to the lives of ordinary people in the contemporary world, especially those in the wealthiest nations.  People in wealthy nations above all depend on their own variable knowledge not only to perform in increasingly knowledge-intensive workplaces, but also to find work, fix problems, make informed purchases, and make sense of the fast-moving world around them.

Let learning liveIn part because of the everyday need for knowledge, more people are getting more schooling.  Yet there remain sharp inequalities in educational attainment as many drop out of high school or college while others finish Master’s and Ph.D. degrees.  Further, because birds of a feather do indeed tend to flock together, those with similar educational attainment are more likely to befriend and marry each other, thereby compounding the educational divides in theirs and future generations.  These educational patterns contribute to life-shaping inequalities in employment, income, health and community engagement, as abundant research shows.

Educational inequalities are inevitable given the modern world’s extensive division of labor, but their severity and rigidity are not.  Reducing educational inequalities though demands some rethinking: thinking not just about more and better schools, as important as these are, but thinking outside the school box in at least three fundamental ways.

First, education does not just occur in schools in one’s youth.  For better or worse, a lot of the knowledge people absorb is not learned in school but in everyday life throughout the life course, on TV, the internet, in movies, newspapers, books and magazines, at work, and in casual conversation.

Second, learning is not just active, but passive.  Schools presuppose active learning: people consciously enroll in school, attend classes, do homework, write papers, pass tests and courses in order to graduate with a diploma.  But outside school, learning is often passive: people learn about people, places, things, concepts and ideas incidentally at play or rest, in conversation with family or friends, watching TV, playing games, or gazing at posters and billboards.

Third, what people learn in school competes in their minds with what they learn outside of school, and not all the abundant information one learns out of (or in) school is equal in value.  There is who said what on TV sitcoms, and there is who said what in poetry or philosophy.  There is who is dating whom in Hollywood, and who is helping or hurting whom in the world.  There is who is playing whom in sports, and who is making what laws that affects us all, for worse or better.  There is what’s advertised, and there is what’s true.  In a word, there is trivia, and there is what I call “signia,” that is, significant information or knowledge that matters to people’s wellbeing.

If learning signia matters to people’s wellbeing – for instance, knowing what causes and prevents disease, how governments work and spend our taxes, how economies and ecologies work and affect us, how individuals can shape their destinies and societies, what great thinkers have said about life and love, or freedom and community, etc. – then it behooves societies to spread signia more widely and creatively, to make learning signia, rather than trivia, more of a part of everyone’s everyday life, not just of those most educationally motivated.

Currently, governments, universities and publishers produce a wealth of signia, but much of it is published in journals, reports and books few people read.  Some academics, journalists and others do seek to spread signia further via newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and the internet.  But in a world filled with choices, many people opt for entertainment rather than education, for trivia rather than signia.

There is no panacea for these challenges in spreading signia and learning.  Yet there are pedagogical opportunities educators have not fully seized.  Here’s one opportunity I invite others to join me in pursuing: if learning happens not just in but out of school, not just actively but passively, and if signia is power, let us print signia on the surfaces of everyday life – vital health information on napkins and tabletop tents in school cafeterias and restaurants, informative pie charts and lists on drink coasters in bars, science and history on cups and cup sleeves in cafes, poetry and philosophy on cereal boxes and wallpaper, and more.  Let such surfaces become invitations to learning which can be connected easily to further learning online for fun and reward.

If life is learning, let learning live.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life