Several years ago, I went to Palo Alto to discuss the possibility of taking a job there running a website. On the afternoon of the third and final day of meetings, I was with the CEO in his office and in searching for some notes in my bag, I pulled out the book I’d taken with me for hotel and airplane reading: a life of King David by Jonathan Kirsch.
The CEO riffled through the book, asked some questions and we talked about it for five minutes or so. Then he said, in a surprised tone of voice, “You’ve never stopped learning, have you?”
I was surprised that he was surprised and he, a European by birth and upbringing, said that it was his experience, in the United States, that few people showed much intellectual curiosity past college or beyond what is necessary for their work. I refrained from suggesting he find a new set of friends, but he was not entirely wrong.
There has always been an anti-intellectual streak in U.S. culture starting in grammar school. The smart kids were teased unmercifully, even shunned, as “brains” when I was a kid and some stopped raising their hands when they knew the answer to avoid the backlash.
When Adlai Stevenson ran for president on the Democratic ticket in 1952 and 1956, he was attacked by Eisenhower partisans as an “egghead.” The language has changed since then, but John Kerry suffered a bit from this attitude too in the 2004 presidential campaign.
As common as this bias is, it is worse in regard to old people. Too much of the public discourse on aging is dependent on two generally-held beliefs: that learning stops when formal education ends (which is applied to everyone) and older workers can’t and don’t learn new skills. But age discrimination based on faulty assumptions is far from my point.
Learning is a lifetime endeavor and there is hardly any effort to it. In fact, most of the time, it’s damned hard to avoid. Curiosity helps, and when someone knows something you’d like to know, all you need do is ask. People love to share their expertise. Other times, a well-selected book or two does the job.
Not long ago at a Sunday brunch, another guest, a first-time visitor to my friend's home, looked around and said, "Geez, have you read all these books?" It was an awkward moment until a wittier friend made a joke.
The question could well have been asked in my home and most of my friends' homes. The answer is yes, they have all been read - and re-read. I consult them when I need a piece of forgotten information or to rediscover the richness of thought of a good writer or to "merely" revisit a pleasurable reading experience.
Learning new things, as we get older, makes new neuronal connections in our brains, improves cognitive ability and keeps our minds fit. But that is only the practical. Learning, like listening to music, expands our perspective, lifts us out of the ordinariness of our lives and graces our spirits.
Marcus Tullius Cicero, the statesman and philosopher who lived during the period of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, knew a thing or two about the importance of lifelong learning:
“A room without books,” he said, “is like a body without a soul.”