The first thing that must be said is that not everyone is called to become a student of life-long learning and the liberal arts. There are an infinite variety of ways to live one’s life, and this is but one of them. In the Simpsons Lisa Simpson is a precocious student while Bart Simpson is happy to be a “slacker dude.” Surely part of what makes us a student of life-long learning and the liberal arts is genetic and temperamental. Some people with very limited formal education become voracious readers and inquisitive thinkers, and this passion for learning extends throughout their entire lives. Other people who have been given all the advantages of formal education, even in the best institutions, never develop a passion for learning, a sense of wonder, or the inquisitive impulse to explore the great questions of life.
Today we live in a technological society with virtually unprecedented and access to knowledge and information from all directions. And yet the paradox is that in the midst of this revolution in information technology many either do not know how to access it to expand their minds or they prefer to amuse themselves with merely superficial news and entertaining diversions. While TV, radio and the daily newspaper can all provide us with the gossip of the hour, and on the public stations more critical analysis, there remains no substitute for personal reflection and the reading of encyclopedia articles, scholarly essays and serious books. To become a student of life-long learning and the liberal arts is to choose a thoughtful and concentrative way of life rather than a superfluous and dissipative one. Any attentive and disciplined reading of “the great books” (or even good ones) is a “difficult pleasure,” as Harold Bloom reminds us. It is easier to come home, crash on the couch, turn on the radio or TV, and skim the newspapers rather than to collect ourselves to read a serious articles and books that invite us to profoundly explore the vital domains of human knowledge and life experience.
Becoming a student of life-long learning and the liberal arts is a paradoxical pursuit. On the one hand we need to follow our instincts, trust our hunches, and follow the scent wherever the trail leads us. On the other hand we need to develop our study as a methodical discipline. We may read widely as we follow our instincts into the open and uncharted wilderness, but we also learn to read deeply as we seek to master a particular body of knowledge. The well-cultivated mind combines spontaneous play and disciplined work.
I am not optimistic that any time soon in our technological society where many settle for “amusing themselves to death” that we will see a dramatic influx in the number of serious students of life-long learning and the liberal arts. It’s simply too easy to be distracted by “the ten-thousand things” that pull at our attention from all directions. It’s too easy to let anxiety and boredom, white noise and headline news rob us of the clarity and concentration that are needed for thoughtful reflection and creative expression. But for those who are willing to wear the kindly yoke of intellectual freedom and educative discipline, the rewards are immeasurable.