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Back to school or not, you'll never stop learning [Commentary]

BY JIM KENNEDY, jkennedy@theaegis.com

3:10 PM EDT, August 19, 2013

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Though there a number of teachers I think of fairly often, it occurs to me as this academic year draws near that I passed a personal milestone a quite a few years back. Around the turn of the millennium, I had been out of school for more years than I was in it.

At that time I could say with confidence every day when I got up that I felt prepared, and I still feel confident that I'm prepared for the array of problems that come up in life, and I believe that is a result of what I learned in school.

No doubt anyone who is prepared to read this, or to do the rudimentary arithmetic to figure out my approximate age based on the information I've provided, also has the basic mental preparation necessary for life, courtesy of a standard amount of time in school.

As the buses in Harford County get ready to roll come Aug. 26, amid disputes about local transportation policy and other issues that have a measure of importance associated with them, I'd like to take a few minutes to reflect on what I believe to be the most important thing I learned in school: the lesson that you never stop learning.

If I'm not mistaken, the first teacher to offer this bit of knowledge was Mrs. Gross, who was my homeroom teacher for fourth grade at Georgetown East Elementary School in Annapolis. I was astonished to learn she and all the other teachers not only didn't know everything, but at least one of them was willing to admit it. How on earth, I wondered, could a teacher set about teaching without knowing everything. It was even more curious as my dad taught for more than 30 years in that same school system, and when I was in fourth grade I believed he, and all other adults, knew everything.

It took a few more years, and a few more people explaining it to me, but long before I was in high school I knew enough to know that I would never know everything, nor would anyone else. I would be doing pretty well if I knew almost everything about anything at all. More than 30 years after high school, I can say with a good deal of confidence, that I don't even know everything about the subjects in which I am most proficient.

English, for example, is the only language I can speak, read and write with any degree of proficiency, but the more I read, the more I realize I don't even know all the words in the language. As for grammar and punctuation, I'm pretty good, but I am frequently left to wonder if a particular comma was necessary, superfluous or just plain wrong.

As it turns out, many years removed from my third grade experience, not only am I still learning, the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. It really is overwhelming to realize just how much there is to learn.

Which brings me to why I think the lesson that you never stop learning is the most important one I learned in school. It goes hand-in-hand with a key bit of information I learned in college. Like a lot of things I learned in college, this bit of knowledge came not as part of a class, and, it would turn out, from a professor from whom I would never earn a college credit.

Somehow I got the misguided notion — I think it was from a young woman attending the same college — that I was deficient in classic English language literature, so I signed up for a course on the subject that was highly regarded by students and teachers alike. It was late in the registration period, so I got special permission, purchased about $200 worth of novels for the course with good intentions of reading them all, and went to the first three or four classes. It was at that class that someone – and it wasn't me – asked the professor something to the effect of what was the use of reading Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, knowing the difference between the two and that one of them had quipped they should just be regarded as a single writer, Upton Sinclair Lewis.

This prompted him to launch into a five or so minute impassioned sermon, the upshot of which was that, while it is good and proper to learn specific skills that can be used to earn a living upon graduation – things like accounting and business management techniques and engineering – the value of literature, philosophy, language, history and other mainstays of a classical undergraduate training were, in aggregate, greater. Learning accounting teaches you how to do, he concluded (and I'm paraphrasing); a liberal arts education teaches you how to think.

Shortly thereafter, I gave the class a little bit of thought and concluded I was carrying far too many credits in pursuit of what amounted to a liberal arts degree that semester and there was no way on earth I was going to plow through all those novels. I dropped the class, though I kept the books and even read a few of them.

More importantly, I believe I learned that day a bookend lesson to the one I learned all those years before in fourth grade. As it turned out, at least for me, you never stop learning, and all the things you learn make it possible for you to think with ever increasing precision.

It is also important to partake of the practical side of education and use all that learning and pondering to actually do something.

Just a few thoughts I thought might be worth sharing with those who are getting ready to head back to class for another school year. Heck, I think at this late date I've learned that I miss going back to school every bit as much as I miss a full blown 10-week summer vacation.