In the last several years, it has become common to hear about the importance of being a “lifelong learner.” While the first time I ever heard the phrase was in the context of classical education, I have since learned it derives from the world of TED talks and corporate virtue signaling. If one considers the term for a moment, it becomes suspect. A lifelong learner of what? In and of itself, learning has no moral value. Learning can be good or bad. Eve learned quite a lot when she ate of the fruit. In the dark corners of the internet, one may learn all sorts of wretched and destructive things. But in the pages of Scripture, we can learn of Christ and be saved. In the pages of old books, we can learn wisdom.Josh Gibbs
Learning is not virtuous unless one is learning virtue.
What is more, acting as if it is an accomplishment to be a “lifelong learner” sets the bar ridiculously low. The modern man lives in a deluge of information where he is constantly hearing trivial facts, lurid stories, and inconsequential data. We browse the internet every day, we read the news every day, we watch banal documentaries on Netflix all the time, and then we forget most what we learned because it wasn’t important or because it asked nothing of us. Simply put, we’re already lifelong learners. Lifelong learners need nobler, higher, and more definite ambitions.
One of the last assignments I gave my eighth grade composition class was writing a short story. I only had two class periods to work with, so I handed them O. Henry’s “A Retrieved Reformation,” along with a sheet of questions, and we created a outline based on that story. The students then wrote their own stories, following the outline as closely as possible.
Here’s roughly what I said:
First, you need a character, which is “a person with a goal.” The goal can be as small as scratching an itch or as enormous as getting married.
Person + goal = character
Next, you to describe the world this character lives in—not necessarily a physical world, just the circumstances that surround the character (a busy city, a big family, a dead-end job, a spaceship).
Once you have a person with a goal living in a world, you need to describe something that prevents the character from achieving his goal. The character’s attempt to overcome his obstacle is called “conflict.”
Character + obstacle = conflict
If the character’s goal is scratching an itch, the obstacle might be that the itch is hard to reach. If he wants to get married, his girlfriend doesn’t.
In his attempt to overcome the obstacle, your character should meet a new obstacle, which creates new conflict. (Again, we’re following O. Henry here.) The itchy character runs all over the city looking for a back-scratcher, but all the stores are sold out. The would-be groom plans a romantic dinner, but his girlfriend gets food poisoning.
We limited ourselves to two conflicts, but a story can have many more than that. The key is that each conflict should either sprout directly from one of the character’s main goal(s) or flow from his attempts to overcome the previous obstacle.
At some point, it should appear that the character has failed at both of his goals. He’s at the end of his rope and nothing is solved. The last mayor bans back-scratchers and the itch just gets worse. The girlfriend is so sick she gets sent to the hospital and vows never to see him again.
Finally, to his surprise, the character meets one or both of his goals. (This is called resolution.) The more unexpected the success is, the better. Enraged, the itchy character grabs a “sold out” sign to smash it, only to realize its the perfect length to scratch his back. The romantic meets a cute paramedic who’s smitten with him.
Note that the most important conflict to resolve is the original one. It’s not necessary for the character to buy a back-scratcher. He just needs to get rid of his itch. It’s not necessary for the date to go well, only for the main character to find love.
The full recipe looks like this:
- Who is the main character (person + goal)?
- What world does he live in?
- What is stopping him from achieving his goal (conflict #1)?
- How does the character try to solve conflict #1? (This is goal #2)
- What is stopping him from achieving goal #2? (This is conflict #2)
- How does the character seem to fail at both goals?
- How does the character achieve one or both goals in the end?
The students that followed this structure closely ended up writing stories that, while not great, were compelling. We wanted to know what was going to happen next and we were satisfied by the ending. That’s more than we can say about most stories.
The funniest thing about this is that I tried to map this structure onto one of my own stories and realized I hadn’t given my main character a primary goal. As I’ve said before, teaching something is one of the best ways to learn.
For about two weeks before the end of the school year, I put aside trying to teach one of my classes and read out loud to them instead. I wanted to revive whatever dormant interest they had in stories, or create one if it never existed.
The stories had to be engaging (gripping, funny, sad, scary), short enough to read aloud in one sitting, and relatively clean. I also wanted to pick stories that the students were unlikely to read in school, though I realized that other teachers tend to pick stories based on the criteria above, which means the pool is relatively small.
Most important, every story had to make an impact. I didn’t care whether the students hated the story or loved it as long as they cared.
Here are the ones we read, in order:
- “The Veldt,” Ray Bradbury
- “Through the Tunnel,” Doris Lessing
- “To Build a Fire,” Jack London
- “My First Deer, and Welcome to It,” Patrick F. McManus
- “The Long Rain,” Ray Bradbury
- “A Brilliant Idea and His Own,” Mark Helprin
Today I finished my last day of teaching. The schedule calls this a “exam review” day, but since my students don’t have an exam in my class, we didn’t have anything to review. Instead, we watched Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl. No prep. No discussion. Just hit play.
I didn’t really plan to end the year with this. I was just looking for an activity that wouldn’t completely waste 45 minutes of class time. Turns out, a documentary about words, art, life, rhetoric, and God summarized everything I’d been trying to say for nine months. Funny how things work out sometimes.
It has been, as they say, a year. Cheers to a long, hot summer.
Day after day, hour after hour, on this unyielding horizontal surface, marked by the gashes of hard labor and punctuated by such objects as books, paperclips, and a lamp, I, a red potato of humble origin, desirous of nothing more than a comfortable place to sleep and perhaps room to stretch out a tentative shoot or two, which may, Deo volente, someday grow to become fat and healthy tubers in their own right, after accruing much water and the nutrients necessary to prosperity, lie on my back and wait.
A vast country spreads out in front of me, brown and barren. Ahead, in the distance, a fat, dark line rests against the horizon. I walk for what feels like an entire day, though the sun never moves across the sky. It’s odd. Here, the sun operates as though on a switch, blinking on suddenly and darkening in the same way. My boots scuff the dirty ground, kicking up large flakes that float on the air before settling down behind me that marks my path. Eventually, I come to a collection of towers, hard as mountains and rising up out of the ground far beyond my head. The towers are the deep pink color of Himalayan salt. Several miles beyond them, a cliff rises out of the ground, a cliff of such immense proportions it’s hard to believe that this world has not been split in two.
If I didn’t already know what a potato was, I could easily mistake this object for a rock. On closer inspection, however, it becomes easier to tell that what I’m looking at is, or was, alive. One clue is that it has clearly grown: there are wrinkles in its surface, which you would not normally find on a rock this size. Next to those wrinkles are small divots, and, inside each divot, the light red color that covers the object in patches grows darker, suggesting that pigmentation is gathered in those spots. Again, this is not something you would see on a rock, rigidly structured. Even the brown color is not uniform. Small spots of green and yellow are scattered throughout. And, as I said yesterday, it has some give to it. When I squeeze, the skin bends, ever so slightly. I push my thumbnail through the surface. The skin splits with the sound of a boot stepping into wet grass.
Every day this week, my students will spend a few minutes in class describing the same… potato.
I decided it was only fair that I do the exercise along with them. So, Monday:
It sits in my palm like a baseball, but weighs slightly more. I can feel it tugging groundwards. Large for a red potato, it is covered with eyes, mostly on one half. On the very end, six eyes are arranged in a triangle pattern, like the tip of an arrow. I said it’s a red potato, but it’s more brown than red, whether with dirt or natural coloring, it’s hard to tell. The skin feels like the bottom of a foot, not rough so much as calloused. A tap on the skin tells me the interior is tight and full, not hollow nor squishy. Holding it to my nose, I smell old water, like what you might find in a tire swing. If I found this buried in the dirt somewhere, I wouldn’t immediately think, “Delicious!”