What does lifelong learning mean?

Harvard Business Review tells us that the secret of success is lifelong learning. We’ve heard this increasingly over the last few years. Terrific Mentors International has been saying it for three decades. In a sense the exhortation is rhetorical. Anyone who does not continue learning until the very last day of his or her life gets swiftly left behind technologically, politically, physically. So what is it that we need to continue learning with such fervour? How does doing so help us?

There are the obvious things like how to work a mobile phone, how to use GPS, how to pre-empt your doctor by asking Dr Google first. There are the less obvious learnings like the effects of foods and chemicals on your body, the ways of keeping your mind active and lively and the ever increasing sources of enjoyment that require less and less input from the individual. The resources for lifelong learning are growing exponentially. We already need classes in how to choose.

There are dangers associated with lifelong learning. The most obvious one is that we perpetuate our lineal exploration and become even more focused, less broad. As I write, the world seems to be losing its interest in politics, even the politics of destruction. The admission of the President’s payoff of a call-girl’s allegations seems to pass almost unnoticed. A year ago it would have precipitated impeachment. Now who cares? ‘It’s all fake news anyway’, we seem to say. Learning bad standards is not the lifelong learning we need.

We become so easily numbed to poor quality, whether perpetrated by others or by ourselves. This is sad because we require standards in our lives. Style, quality and ‘good’ all contribute to a life of enjoyment and usefulness. Without them the hum-drum takes over and we become poor reflections of both humans and the creatures from which we developed. Better an honest ape than a dishonest philosopher.

Learning, like everything else we aim for in life, is best done for a purpose. Our early years are a struggle to survive and to learn how to compete with rival youngsters. Then come the years of establishment, of ‘making something of ourselves’, of building our nest and feathering it a little. These are the years of risk and responsibility. They afford little time for thinking about the deeper meaning of life. You have won if you end up with a sane spouse, sane children and sane yourself.

At every stage you have purpose but it is about survival, progress, fulfillment at the time. The new opportunities presented by long and healthy life are a major challenge. We need purpose for them. Happily, it is provided even before we ask for it. As technology is becoming so powerful, our ability to define the human of the future is already in our hands. We must fashion that human before new technology does it for us. And, as every designer knows, you can only do that if you know what is the purpose of the thing you are designing.

In other words we are now starkly faced with a question we have had from the beginning. What is the purpose of a human? The pace of development will brook no delay in our responding. Our urgent, lifelong learning now is to discover or invent that purpose.

When we develop a species to perpetuate our race we will have fulfilled our ultimate purpose.

We will have truly created.

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