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by Richard Nilsen

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I want to talk about education. Specifically: Mine.
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It is really only my own that I can speak about. As Henry Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”
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I don’t know if I can recommend my own course to others; all I can say is that it has worked for me.
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From my earliest years, I wanted to learn; indeed, I wanted to know everything. Literally: everything. (The older I’ve become the more I’ve faced the fact that the more you learn, the greater is the vastness of what you have yet to learn. Knowledge grows arithmetically; ignorance grows exponentially.)
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There is a story repeated in my family that when I entered second grade, I asked my parents, “Does this mean I get to go to college next year?” School has always been my briar patch.
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I cannot fix whatever is wrong with American schools — or American students (although I am pretty sure that whatever Besty DuVos has in mind is disastrously wrong), but I can recount my own transit through the grades from kindergarten through standing in front of a crowd in a silly robe and stupid hat to get my diploma handed to me. And really, beyond, because education for me has never stopped. There is little I get more pleasure from than tickling my little grey cells and expanding what is stuffed into my melon.
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Mine has been an entire life in a single direction: learning. Others wanted to play baseball, or drive fast cars, perhaps get married and have a houseful of wee bairns; I wanted to get my hands on another book, pore through it and achieve the greatest pleasure from it. Every book — or every class I took — stood not by itself, but as an addition to that I had absorbed before, until all that I had learned became a single great web of interrelated experience.
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In effect, this isn’t simply education, but paideia, the whole of it all rolled into a ball: education, history, culture, philosophy, literature, music, the arts, psychology, economics, law, physics, botany, politics — the whole undifferentiated, all of a piece.
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This has given me the permission — or the chutzpah — to write not only about art, but about music, architecture, dance, politics, history — even about typography. My assignment at The Arizona Republic, where I worked for 25 years, was critic “without portfolio.”
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To quote William Blake, “Less than all cannot satisfy.”
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It has all given me a rather peculiar attitude toward education: that it should make me more complete (and that it should be fun).
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But I’m afraid what I consider education is being left behind by a newer, narrower version: to provide skills to enter the job market. That is not education; that is training. Never have I considered how a class might help me get a job or make a career.
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Is there something subversive about my version? Perhaps.
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Back in the Pleistocene, when I taught photography and art at a two-year college, I told my class on the first day that I considered it my duty as a teacher to make them unemployable. They were to learn in my class the utter ambiguity and equivocality of everything, to learn to question every assumption, to scratch every itch of curiosity, no matter where it lead.
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Current education seems narrowly focused on the “how,” but I was intent on asking the “why.”
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If there is any central argument to my education it is that there has never been a goal, or at least, its only goal was itself. As a matter of fact, I have considered education — my own at least — to be a prophylactic against career, against the limitations of a single direction in my life. I wanted it all.
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I am not advocating that everyone learn the way I did, but that way fit me perfectly. While I have a modest college degree, most of what I have learned, I have come by on my own. My late wife maintained that all learning is self-taught. We are all autodidacts, although we may have been helped by a teacher here and there along the way.
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Even if you had a good teacher, you learned for yourself; if you didn’t internalize the lesson, it wasn’t really learned. How many memorized enough to pass the exam and then promptly forgot it all?
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I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. At the age of 70, this gives me unlimited opportunity for the years ahead. Who knows?
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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