Monday, October 5, 2009

Permission to Learn

A homeschool web site that I often visit posted a link to Yale University's online course offerings. Intrigued, I followed the link and began one of the videos of particular personal interest, "The Civil War and Reconstruction Era".

At first, I was instantly transported back in time to my own days in college. Days when I remember the world feeling like a huge menu, filled with tantalizing dishes, all within reach of my grumbling stomach. And the professor, David Blight, was well spoken and quite interesting. I couldn't stay focused on the content though. All I could think of was that the 280 kids in that class were paying something like $45,000 a year for the privilege of sitting in that class while I was watching for free, in my bed on a Saturday morning.

What were they getting that I wasn't?

It was hard to watch after a while. Not because it wasn't captivating, but because I've gotten so used to tapping several sources of information at a time. Perhaps the students present in the lecture hall were also simultaneously checking their email and Twitter streams, but I found it hard to focus with the rest of the Internet pulling at me. I found I wanted him to speak faster, to skip over the introduction, to get to the meat of the question. I've grown to expect a summary of a topic in a 4 minute YouTube video.

I have trained myself to judge content on the web so quickly, in order to weed out the chaff, that it was difficult to give this Yale professor the benefit of the doubt and listen through the slow parts. I had to consciously keep myself from moving on, using my faith in, really, our educational system, to hold out for the good parts.

Part of the difficulty was that the investment required was not only watching that first 45 minute video. There were 27 class lectures in all, and a syllabus with 13 books and several films. Would I really have the perseverance to see it through? And if not, was it worth watching the first segment?

With children rapidly approaching college age (OK, not that soon), I have been warily watching tuition skyrocket. As a homeschool parent, I can't help but wonder if it's really worth it. And if you can get it all online, why pay $20,000 (or $50,000!) a year?

My daughter had an answer right away: "Because if you pay for it, you have to do it." As I watched Professor Blight's lecture, that was the same conclusion I came to. If I was a student at Yale enrolled in his class, I wouldn't just drop out, in part because I had paid to be there. If I was watching from home, I might well let any other distraction—and believe me, there are many candidates—to keep me from completing the course.

I think I'm thinking about all of this because my life feels very unbalanced. I've been spending all of my time and energy and focus finishing my new book, and at the same time, I had committed to having a booth of my gourds at the Ashfield Fall Festival, which is this coming weekend. And I have pretty much stopped doing any of the homeschooling at all. It doesn't feel right.

Then my son said, "I can't believe you'd rather have money than your gourds." And of course, that's not quite right, but it does make me stop and think why I'm doing it. Why do I spend so much time crafting gourds that I will then sell for a tiny fraction of the worth of the time I spent on them... *if* I'm lucky!?

Do I need to sign up for a university course on crafting gourds, so I can give myself permission to work on them? Or can I just give myself permission?

The crazy thing is that I'm working on them so much right now because I committed to being at this show. Again, it's an external obligation that's keeping me focused. Which brings me back to Dr. Blight's online course. I know that his students are getting more out of their college experience than just the sum of knowledge from the courses they will take, which they could ostensibly get online. But do you really have to spend that much money to let yourself learn?

Maybe American private universities are so expensive exactly because it's the only way that we can give ourselves and our children the permission to take the time necessary to learn about such esoteric topics as the Civil War and Game Theory and Macroeconomics and Spanish History and all the other things I studied and that don't have a practical use in my adult life, but that still make me a happier, more fulfilled person.

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