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The Joy of Learning


Photo credit: Cally Lawson, Pixabay

by Barbara Anne Radtke


What is a memorable experience you have of learning: one that is notable for advancing your knowledge or know-how, where the throes of the process were satisfying even if sometimes difficult, and the project was compelled by genuine curiosity?


Looking back on my life, three learning experiences stand out. The first was a brief venture when I was a student in a school of engineering and architecture. There were not many women studying engineering and architecture then. It was difficult being a pioneer. Not only was my gender “wrong,” but I was attempting to be a pioneer in “building up” at a time so much in my country was being torn apart by its involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Because I was in the nation’s capital, we were always at the center of protest. Five of us – three men and two women – banded together in a collaborative to learn how to create good spaces that built healthy culture and encouraged good social interaction. I did not persist in building the physical places, but the question of spaces for healthy social interaction has stayed with me. It became part of my effort to build significant learning communities even if they were only for the length of a semester.


Later in life, when stepping aside from an administrative position to return to teaching, I took a course in water color painting at the same institution where I was administrator. I was a mediocre artist among many fine arts majors, all of whom knew me as their former dean. I was very publicly in the middle or lower third of achievement -- perhaps for the first time in my life. It taught me the inner workings of a learning community in a new way. Many of my fellow students in that course gave me support – everything from how to save money on supplies to patiently demonstrating a technique. I learned that when I taught I did not teach alone. Every learning community had co-teachers among its participants who were part of the scaffolding that supported the weaker student. I also learned patience and compassion for myself and brought that back to struggling participants in my class.


More recently, a reading group of which I am a member has emerged as a locus of fruitful learning for me. We all were in seminary/ graduate school at the same time. From varying denominational affiliation to none, we had different career tracks that stretched from the pulpit to the editorial desk. The idea of this communal, on-going theological reflection is the legacy of Gabriel Fackre, a professor we all shared in common.


We gather once a month on Zoom to read a scholar newly discovered or one we still hold dear after 40 years; explore a new topic; or read each other’s sermons or drafts of articles. In this group, there is no competition for grades. We are in it for the joy of discovery. We are gentle with each other yet hold each responsible for what is being said. If there is urgency, it is in the sense that time is limited for us to have any impact on a church, a society, a climate, or a planet, all of which seem, at least periodically, like they are splitting apart. Yet, there is more compassion in the learning space than in our graduate courses of past because we all have been shaped by the scars that living life inevitably leaves.


As we stand at the beginning of yet another academic year, it might be good to recall that there are many ways to find a love of learning and incorporate it as a lifelong pursuit. This joy can erupt in a classroom, at the seams of our educational institutions, or outside hallowed halls. Looking back on my life, the ingredients to conjure up such joy are that the experience be communal or collaborative in some dimension; be entwined with our relationships; be shaped by the challenges we face in the world; and be engaged with texts carefully read and voices attentively heard. Perhaps you, dear reader, might share the ingredient you feel is necessary to experience a joy of learning.


Response by Kathy Hendricks


What an appropriate topic for the start of a school year. As I read about your examples, Barbara, several of my own came to mind. Some were in a formal setting – most especially when I was in graduate school and charting a self-directed learning plan – as well as earning my certification in spiritual direction. Others were experiential. As I honed my skills as an instructor and public speaker, I experimented with various ways to engage participants in visually creative ways. These spanned a period from fancy overhead transparencies to the wonder of Power Point! Writing about various subjects has also brought new insights. I once spent two years writing a program based on 52 virtues (one for each week of the year). Spending time with each one opened up new insights into the grace of each one. And then, of course, these past five years have entailed the delight of learning from my little grandchildren, who are forever finding something new to wonder about.


I have learned so much from you over the years as well. You are endlessly fascinated by new ideas and possibilities. Thus, it is a joy to read about your involvement with the online Zoom group. It is a reminder of how there is always something new to discover. I think that kind of openness is an essential ingredient for remaining a lifelong learner.

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