On an Education…

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Occasionally I get asked, “What are you reading?” It’s an easy question to answer because I’m always reading something and usually a couple things. When I’m really undisciplined, I’m reading too many things.

I’ve had a love affair with the written word for as long as I can remember. Oprah, Time, Fitness and Rolling Stone magazines sit beside my bathtub; some have pages torn out to pass along and others are dog-eared for Tim to read at his leisure (or at my insistence). Two or three “New Releases” lay an arm’s length away from my pillow, ready to pick up if I have a few moments of mindless energy to burn at the end of the day. (I never limit myself to just one in case it’s a stinker. Life’s too short to finish bad books.) I also have piles of books on religion, spirituality, philosophy, poetry and prayer collecting dust under various reading lamps around the house.

Despite the diversity of its subject matter, my reading material all shares one thing in common: it’s typically disposable.

Shocking, I know.

For a die-hard reader, a scholar, a former academic and a book lover, I am really good at not owning books and when I do acquire them, letting them go.

Books are rarely purchased and even then, almost never new. I borrow them whenever possible from friends and friends of friends and the library. This practice is based on both my personal philosophy and necessity. I don’t believe we need to possess, or hoard the written word. Unless a book will be read over and over again, I’d just as soon pass it on to the next person who asks. While I used to have huge bookshelves filled with tomes I didn’t need, I now have only two small(ish) collections. The second reason is more practical. I simply can’t afford my reading habit. If I had purchased all the books I’ve coveted, and managed to read somehow, I would be thousands of dollars in debt with no hope of getting out.

I’ve also been blessed with friends who can and do buy books and like to share them with me. Sometimes I get the copies when they are finished. Sometimes, they buy a copy for each of us to read together. Those are my favorite books, because we are reading, learning, discussing and growing together. That is actually how the Torah is studied in yeshivas, often in chavrusa, or a close learning pair. That ancient model holds wisdom for all of us when it comes to our reading: a book of substance, a mutual desire to learn and be transformed, and a promise to be diligent, respectful and engaged in the process.

Though I didn’t know the word at the time, Tim and I first fell in love as chavrusa in a sense – and I hope I’m not offending any orthodox readers here by using the word in this way. He brought me a copy of his favorite book, The Catcher in the Rye, so I could read it; I handed him Siddhartha. And so it began… the passing back and forth of books, which led to a passing back and forth of ideas and values and visions and ultimately, our hearts.

Over the years, there have been many books we have studied together that have transformed not only ourselves, but also the course of our family’s life. One of the first was The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families by Steven Covey, which I’ve written about. The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman taught us to how to better show our love for one another. Tattoos on the Heart by Greg Boyle S.J. and Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber introduced us to new ideas about faith and struggle. The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri J. Nouwen brought us both to tears and a deeper understanding of what Love is and how we are changed by it. Next on our list is The Conscious Parent by Dr. Shefali Tsabary. Without the commitment to our own and each other’s growth as individuals, a couple and a family, I don’t know how we would have made it this far, or this happily.

I have to admit, however, that one of the other reasons we’ve made it this far and this happily, is that Tim is not my only study partner and soul friend. No one could take that much pressure! My dear friend, T, is almost always reading something with me. We keep a running list of what we want to tackle next, add new ideas and cross off authors who have bored, or disappointed us before. When our kids were younger and our schedules less hectic, we met on a weekly basis. Now, it’s more sporadic, but no less meaningful, or productive. The ground rules are still the same. We are diligent, respectful and engaged. We are safe, trustworthy and non-judgmental. Finally, we are open: to new ideas, new ways of being and to each other. We’ve covered Bell, Bourgeault and Rohr, D’Arcy, Lamott, and Tolle. The list goes on and so does the struggle to learn from what we read and from each other.

Many of us didn’t enjoy school, or the books we were assigned to read and so as adults, we don’t read much, or if we do, we insist on books as “entertainment,” instead of education, snapping up the latest thriller by Patterson, or romance by Roberts. If we want to stay current on the latest trends in clever thinking, we’ll inhale the latest Gladwell, or Godin, and maybe a good biography here and there. There is nothing wrong with those books, or that kind of reading. It’s a healthy form of unwinding, especially when it’s accompanied by a glass of wine and a cozy spot for our tired bodies. In fact, it’s one of my favorite past times.

However, I think we’ve done a huge disservice to our children by continuing to accept and model that one’s education ends with a degree, that learning is a solitary endeavor, and that we will always be fed the answers. Too many people have only ever experienced a top-down model, where the teacher had all the information, to be delivered, regurgitated and forgotten as soon as possible. That kind of “education” doesn’t lead to engagement, curiosity, or a habit of life-long learning and it shows in our cultural obsession with celebrities, reality TV and blockbuster movies.

We may not be able to make significant, or successful changes in our public educational system, though it’s not from a lack of trying. Look at the debate over Common Core, No Child Left Behind and the College Board exams. We all want the same thing for our kids when it comes to their education. Ironically, it’s the same thing they expect in a chavrusa: diligence, respect and engagement when it comes to learning. We can’t legislate that and I think it’s silly when we try. I do know, however, that we can teach our kids those traits by modeling them in our own lives. I know it worked for me. My parents’ house is still littered with stacks of books with broken spines and ratty pages from being read so often. The television was never on at meals, because the expectation was that each of us had something better and more interesting to say.

I have kids in private and public schools and they’ve had excellent, mediocre and terrible teachers, but for the most part, I try not to sweat it. Like everybody, I am grateful for the good and frustrated with the bad, but I know the example we set at home is even more important than what they get at school.

I hope this is what they’re learning at home:

We’re in charge of our own educations and it never has to stop. We’re always looking for new material and it’s a lot more fun if we find someone to walk through it with us. Accumulating information isn’t the primary goal, because our hearts and souls matter too. An education that leads to transformation is way more important, even if it won’t get you into college and can’t be shown off at dinner parties.

So here’s my pitch to you. Enjoy your entertainment – in books, movies, and television. Embrace your time to unwind from stressful days, nasty bosses and unruly children, but at some point in your day, week, month, or year, go back to “school.” Engage your heart and mind. Pick up something new and challenging. Find a chavrusa and share the journey. You might just get to change the world in the process.

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2 thoughts on “On an Education…

  1. I was having a very similar conversation with a friend of mine the other day . We will never quit ‘working’ always have to keep growing . One my favorite quotes around this subject, ” a flower that is growing is alive , a flower that is no longer growing is dead…” Great article Ali! Xoxo

  2. I love all your blogs but this one spoke to me especially. Standing ovation from my little corner of the world. I love the idea that my education doesn’t ever end. That the written word helps us move and grow. And that we can bind and lose it with others to stretch what we thought we knew. Most of the truths I have learned and held onto in my life have come from the pages of a book. From someone else taking time to share wisdom or experience. Thank God for writers.
    And on a side note, I am honored to have a pretty awesome study partner to pour over the written word with!

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