Shira is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia. A former journalist, Shira previously taught French and worked in publishing. She has served on the Board of her children’s school for the past 12 years, including three terms as vice-president. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Whatever happened to learning for the sheer joy of it? To embark on a quest out of curiosity and to savour the journey, motivated by a deep love of learning?
As Christopher B Nelson, president of St John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, has said: "The reward of learning simply for the sake of learning itself is a kind of fulfilment we call happiness. And this happiness is something we should want for all … students" (www.acenet.edu).
Yet, today, knowledge is becoming more "commodified". You can get a degree in almost anything, from professional nannying and auctioneering to clowning, paranormal studies and UFOs, and every institution seems to be at pains to tell you how useful your studies will be in helping you advance along a rewarding career path.
Not that there's anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say. Obviously, we all need to earn a living, and it certainly helps if you can do so in a meaningful and enjoyable way, especially after paying considerable sums of money preparing for the privilege. Indeed, job fulfilment is ostensibly more important to Gen Y (aka Millenniums or Millennials) than it has been to any previous generation. Nevertheless, learning for learning's sake seems to have little to do with the whole process.
I recently attended a Year 10 subject selection night at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) with my teenage son, where we discovered more than 300 degrees on offer – students can nominate up to nine they would like to study – each accompanied by a list of associated career opportunities.
Amongst the myriad of documentation we collected was a Parent Information Guide, which told us in bold yellow print: "It's time for your child to leave high school behind and take their first steps towards a rewarding career". Studying at UNSW, it maintained, could "give them the best launchpad into the rest of their lives".
No mention of love of learning here. The closest we got was a paragraph in the parent guide, encouraging us to ask our children what subjects they "enjoy" as a way of helping them to discover "degrees that match their abilities". Meanwhile, we were bombarded with statistics about how UNSW graduates "are in high demand from employers" and "are in the top 5% for median starting salaries".
While career paths for the more practical degrees, such as actuarial studies or optometry, are quite evident, others are far more vague. Those interested in an Arts degree, for example, of which I myself am a proud holder, are told: "Students in the humanities and social sciences learn a wide range of skills that open up many career opportunities. No other course of study provides you with the same combination of broad intellectual growth, skills development in research and analysis, the ability to communicate effectively and the capacity to think critically about the global environment we live in."
Certainly all most valuable skills to acquire. Although not pointing to specific jobs, the desire to appear useful and therefore attractive to potential Arts students is obvious. And with good reason. In 2012, only about 76 per cent of new bachelor degree graduates from Australian institutions had found full-time employment within four months of completing their tertiary studies (www.graduatecareers.com.au). In other words, one-in-four students had not, and guess who they were most likely to be?
Nothing much seems to have changed in that regard since I graduated more than 20 years ago: Arts, and for that matter, Science graduates are often compelled to search long and hard for meaningful entry into the Australian work place, with many employers favouring more obvious and practical skills, such as those offered by a medical, accounting or engineering degree. There is even a Know Your Worth chart measured by how many burgers a young graduate can buy with their starting salary! Newly fledged dentists are in first place with more than 21,000 burgers, leaving those humanities graduates fortunate enough to find employment languishing in their wake on a paltry 12,000.
I can still recall the days when as a newly married, 20-something graduate, I moved from Melbourne to Brisbane. Armed with a French Honours degree with a major in philosophy, I was keen to find work, only to be met by the blank stares of my prospective Queensland employers. How I wished I lived in the more open-minded United Kingdom, where philosophy graduates were sought after banking employees! As it was, unless I wanted to be a teacher or agreed to leave my husband and move to Canberra to take up a job in the public service, there seemed little hope for me.
Today, philosophy at my alma mater, the University of Melbourne, is a shadow of what it used to be and has merged with history. Indeed, many subjects, particularly from the liberal arts, are disappearing precisely because they are no longer attracting students in large numbers, at least not the all-important, full-fee-paying international ones, and so are no longer seen as financially viable. Gender Studies, for example, is gradually being eliminated from many Australian universities, as are various history courses, religion, linguistics and foreign languages, the number of which being taught has more than halved over the past decade.
As renowned philosopher Raymond Gaita has said so eloquently, "Some essential disciplines of the humanities and the sciences – philosophy and (even) physics, for example – have become mendicants for a respected place in institutions that should honour them, but honour instead the study of hospitality and gaming" ("To Civilise the City?" Meanjin, May 2012).
Since ancient times, the liberal arts – traditionally encompassing grammar, rhetoric and logic, mathematics, geometry, astronomy and music – were seen as the very bastion of learning for learning's sake, providing a good grounding for life. The epitome of such a well-rounded education were "polymaths" or "Renaissance men or women" – those deeply knowledgeable, highly skilled and multi-talented, yet still modest, individuals, as personified by Leonardo da Vinci. As the accomplished Italian Leone Battista Alberti (1404-72) said, "a man can do all things if he will". He was speaking with a certain authority, having been a priest, author, architect, artist, linguist, poet, philosopher, scientist, mathematician, inventor, horseman and archer!
While certainly not in the same league, my grandfather was a kind of Renaissance man. Although he never had a formal secular education, and much to my envy, never even sat an exam, he was blessed with an inquiring and incisive mind, an insatiable desire for knowledge and a photographic memory. A laundryman by trade, he worked hard to become established before devoting the rest of his life to reading, thinking, discussing, writing, appreciating music and art, and travelling.
The patriarch of our family, my grandfather would preside over gatherings, regaling the table with such passions as the problems of justice and of individual freedom within the rule of law. Alternatively, he might have been keen to discuss what he had read that particular day which, given his eclectic interests, could range from a biography of the Italian Renaissance "father of science" Galileo Galilei or the writings of the 20th century philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell to biblical commentaries on Abraham, Moses or Samuel, various newspaper articles, which he would mark for others to read – our house was piled high with them – or even an account of the Shakers, a utopian Christian sect, some of whose former American settlements he visited and whose virtual demise fascinated him. Even while on an otherwise disappointing holiday in Tahiti, he derived enjoyment from reading daily doses from a volume of Albert Einstein's essays, which he had happened to pick up at Sydney airport!]
Careers were not as important to my grandfather as the sheer love of learning, although he certainly emphasised the need to work to secure financial independence and be responsible for oneself. Indeed, whenever his children or grandchildren would ask his advice on our future studies, he would steer us in the direction of a great body of thought such as science or philosophy and encourage us to be creative and aim for excellence in all our endeavours. He himself set an example by striving to learn university-level mathematics in his fifties.
When I was choosing my university subjects, I enrolled in a philosophy major as a matter of course. It was just what our family did. Without my grandfather's influence, I may never have even been exposed to Socrates and Plato or wrestled with the ideas of 18th century Scottish moral philosopher David Hume. That is not to say that they were always well taught. But at least I had the opportunity to encounter them.
Today it is certainly harder, albeit impossible, to be a Renaissance man or woman. Bombarded with data from all directions, many of us are suffering from "information overload". Socrates was ostensibly humble enough to admit more than 2000 years ago that he "knew nothing, except just the fact of his ignorance" (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers 5: 32). How much more true is that today!
As knowledge increases, we tend to sub-specialise even more, with new experts springing up in a range of fields that were unknown just a few years ago, from windfarm or fuel cell engineers, app designers and social media managers to Zumba teachers and carbon credit traders. And yet Gen Y will be expected to retrain for up to five different careers in a lifetime.
One of the aims of the school my children attend is for them to develop the skills to become "life long learners". I hope they come to appreciate the value of a good education, one that encourages them always to keep their mind open, reading widely, constantly being exposed to new ideas and experiences and discovering joy through learning. Obviously to do so successfully, they will need that most precious commodity, time. Hopefully, however, they won't need to wait until retirement before getting to explore what they've always dreamed of doing. I'm encouraging them to discover and pursue their passions now and to keep on chasing them for the rest of their lives.
I can no longer live a meaningful life without my community. My teenage son calls it an addiction. But my love for my community does not stem from mere habit, nor am I guided by compulsive need or blind infatuation. On the contrary, it has taken years of soul searching and trial and error to find the appropriate community where my family has been able to take root, grow and contribute.
Since time immemorial, philosophers like Aristotle and more recently, Spinoza have argued we are social animals. Indeed, most of us would be familiar with the ancient saying, 'If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?'
Yet, it was not until my own father's death ten years ago that my longing for community became so urgent. I had once asked him whether he would wish to be buried in the same cemetery as his parents and extended family in Toronto, Canada. 'We should be buried within the community where we live,' was my father's reply. By that time, he had been residing in Melbourne for more than 30 years.
When my father died, I did not know where to turn. Not having been raised in a particularly religious home, I felt unable to draw on faith for comfort.
This was not from want of trying — although we had belonged to various congregations in the past, my husband and I had not been able to find a spiritual home since moving to a new city some years earlier. As a result, we'd flitted from one congregation to the next, sampling a different one on each holiday but never feeling at home.
Nevertheless, I was touched when a religious leader, whom I had met in the course of my search, rang several times to see how I was faring. When upon the first anniversary of my father's death, he offered me his premises for a memorial service, we finally made up our minds to join his congregation — after such generosity on his part, we believed it was the least we could do ... even without faith.
That sense of welcome, warmth and support through both tough and good times remain major factors in why we renew our membership each year.
Indeed, as our sons have grown older, our family has come to attend services every week. This may be going against the trend — only 7.5 per cent of Australians attend religious services regularly — but we believe that in this day and age when many of us do not even know whether we believe in God, it is still possible to contribute altruistically to and derive meaning from community based on religious civilisation.
Our congregation of choice integrates tradition with modernity, promoting all forms of equal rights, giving us the freedom to question, and acknowledging our prerogative to consider different interpretations and viewpoints.
The school my children attend is another pillar of my community. Pluralistic and egalitarian too, it welcomes students of all backgrounds, who come together in mutual respect and are encouraged to work to make the world a better place. So committed have I become to this philosophy that I decided to volunteer for the school board when my oldest son was in first grade and have remained actively involved ever since.
My oldest son has commented that without faith, a prayer service is just 'a group of strangers singing together'. Yet I have discovered a sense of inner peace, spiritual uplift and intellectual stimulation through regular attendance at religious services and communal celebrations.
Alain de Botton in his 2012 book Religion for Atheists wrote that the relevance of such religions as Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism 'to the problems of community are arguably never greater than when they ... remind us that there is also value to be had in standing in a hall with a hundred acquaintances and singing a hymn together ... or in sitting at a table with neighbours and partaking of lamb stew and conversation, the kinds of rituals which, as much as the deliberations inside parliaments and law courts, are what help to hold our fractious and fragile societies together'.
De Botton — who was born Jewish but is now a committed atheist — argues for the removal of religion's 'supernatural structure' before it can help solve 'many of the problems of the modern soul'.
My soul does not need to be quarantined from the full gamut of my religion in order to thrive. Indeed, I am quite happy to keep on exploring the laws and customs of my heritage and culture, practicing rituals and contemplating ideas from within a religious framework. All I need is my community.
Shira walks the ‘daughter track’ and finds rewards.
I am my mother’s advocate. Together with my sister, I manage her household, supervise her carers, pay her bills, run her errands. Most importantly, we champion her rights, providing her with a voice at a time when tragically, she can no longer stand up for herself due to the decade-long ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.
My mother used to be my role model and my best friend. Passionate, strong, courageous and intelligent, she was a brilliant scholar and a loving parent and grandparent, the person I could turn to for advice and companionship at any time.
Now the tables have been completely turned. The child who started out entirely dependent on her mother has matured to become the one on whom her mother depends.
Since my mother has been afflicted by illness, I constantly feel her absence like a gaping hole in my life. She may still look like my mother and remain physically near, but mentally and spiritually, she is no longer there for me.
When someone has Alzheimer’s, there is plenty of time to say goodbye. Deterioration occurs slowly, with changes almost imperceptible at first and then becoming only gradually more noticeable. Alzheimer’s is a cruel illness as my late maternal grandfather noted, telling my mother when sadly, he was in the throes of the disease himself, “I am losing my I”, by which he meant that he was losing what made him whom he was as a person.
Moreover, gradually much of the world forgets its sufferers. Many friends stop writing or visiting; it is almost as if people are too embarrassed and don’t know how to deal with someone who can no longer respond except with a smile, a look or a touch.
Long ago we promised our mother that we would never put her in a nursing home. And we have honoured that promise, convincing her early on to move to the same city where we live and striving to ensure that she continues to reside with dignity in her own home. As card-carrying members of the ‘sandwich generation’, we have chosen to juggle her needs along with those of our own young families.
While that may not be the right decision for everyone, it has certainly proven to be the correct option for us, and we are fortunate to have had the freedom to be able to make that choice. While our mother can no longer thank us, I know that she is grateful. Before she lost the ability to speak, she was expressing her gratitude to everybody who helped her, and I’m sure she would still be doing so today if she could.
Broadcaster Sandra Tsing Loh has said on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation that the “daughter track is far more open-ended [than the mommy track] and has no rewards at the end except for death” (29 February, 2012).
Even though I’d give anything to have my mother back again as she once was, I know that caring for her has taught me to be kinder and more patient. It has also given me an opportunity to set a good example for my children, teaching them to be decent human beings. As my 11-year-old son said, “We owe it to our parents to look after them in their old age. They care for us when we’re young and then it becomes our turn to care for them.”
Moreover, I feel rewarded that I’m providing my mother with a good quality of life from which she still derives some enjoyment.
Yes, despite everything, she still gets some joy out of life. Contrary to popular misconception, advanced Alzheimer’s sufferers are not vegetables. Although the illness may cocoon them from feeling the full brunt of life’s emotions, they still experience pain and pleasure, peace and agitation. My mother continues to appreciate good food, especially dark chocolate, music, flowers, massage and the warmth of the sun. She may be confined to a wheelchair, but she is not confined to her apartment, attending an adult day care program twice a week, going on outings and visiting with her family.
She is still a human being – even if she has lost her “I”.
Shira Sebban – Life Issues Shira is a Sydney-based writer and editor, who is passionate about exploring the challenges life throws at us through her writing. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. The mother of three sons, she also serves as vice-president on the board of her children’s school. You can read more of her work at http://shirasebban.blogspot.com.au/ Life Balance = Abandoned. The. Search.