True learning doesn’t happen in a comfortable bubble

“[Zeus] puts mortals on
The journey of understanding.
And made this the powerful law:
We learn by suffering.”
–Aeschylus, “Agamemnon”

Learn by suffering? There is no hint of suffering in those college and university brochures. Understandably. Just smiling faces inviting others to be part of their family, their safe harbor, their new home. No images of failure, upsets, disturbances, adversity. No depiction of the intellectual and emotional scrimmage for our toughest match – life, and its incessant gauntlets testing how well we can regulate our inner thermostat and rebound from the disagreeable.

So what are we to make of Aeschylus’ dispatch? One clue lies in how we handle what is disagreeable.

In principle, our centers for learning ought to be havens when encountering different beliefs, opposing values, antagonism, even hostility. Disagreement has a way of puncturing our unquestioned assumptions and biases. Disagreement is not for the thin-skinned, fed on unexamined ideological comfort food and so brittle that any clash of ideologies spawns existential angst.

Yet, for example, when students demand to be shielded from ideas that they feel threaten their mental and emotional well-being, and administrators comply by disinviting provocative yet thoughtful speakers, learning becomes prey to the tyranny of subjectivity. That is, I may feel emotionally upset, perhaps pained, by an idea. But my personal distress does not in itself constitute harm or danger. Nevertheless, bingeing on subjectivity, confusing feelings with facts, such cognitive distortion breeds other-censorship, calling-out, and shaming. Uncritical thinking at its worst.

Harm becomes both medicalized and politicianized when feelings of danger in themselves define what is dangerous, when perceived harm is identical to real harm. In their compelling “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt cite a revealing survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education of attempts to embargo controversial speakers on campuses. (See the list here: tinyurl.com/2dvbqfmg.) We skew our ideal of tolerance when, while aiming to celebrate our diversity through tolerance, we seek inclusiveness by means of exclusion, as in much of our cancel culture.

Bottom line: We need stressors, challenges, uncertainties. How else would we handle our trek through life’s cracks, splinters, tensions, disagreements, and prejudices? Solutions to the disagreeable lie not in textbooks but in how we are with ourselves and with each other. This takes being with each other, face to face, not nestled in our screen security blankets. Fleeting oases of safety and comfort offer no center, no ground. Everything is fragile. We do no favor by making the journey easier, offering immunity from exposure to risk and conflict. Only through exposure can we cultivate our inner sap and flexibility, like a pine branch under the weight of snow and ice, bending but not breaking.

Here is a surefire way to ensure we are still alive, not simply breathing and occupying space: Ask ourselves whether and to what degree we embrace deviation, change, and risk, that which stirs us to revisit and perhaps revise our premises, convictions, and even world views. Otherwise, we become flat, deflated, and without depth.

How does any of this pertain to this season of Thanksgiving?

For starters, let us be grateful to those elsewhere, parents, teachers, and others who have permitted us to fall and fail, so that we learn how to get back up, sharpen our eyes, and find our way. To the ones who let us swim in deep water. To those who’ve refused to hover over and pamper us. They have given us lessons in what it means to learn. For learning comes with the sting of dialectic, of opposing ideas, ones that disturb our deeply held assumptions and beliefs. This dialectic drives us to think through our own position so that we stand on our own feet.

Or, we can take the easier path and follow the flock. Though easier, it saps away our soul.

Michael Brannigan is a philosopher, author, and speaker whose newest book is “Caregiving, Carebots, and Contagion.” His email and website: [email protected]; www.michaelcbrannigan.com.

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