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Is Learning Really Worth It?

Learning something, in my opinion, has never been the hardest part of learning. What stresses me out far more is remembering anything. I’ve been in school for the fairer chunk of my life and I’m not sure that I can recall even a fraction of what I’ve been taught, and that scares me.

For the most part, the fear that I’m going to immediately forget what I’m desperately trying to learn is a subliminal one. Occasionally I’ll have dreams where I’m reciting marine phyla, and I’ll remember how desperately some part of my brain is trying to take advantage of this $7,000 / semester experience. I try to see the positive side of this nocturnal anxiety, and treat the dream as free studying.

But other times, my half-forgotten knowledge will be a hindrance, not because it leaves me without the basis that I need to learn new concepts, but because it’s difficult to not blame myself. AP US History was my favorite class in high school, and I’d assumed that my extensive studying of the constitution and American government during senior year meant that at least that knowledge would be locked away. But now, a year later, I’ll be suddenly sidetracked by a stray comment from my California history professor, and jerked out of a thoroughly enjoyable lecture as I try to remember something inane. And the professor will go on, oftentimes even refreshing us on whatever thing I’m fighting to remember, and I’ll miss out on new information.

On my worst days, I’ll set plans for myself to review old quizlets I’ve made (and by now my collection is both thorough and extensive). In the summers I’ll choose my favorite classes and review key lectures. But the conclusion that I’ve ultimately come to is that I just don’t think knowledge is meant to last. Unless I choose a profession that requires me use my knowledge of law, I will ultimately forget those court cases that I memorized, no matter how often I review. And perhaps it’s a waste of time and space to try to remember them.

I once confessed this fear of mine, that my education might be wasted on my goldfish memory, to an English professor that I looked up to. At the time I was trying to decide a major and admitted that although I had read volumes, I couldn’t recall more than hazy impressions and occasional quotes from all but a few of them. She laughed a little at me and said that it was the same for her, but that was precisely why she loved reading so much. Each time she went back it was a new experience, reinforcing a decaying (but existing!) scaffolding with new realizations and experiences.

I’m not sure that I could ever read a book more than once. There are simply too many that I need to begin for me to spend my time that way. But I’ve given her words some serious thought, and concluded that, far beyond the things I have forgotten, the more valuable thing I have earned is the subtle way that my education has altered the imperceptible things inside of me.

I cannot recite the laws of physics that I once memorized, but I do remember the wordless models that I created alongside them, that even now shape the way that I view my universe. And perhaps I’ve forgotten all those New Deal programs that I’d once prided myself in knowing, but they were merely the facade for a much sturdier understand of the New Deal’s thematic place in history, and the understanding that history is a story, and not a series of facts.

These quieter understandings are much harder to pinpoint, because they are changes in the paradigms that I understand the world with, rather than concrete things I can remember and share. But just as t’s impossible to remember how simply I used to think (and so it is easy to think that I haven’t progressed), it’s equally impossible to cheat my way into having those understandings.

And perhaps my most important realization: I am still curious. I am enjoying myself despite a college-wide culture of cynicism, and I don’t want these years to end. One of my favorite professors remarked once that although he knew that we would forget all of the dates and names that we were trying to learn, he never wanted us to forget the compassion and understanding that we were cultivating.

I’m most saddened to realize that memories, while different than facts, also fade. Perhaps they’re more elastic and take less work to form and last, but even now I will read through my old journals and cannot contextualize certain experiences that I’ve had or people who I have talked to, although I note how important they were to me at the time. And even more frightening: the memories that I have hung onto are fallible and by now twisted far from their original shapes, as I have visited and revisited them countless times.

Just like those little facts that added up into a greater story though, those memories, forgotten and misrepresented now, are still what make me who I am. They compose the atoms of myself, and however flawed and see-through they may be, also tell a greater story of what is important to me and how I have spent myself. And they’re not all meant to be remembered. Some things only stay with us long enough to push us along to the next day. And I think I’m okay with that.



Meg Shriber