If You’re Not Learning, You’re Going Backwards

Tom Stevenson
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One of the things I remember during my years at school was how much some of my classmates downplayed or hated learning. For certain subjects, I got it.

Maths was never a strong point of mine. I preferred subjects such as English, History, and Geography. For whatever reason, I struggled in maths and had to work a lot harder to get decent grades. I never looked forward to these classes and I was always glad when they were over.

At my school, there were a variety of groups in my year. I flitted between a few of them and got to know the majority of the year as a result. Most people stuck to their groups, so although we all knew each other, it was rare that we knew each other intimately.

Something that struck me in all of these groups was that there were people in all of them who didn’t like school. This isn’t unusual, I don’t think there are many people, who are overly fond of school while they’re there. What was different about these people was that they seemed to hate any kind of learning at all.

When it came to taking our end of year exams after five years at school, there were a small minority of people who just didn’t seem to care how well or bad they did. I remember the one-hour physics exam that we sat through in particular.

I didn’t find the exam too taxing and was able to complete most of it by the half-hour mark. This meant I could relax, check back through my answers, and finish the answers that I found difficult with a lot of time in hand. One thing has stuck with me ever since that day. It’s nothing to do with the exam or anything I did, it’s the actions of someone else.

This guy was seated about five people in front of me. Whenever I looked up, I could see what he was doing, whether I wanted to or not. In the first part of the exam, I was more focused on answering the questions than observing anyone else. Yet, whenever I looked up, this person didn’t seem to be bothered about completing the exam.

Once I had finished the majority of the exam after the halfway point, I noticed that his demeanour was the same. Uninterested, looking everywhere part from his exam paper, checking the clock to see if the time was up.

This persisted until the end of the exam when we were told to stop and hand in our exam paper. I have no idea what grade this person received, but I’d guess it wasn’t a good one because they didn’t seem interested in the slightest.

This incident has stuck with me for two reasons. One was that I couldn’t believe someone wouldn’t take the exam seriously even if they didn’t like school. These results stay with you forever, if you don’t try you’re penalising your future self. It was something I couldn’t comprehend at the time and still don’t today.

Looking back now, the second point is the disdain for learning this attitude showed. Sure, most of us can’t wait to leave school. I get that, I was the same. But one thing I enjoyed was learning. I’ve never lost that desire to acquire new knowledge and push the boundaries of what I know. Something I’ll never forget from school is that there were a lot of people who did not share that desire.

Learning is something that I view as essential. No matter how old you are, it’s something we need to do. The world is not static, it’s always changing, and if we don’t keep up, then we fall behind. Learning is the best way to do this. It opens our mind to new concepts and keeps it fresh instead of becoming stale.

I always felt that some of the people I went to school with felt that once they left, they’d be finished with learning. That after you left school, you didn’t need to learn anything again. This attitude was summed up by one of my friends at school questioning the point of history.

He argued that since it’s already happened there’s no point in learning about it. We don’t need to understand why it happened, how it happened, and what it can teach us today. The fact that it had happened and was resigned to the past meant it was irrelevant and we should look forward instead.

If we followed this point to its logical conclusion, then everything we ever did would be irrelevant as it’s all in the past. Therefore, there would be no point in learning, as we cannot possibly learn anything from the past if the past is not worth paying attention to.

It’s an attitude that tied into what many in my school felt about learning altogether. The problem is that this is naive and the wrong way to look at life. No matter how much you learn at school, it will only ever be the tip of the iceberg.

What we learn at school is enough for us to get by, pass exams and get a decent job. If we want to improve, better ourselves and go places, learning needs to be a central tenet of our lives. Life does not finish once we leave school, it’s where it begins.

The world is a fundamentally different one than when I finished school at 16 in 2006, it was different two years later when went to university and different again in 2011 when I graduated with my degree in history. Nine years later, in a year that has seen everything turned upside down by a virus, it’s different again.

Change is one of the few constants in life. However much we’d prefer things to stay the same, they won’t. Instead of railing against this, it’s better to educate yourself and roll with the punches instead of swimming against the tide.

The truth is that learning is for life. It’s a lifelong pursuit that we should embrace. Too many of the people I went to school with were convinced that learning ended when they left. Sadly, this is a pervasive sentiment among society today.

You learn a lot in school, but if you travel, commit to reading books, listen to different viewpoints, you’ll learn more than you realise. If you’re not learning, you’re falling behind. You’re being overtaken by people who take education seriously and realise that what we know is only a slither of the available knowledge on the planet.

Sure we might not be able to learn everything, but if we can gain a little more knowledge every day, that will stand us in good stead in the future. A fixed mindset of I don’t need to learn anything else, or I know enough already will never be able to compete with someone who has a growth mindset.

If you’re not learning, you’re going to place yourself at a disadvantage to those people who prize learning. They will be able to outmanoeuvre you in a world that is only going to become more competitive.

If you’re not learning, you’re holding yourself book. As Socrates said, ‘I know that I know nothing.’ Most of us think we know more than we do, and many people think they already know enough. Both of these views are wrong. There is always more we can learn, new viewpoints to consider and more books to read. No matter how long we live, there’s always something new to learn.

If you’re not learning, what are you doing instead? How are you filling your time when you’re not at work? The lives that we desire do not come without difficult choices. If you endeavour to learn just a little bit more, you could place the life you wish to lead within grasp instead of being it out of reach.

If you’re not learning, you’re not valuing yourself. Like the guys at my school who couldn’t wait to leave, you’re doing yourself a disservice that you may come to regret later in life. Without a commitment to learning, all of the achievements of humankind would never have happened or happened much later.

We learn because it’s what we’re programmed to. It’s what pushes humanity forwards and enriches our lives. Learning won’t teach you everything, but it will teach that you that ignorance isn’t bliss and that without it, the only direction you’ll end up going is backwards, rather than forwards.

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